Interview: Aspen Jacobsen
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
If I weren’t writing and performing my own music, I would still be performing, but as an actor. My first love was theatre and I even did some professional theatre as a child. You could say my true passion is being on stage and performing for a live audience. When I was really young, I was casted in a local production of the Sound of Music as Gretl, which was the first time I was exposed to singing harmonies and loving the stage. After singing in musicals then later the Detroit Opera’s Children’s Chorus, I started to write and perform my own music that suited my own unique style and voice.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I love camping, backpacking and the outdoors. I find that being in the natural world helps calm me and connects me with my creative self. Much of my early music took direct inspiration from nature.
How long has your band been around?
When I was nine, I busked for tips with a little red ukulele at The Ann Arbor Art Fair. With the money I earned, I bought my first guitar and after I taught myself the basics, started taking more advanced lessons from various teachers. Writing and performing music has been a big part of my life ever since getting that little red ukulele for Christmas.
Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
I’m from the Detroit area so obviously I’ve been influenced by Motown artists and particularly the Michigan folk music festival scene. I became a more serious musician after attending some of Michigan’s most prominent festivals. After attending and playing an open mic at the Wheatland Music Festival, I was awarded a scholarship through the Elyse Fishman Scholarship Fund to learn traditional music from my mentor Bruce Ling. A highlight at music festivals would be playing late night jam circles where Old Time music was played with dozens of musicians. These experiences and opportunities have had a huge impact on my musical journey.
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you?
I play under my own name. It fits well with my personality and outdoor interests. My parents named me after the Aspen tree. My dad enjoys nature photography and like me, my family likes to travel, camp and spend time outdoors. Aspen trees don’t grow well in the shade and grow in groves. Like the tree, I also must be out there in the light and part of a greater community to thrive. So, my name is also a metaphor and represents how I view the importance of community.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
My most memorable show was my Love Each Other Right CD release party, mainly because I had an incredible band with me and there was a huge audience, all there to see me! It solidified that being a performing musician is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
I once opened for Jill Jack at The Ark in Ann Arbor Michigan. I’d love to headline there one day. It’s one of the top folk and roots music clubs in the world. I’d also love to play the main stage at the Wheatland Music Festival. Wheatland is very important to me as it was the first music festival I ever attended.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
I have been blessed to have recorded with many talented musicians. Honestly, I’d love to perform my songs as close to the recordings as I can get. So, I’d sing and play acoustic guitar. My producer Dominic Davis would be playing both electric and upright bass. Fred Eltringham would be my drummer. And, I’d have Fats Kaplin playing fiddle and steel guitar. Anthony da Costa would play electric guitar on some songs. My backup vocalists would be Rachel Davis and Maya de Vitry. Rachel would also play banjo on some songs and Maya fiddle. For mandolin, I would have my teacher and mentor Bruce Ling play songs and Sierra Hull play on others. That would be my ideal line-up!
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Play as often as you can. The COVID pandemic has taught me how important this is for me. I was fortunate enough to attend an art high school in northern Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy, so I still had some performance opportunities at school, but normally I would also play at the local coffee shops, music festivals and local listening rooms. Now that I’m playing again publicly, I’ve realized how much I missed performing regularly for a live audience and how important it is to my mental health. Online live streaming just isn’t the same. Live performances feed my soul.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
Practice is necessary, but even more important is performing. You should be participating in open mics, sign-up for school choirs, play at the local coffee shop and enroll in a music school where they emphasize live performance as part of their curriculum. Not everyone can go to an arts high school like I did, but there are extracurricular music schools available. In my hometown of Milford Michigan, there’s Michigan Rock School where I played in a rock band with peers playing covers. We would rehearse once a week and have a concert for the community several times a year and played at the local art fair. If you are a singer-songwriter, I also think it is important to participate in songwriting retreats, like the one I did at the Great Lakes Music Camp. During COVID, I also participated in an online teen songwriter summer session through the Nashville Songwriters Association. I became friends with several of the girls in the session and even hung-out last summer when I was in Nashville to record some new songs.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
That is hard to answer. So many of my songs capture feelings and experiences that I’ve had over the years and the meanings of my songs change as I grow and mature. At the moment, I would say Dear Brother because it’s the most vulnerable song I’ve ever released and recorded. It’s about watching a loved one struggle and being unable to help.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
My favorite song to play is always changing, but lately the song Shouldn’t Give a Damn is a fun one. It’s an empowering song about not sacrificing yourself when it comes to toxic relationships. It’s also one of my more upbeat songs with some sassy guitar licks that reflects a little attitude. When I play it live acoustically, it has a very different sound than the recorded version that featured Anthony Da Costa playing electric and acoustic. It’s a song that leaves me feeling energized and I hope does the same for my audience.
Recently, one of my more requested songs is my new release, Dear Brother. It’s a very raw and emotional song. It’s not a song that’s easy to listen to but makes the audience feel. Even if those feelings are sadness or discomfort, it reminds us all that we are not alone in our struggles. I’m reminded of a Woody Guthrie quote “It's a folk singer's job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people”.
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
My songs stew in my head. I’m constantly thinking about lyrics and music. I’m not one of those songwriters that write hundreds of songs and then reviews them looking for the “good ones”. Instead, I run through them in my head consciously and unconsciously. This internal dialog eventually bubbles up into my songs. Sometimes they come relatively quick, like my song “Dear Brother” which is one of the fastest songs that I've written where I immediately felt it was complete. I wrote this song in the bathroom one night as my roommates slept. When I was done, I had a sense of calm. I played it at my school's open mic the next day and it left the room heavy with emotion. Writing a song that fast is unusual for me, I usually spend months thinking about a song and trying it out with a live audience before I ever consider recording. The songs often morph over time and change before I feel they are complete. Even after recording a song, I will often change them a little lyrically and musically.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I often include my personal feelings and perceptions in songs that sometimes tackle big issues like relationships, religion, mental health, and social issues. I don’t like to preach my own beliefs, but rather spark thought and conversation about things that are important to me. I hope my music can help spark dialogs that lead to change and making the world a better place.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
I love collaborating and sharing ideas with other musicians. I have had the opportunity to do this a lot at Interlochen as a songwriting major and as a member of the official house band. Sometimes toes can feel “stepped on”, but I find that when you work with people that are truly passionate about music, a level of professionalism is usually present and not only accepting that there will be bumps along the way but welcoming these bumps will help elevate the overall experience and creative process.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I will be graduating high school in May, spending the summer gigging, and getting a part time job to save some money. In August, I will begin studying music and songwriting at the University of Southern California in their Popular Music Program. It’s an exceptionally intense program, and although I’ll miss the Michigan music scene, I can’t wait to set some roots in Los Angeles. My goal is to be a fulltime, touring singer-songwriter.
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