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Interview: Aaron Espe on anxiety, new album & death

For some, love at first sight is a very real, tangible concept, which has been found to be firmly rooted in biology rather than cultural phenomenons. The rush to your cheeks, the adrenalin-driven giddiness, the infectious energy emanating from your eyes ⎯⎯ responses that are often indications of a much deeper bond. Sometimes, those feelings are immediate, and other times, they take much longer to emerge. Singer-songwriter Aaron Espe found himself rather smitten 11 years ago with a girl named Heidi. Gathered around a smoldering campfire in Jackson Hole, he was instantly struck by her beauty, giving off a warm and exuberant aura. She was slow to reciprocate his earnest advances, however, and it would be months before their connection would spark up again. As he preps his new, yet-untitled, studio album, Espe revisited that moment for his new song, appropriately titled “Heidi.” The acoustic midtempo, not written until 2016, harkens to early work by The Beatles, stark and airy, and Espe’s vocal is urgent by tender, magical but commanding. “The moment that I met you was the day I was born,” he warbles, gliding up on the notes. “So, if you fall in love tonight, let it be me.”

As a working musician and songwriter in Nashville, Espe pulled out his guitar, as he often does, and the song was born. The chord he just happened to be strumming seemed to fit a sentiment he was toying with. “I found myself remembering that time. I also have never really written my wife a love song. Heidi doesn’t sing as well as other names. I tried to make a lot of the words sound like Heidi was the right name using assonance,” he tells B-Sides & Badlands. “I felt like it was time. I’m constantly writing. So, any little moment that inspires me, I try to really tackle it. I know that momentum is valuable.”

Hopping on a recent call, on July 14, their 10th anniversary to the day, Espe talks openly and honestly about how death informed his new record, how he juggles the industry with his anxiety and when he officially started dating Heidi. Dig into our exclusive Q&A session below.

You’ve talk about how the admiration at first wasn’t reciprocated. How long after the campfire did you two start dating?

Probably six months. After she was into me, we got married really quickly. We met at a folk festival in Montana in July 2006. It’s a culmination of two campfires. We hit it off just talking. She and a friend were going back to Colorado where I was based the following week. So, we stayed in Jackson Hole along the way. That campfire was the most vivid memory. So, she faded off into the distance and didn’t return any of my emails ⎯⎯ or would return my emails with one-liners when I had classically used up every ounce of energy and wit with paragraphs. I got the picture she wasn’t into me.

Wow. It’s been awhile since I’ve told this story. It’s good for me to retrace it. [laughs] It’s very much the story people want to hear when you get married. So, she was going to school in Boston, and I was in Denver. She had a layover in Denver on her way back to Fargo, which is where she’s from, for Thanksgiving. I’m actually from close to there. I met her at the airport for coffee. During that meeting, her doubts about whether to get involved with me or not were cleared. From that point on, she was onboard with us dating. Then, at Christmas, she had another layover, and instead of taking the flight from Denver to Fargo, she and I drove together. We were engaged in April and got married in July.

It’s definitely not something we recommend. We realize now that we hardly knew each other when we got married. But we were really wound up. We are both from super conservative, Christian backgrounds. That whole thing played into it.

Did you keep any of those emails?

They’re somewhere. I think she has them. I lost some info when the harddrive in my Mac blew.

How does this song fit into the album?

The album is mainly about key moments or turning points in my life. Obviously, that was one of them. I’m way too serious. I try not to take myself seriously. Strangely, “Heidi” is one of the uptempo love songs, and it felt good in the mix of things. It fit, thematically, too. In terms of an album, it needed a lighter moment. A lot of the album is heavier. Now, it’s hard to know how accurate the memory of “Heidi” is. [laughs] You know how we like to reconstruct it as we go along. After I released the song, the girl who was with us ⎯⎯ her name is Joy ⎯⎯ wrote to me and said “it actually wasn’t a KOA campground.” I said “what? Really?” And I was talking to Heidi about it, and she remembers very little about that experience, partly because she wasn’t into me yet.

What are some of the other key moments on the album?

A childhood friend died when we were kids, and I was thinking about him. I then Googled him. His name was Lou. If you knew anyone that died before the internet took off, it’s impossible to find anything on them. So, the only thing I could find was his grave index. It made me realize, as a songwriter, that I have a responsibility to allow his memory to live on. It’s not like he has a Facebook page or anything, which is stranger. I have some friends who have died and their Facebook pages are still active, and people comment when it’s their birthdays. I started writing this song called “Hello, Lou.” I was using his real name, and then I got conflicted. I thought “maybe his parents don’t want that.” Who knows how they feel about me writing a song about this.

It’s a very small thing that meant a lot to me as a kid that I’ll always remember. It was on the playground. He was really good on the monkey bars. I was trying to fit in. He had a friend named Dan, and they both were the monkey bar kids. He included me and taught me some jumps. What was meaningful was: 1) he included me and 2) I lived close to the school so after he taught me this trick, I wanted to tell me dad. One Sunday after school, my dad said “ok, I’ll walk over to the school with you.” I showed him the trick, and he always humored me. That memory has always stuck with me. I started writing songs about friends who have died and made those little impressions on me. The album started to get really heavy and dark. I have a little studio in the backyard, and I would go back there and read obituaries. It started to feel slightly contrived.

Your last album, Safe Enough to Wander, came in 2013. How long before you started work on the new music, and what was your journey between those two points?

Heidi and I moved to Nashville in 2011. I had been touring a lot ⎯⎯ a guy with a guitar, driving around. It was just not sustainable. I was not sure what I was going to do with music. I didn’t know how to make a living at it. I started tuning pianos and thought “oh, god, maybe that’s the only way I can stay in the business.” Somebody suggested moving to Nashville or at least checking it out. Some friends of mine were recording here in 2011. We moved here for me to try to make it as a songwriter. I started working at Starbucks. I signed a publishing deal in 2012. I put out two albums that year [‘Three’ and ‘Tennessee Sky’]. Then, in 2013, put out another one. I’ve been writing a lot with other artists. Writing has always been the part of music I love the most. It’s the high for me. I’ve always struggled with everything else. I struggle with performing, even though I did it for a long time. I have to do it some, still. It has its moments when it is very rewarding, but the amount of stress it causes me, it hasn’t really been worth it. I tried to be way more top heavy and coming up with content versus touring. I find myself in three situations: 1) I’m writing with an artist, for the artist, 2) I’m writing with another songwriter for spec or for publishers to pitch and 3) I’m writing by myself, for myself. If I’m ever in a session writing something for spec, and I’m really drawn to it, sometimes, I’ll release it myself. Generally, I don’t co-write for my own albums.

You mention struggling with performing. Is that anxiety of being onstage?

Yes. It’s the anxiety, and most of it is the anticipation. Really, doing music is five percent and performing your songs onstage is the other 95 percent, especially when it was very DIY. You’re basically an event coordinator. Is anybody going to show up to this concert? Am I going to make any money? Then, I toured mostly west of the Mississippi. I read that if you tour, you should base yourself near Philadelphia. I toured everywhere west of there. I played a show in Denver and then had a 12-hour drive to a show in Montana. You have all this down time. Some people do OK with it. I was just writing with a songwriter two days ago who was doing basically that. It’s sustainable for some people. It just got to me after awhile.

You recently landed another song on the hit show Nashville called “Who I Love,” performed by Rhiannon Giddens. That must be such a rewarding moment.

I heard they were cutting it. I am super thankful. I just had a song on a commercial, and it makes me nervous to even watch it. I don’t watch it. I like to imagine it being the best thing in my head. People have said it’s cool. I probably will watch the episode just to see it. It weirds me out a little bit, too. It feels a little surreal, though. I’m not tied to a song being done any certain way. Part of it is just my upbringing. Anything that draws attention to myself has always been uncomfortable. It’s stupid because I chose this career path. It’s pretty much 100 percent self promotion. I’m bad at talking, so even in this interview, I’m not comfortable in these situations where it’s all about me. Growing up, it was never OK to talk about yourself. Later in life, my dad apologized to me for never complimenting me about music. It meant a lot. It’s so good for me to be more of a writer here in Nashville and less of a performer. It’s been a way healthier living.

Anxiety was always in my family but it was a small town in the Midwest, so there weren’t any counseling services or anything. I didn’t even dive into it until later in life. It’s been a lifesaver.

You rarely tour, but do you have any shows planned for this album release?

We’re putting shows together now. It might be a residency here in Nashville, where I play one place for a month. But I also may hop on a bus with a buddy of mine. I might support him for a string of shows.

Follow Espe on his socials: Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Website

Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.

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