Q&A: Tristen talks Poe, poetry and parenting ahead of the ICDD Block Party

Tristen w/ Diplomats of Solid Sound, Mystery Lights, Elly h.

Downtown Block Party, Englert Live Music Stage — Saturday, June 22, 5 p.m.

Tristen headlines the Iowa City Downtown District’s third annual Downtown Block Party on June 22. — Kristy Benjamin/Tristen

Beginning at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, the Iowa City Downtown District will present the third annual Downtown Block Party. This year’s offerings are bigger than before, with various non-profit organizations (Prompt Press, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, Old Capital Roller Derby, FilmScene, Iowa City Senior Center, Iowa Children’s Museum and others) creating programming in different spaces. This includes: yoga, dancing, sand volleyball, roller skating, yard games, art, video games, drag and fashion shows, a screening of Grease! and more.

Proceeds will go toward helping fund over a dozen non-profit groups and organizations, as well as toward the Strengthen • Grow • Evolve campaign that is designed to help the Englert Theatre and FilmScene continue to enrich the Iowa City area’s access to art and culture. The Downtown District’s emphasis during the Block Party is a celebration of local businesses, many of whom will be participating in the event. A full list of activities (and the $7.95 wristbands ($11 on-site) that allow attendees to drink during the event) can be found here.

As has been true in years past, the Englert Theatre Live Music Stage, programmed by the Englert, will present a line up of no-cost musicians. Following performances by Elly h. and the Mystery Lights, audiences will be treated to the return of local favorites the Diplomats of Solid Sound at 7:15 p.m. and then Nashville artist Tristen Gaspadarek (who tours and records as Tristen) 8:45 p.m. I was able to speak with Tristen by phone a few weeks before her arrival.

Your latest release, the May 19 single “Dream within a Dream,” is one of a very few songs that features Edgar Allan Poe as a collaborator on the credits, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most poppy and accessible renditions of his work that I’ve heard. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to mine America’s literary past for lyrical treasures?

I think that there are some amazing and obscure sort of classic ideas that are found in poetry … The best art is art that transcends time and lives on and is relevant, no matter when you’re living, because it hits on something that’s universal. I enjoy reading poetry and sometimes I run across a poem that seems to me like it’d make a good song — the lyrics feel rhythmic to me in a way that I think I could sing. It seems like a modern idea, and existential, and the fact that it’s such an old poem but still resonated with me as important meant that it had that universal value, and so I found to it to be a good way to memorize the classics — to put them to music makes it easier for my mind to absorb them. So I brought it to a band and put it to a blues song.

You’re also a poet, given the 2016 release of your collection Saturnine, and you’ve shared your poet’s love for luminaries like Walt Whitman. In past interviews, you’ve discussed how poetry gives you the freedom of creativity without having to contend with the distracted nature of inebriated audiences whose presence has become intertwined with the performance of live music. Would you be willing to share your current thoughts about the relationship of art and intoxicants, both in terms of audiences and performers?

One thing: We live in capitalism. In order to survive, you need to make money and have safety, health care, all those things. These industries — like the beverage industry, alcohol, drugs — understand the relationship of sensitivity and the use of drugs and how it can enhance the experience of music. The live music industry is the beverage industry. If you’re a band that sells a lot of alcohol, you’ll get a show over a band that may have more artistic merit in the long run.

Do you plan to publish more poetry?

I’m always writing poetry. I really need to stack the deck, spread things out on the table — get things evened out into a chapbook.

You’re also an essayist, best known for your 2018 op-ed in Bust, the brilliant “Is Art Imitating Life or Just Limiting Women?”, which accompanied the song and video “Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” as a way to characterize how the music industry tends to replicate the movie business with an overemphasis on repeating the male gaze and incorporating women only as objects of scorn or desire without a human or inner life of their own.

I don’t know if music is imitating the movie business or if it is the narrative — capitalism. Again, beauty and sex sells. The industry wants to repeat known equations, so you see female characters represented in simplistic ways. How does it affect us as women to consume simplistic characters? There’s a lot of women who may not fill the sex goddess role — they may be more like Athena, strong and strategic. A lot of women feel left out of the narrative, or a lot of women don’t see the possibilities for them in society. Human beings mimic. It others women.

That’s the biggest problem in our culture: We other cultures that aren’t our own. When men look at women, identify you as a gender and other you as a biased understanding of who you are, that comes from media, from TV and movies — we hear songs, and we’re sort of influenced by the depth and range presented for women that allows men and women to decide that women are objects who have to adhere to guidelines we give them that aren’t real. That can sort of be applied to any culture. Anytime you identify someone you separate them from who you are. It serves a purpose: We’re all different in some ways. But, we identify and separate, and now I have ideas and images that I define you by that aren’t who you are.

You have the micro: your everyday life. You don’t get the gig, and it may or may not be because you’re a woman. You can say it is, if you want to, and play the victim. But it isn’t helpful. You can be a victim and say it is limiting you. So you do your best and hope you get lucky.

Then you take a macro lens, zoom out and try to understand the situation. That’s how we look at all social justice issues — you zoom out, look at the statistics and data and try to correct society based on that. It is just numbers though, and it isn’t nuanced the way that relationships are. When you zoom out and look at the numbers, it’s discouraging — but by the same token, [today] there’s so much room for women’s art. The best time to be a woman is now. I couldn’t do what I do 100 years ago.

Your incorporation of Poe as a collaborator strongly signals your willingness to work with even those who may not share your assumption that women are also humans; at the same time, do you feel that music audiences have become more aware of the need to move beyond traditional musical structures, which have been male dominated even if not downright misogynistic? What advice would you offer conscientious consumers of art?

The way that I fight misogyny in art is by listening to and working with and helping women. That’s the action: It has nothing to do with excluding men, it has everything to do with including women.

There’s a few things you can do to be a more conscientious consumer: Pay for music, buy tickets, buy t-shirts, promote arts programs in schools, donate money … and, as a consumer: listen to women’s music. Hire women musicians. It isn’t necessarily about gender — it’s about femininity perceived as weak and unworthy. Masculinity is powerful, and there’s a favoritism that happens. More and more, you’re seeing egalitarian representation of women. To be a conscientious consumer in general, make sure you’re paying for art and supporting artists — women if you can.

Sneaker Waves, your 2017 release, followed your 2015 tour as part of Jenny Lewis’s Voyager band — a big step up from touring with a Honda Civic in the early 2010s, which you’ve mentioned. What was it like to become part of another artist’s band after having already had an established career as a musician? What did you learn as part of that tour that has shaped your approach to music making and touring since?

There are two different jobs. One is creating music, organizing musicians, arranging and producing the songs live — and everything falls on you when you’re the solo artist. You take the good with the good, the bad with the bad. My job in Jenny’s band was playing keys, guitars, singing and making her happy. It’s a role where you’re serving someone. By the time I joined her band, I wasn’t in the Civic anymore — I was in a van — but I made it work, if someone wanted me to play a show. When I took the gig with Jenny, I felt like I was ready for a break, to have some experiences. There was no pressure on me. I learned from Jenny the art of the set list, playing keys, singing three part harmony (which I wasn’t used to) … I got to go Japan and Australia.

If I may ask a personal question … You are quite open about your family’s influence on your professional life, with Buddy Hughen present as both husband and musical collaborator — playing bass, mixing music as you write it. You’ve also been open about your son, Julien. Beyond having additional incentives to record and produce music at home, how has the introduction of life into your life changed and expanded your view of music and art?

I think it’s really early to tell — my son is four and a half months old. When they’re young, they’re learning basic stuff like how to move, how to get fed, how to nap. I don’t know that I’m far enough along in the process to assess how it changed me. But: Being a parent is absolutely life changing. Being on my own for most of my adult life, having someone that needs me 24 hours a day is a huge shift. But I feel very lucky to have a functioning marriage and a supportive partner and a little baby that’s a manifestation of our love — but he’s his own person. He likes us a lot. He looks at me like I’m the coolest person [he’s] ever met.

There’s only one person in the world that gets to be his mom. I don’t think everybody should have kids or that you have to be a parent. I think it’s beautiful that people marry for love, most of the time, at least in this country. If it is something that you want to do — it’s really a miracle. From conceiving to having a healthy baby and being healthy afterward is really a miracle. It makes you feel human — it splits you open. It’s primal, a primal experience that again can connect you to humans. There’s a network of mothers. You have a separate language, because you’re all very sleep deprived.

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