I had the pleasure of being introduced to Minnesota native, Aaron Espe’s music thanks to a music-loving friend. I was so inspired by his sound, that incorporated one of his tracks into my weekly playlist for Music For Lunch (which, now that I think about it, I didn’t do this week!). Aaron sent me a message immediately, thanking me for acknowledging his music and sharing that Montana, Bozeman in particular which is my location, had a special place in his heart (read on to understand why). Before I knew it, I was emailing him questions to answer for an interview. We went back and forth for months which gave the email interview more of a conversational feel. First, listen to one of my favorites by Aaron:
Read below to get Aaron’s thoughtful story on writing music, meeting his wife in Montana and how his music continues to change and grow.
MFL: I want to start with your connection to MT. I see you recorded Songs From a Small Town with Basecamp Recording Studio in Bozeman, MT. Was that the start of your connection? What prompted this recording destination?
Aaron Espe (AE): Actually the start was a few years before that. I met Chris Cunningham of Storyhill (folk-pop duo) opening for him in Minneapolis. He really encouraged me to pursue my songwriting more than I was. I’d just started playing my songs for people. Chris is from Bozeman and has a studio there, and I recorded my first two albums with him, the second one being Songs from a Small Town. It’s a great studio, sort of nestled in the foothills. Very inspiring and quiet.
MFL: How long were you in Bozeman recording and what time of the year was it? I’m curious about what kind of outdoor activities you got into while you were here…if you had time for that!
AE: It was winter both times I recorded there, and I think I recorded in two week stretches. But sometimes I’d travel back for a day or so to do overdubbing. But while I was there, we mostly worked — didn’t have a whole lot of time for extra stuff. Although, I will say I love that pizza place on Main Street. MacKenzie’s. And my favorite coffee shop is The Daily…not sure if it’s still there, but it better be!
MFL: You mentioned that you met your wife in MT. If it’s not to nosey, how did you two meet?
AE: We met at a folk festival in Hyalite Canyon. I was playing there, and she came with a friend. She actually knew my music before we met, and you’d think that would have helped my chances, but it actually took me a while to convince her to like me. It wasn’t until about six months later that she started returning my emails.
MFL: Now that I know your first two records were recorded in Bozeman (which I love…and Yes, The Daily Coffee Shop is still here and it’s MY favorite, too! Mackenzie River is delicious as well!), where were your other records recorded?
AE: Three was recorded mostly in my spare bedroom (that midway turned into a nursery) here in Nashville. My friend David Welsh teamed up with me and braved the crowded space and a newborn baby (pics attached). Tennessee Sky I recorded myself in Nashville. A lot of those songs were demos that I liked enough to release. Nettwerk Records picked up a few songs from it and a brand new one and released it on their label shortly after. In 2013 I turned an old tool shed into a studio in the backyard, and that’s where “Safe Enough to Wander” was recorded.
Photo of the studio/nursery below and David Welsh below during recording of Three below!
MFL: Where does the initiative come from to write an album for you? Is it a buildup of songs that need a home?
AE: Yeah, sometimes that’s the case. After the songs have sat for a while, I maybe notice a common thread, and sort of piece the album together that way. Stages of life affect my writing. Subconsciously, you know? But then looking back you kind of see a theme. I haven’t tried writing a concept album, but that works for some people and maybe I’ll give it a whirl in the future. So far though, I just write ‘cause that’s what I do. Almost every day I write. When it’s time to put out an album out, it’s a combination of finding the songs I’m most excited about and the songs that feel like they belong in the same family.
MFL: I see you’re from Minnesota originally. Why did you move to Nashville and do you think it has changed your music?
AE: I moved to Nashville because I was self-destructing as a forlorn touring singer-songwriter (ha, half-joking). If I was going to continue trying to make a living with music, I needed to find a different way or at least not put all of my eggs in artist/touring basket. I was interested in writing for other people and different projects. I didn’t really know. All I knew was that Nashville was sort of the equivalent of Hawaii for a surfer. If you want to be a professional surfer, you probably move to Hawaii or a coastal city. Nashville is like that if you want to be a songwriter.
But, yeah, it did and continues to change how I write. This town is very craft-centric. Meaning, it really focuses on “the song.” The song has to stand on its own, no matter who’s singing it. And often times, a song relies heavily on the artist or the production to make it work. If you listen to pop-country radio, you’ll hear the “rules” of songwriting over and over again with slight variations. If you listen to college radio or a hipster Spotify station, you’re going hear music that focuses on the artist and their expression. So for me, I feel like living here has made me try and blend the best of both worlds into how I write. I don’t want to be too heavy-handed with craft; but I also don’t want the songs to be all expression and heart with no form. Somewhere in the middle is where I try and aim. Make sense?
MFL: Do you have plans to tour and if so, do you think you will come back to MT?
AE: For now I’m only playing locally and regionally. But I’m hoping to release an album early next year. I’ll probably have some tour dates for the spring. Bozeman is such a great place and you guys there have always been good to me. I’ll do my best to make it back 🙂
Below are photos Aaron shared with me. From left to right:
Peforming at The Basement in Nashville (photo by Dirk Rohrbach)
Aaron’s new studio in the backyard shed
Aaron playing in the studio
Aaron performing at Bluebird Cafe
Big thanks to Aaron for his patience and willingness to chat with me about not only his music, but his family. He always puts an emphasis on the importance of his family which is something I deeply understand. Let’s all cross our fingers that Aaron will pay us a visit again out here in Bozeman!