In the autumn of 2009, I spent four months living in Nashville. Shortly after settling into my new home, I attended a showcase of eight local bands at Mercy Lounge. It was an impressive lineup, but a crowded bill. By the end of the hours-long set, bands began to blur into one indistinguishable sonic smudge. All but one.
At the time, Tristen was performing as a duo with cellist Larissa Maestro. The simplicity of the arrangements, heavy on vocal harmonies and literary melodies, complimented her undeniable gift for songwriting. I was struck by the charming dichotomy inherent to Tristen's sound: a coy innocence in her voice, yet unflagging confidence and control, both in her attitude and her delivery. I left certain that the slight singer-songwriter would eventually enjoy a national fanbase.
Nearly two years later, emails began to appear from high-profile publicists in New York. They touted the up-and-coming Nashville songwriter whose debut album had landed in American Songwriter's Top 50 Albums of 2011 and who NPR recently described as "pop hooks and pure inspiration." "Not bad at all," I thought. And not all that surprising.
Tristen's debut album, Charlatans at the Gate, is a more expansive take on the songs I fell for in 2009, but no less engaging. The drums add momentum, the electric guitars fill out the melody and an assortment of keys, horns and strings fully realize the lush atmospheres. The album is rock 'n' roll, no doubt, but it's poppy as hell (in the best way) and there's a delightful hint of old Nashville country lurking beneath the surface.
I met Tristen at The Grey Eagle on a Wednesday afternoon. As Justin Townes Earl and his band soundchecked in the next room, we chatted about common friends in Nashville, the pitfalls of long tours (Tristen has been on and off the road for almost two years) and the increasingly unpredictable weather. After nearly an hour of waiting, we capitalized on a short window of quiet and set up in the foyer.
Tristen seemed slightly uncomfortable on camera, which I consider a sign of character. There's something suspicious about a person who feels at home with a camera in their face.
Nonetheless, the singer dove into a brand new song that perfectly exemplifies the sweet innocence and self-assured determination that make Tristen's music so dynamic and accessible. "Bourgeois Bouquet is actually the name of the song," she clarified after the performance.
Management, Tristen would later tell me, had requested she perform a song from her current album. Instead, the defiant singer choose a track so new it won't even appear on her forthcoming, as-of-yet-unreleased record.
I left the venue with echoes of "violent, savage and unruly" reverberating through my subconscious, as thousands of music lovers are sure to do one day as well. Assuming, that is, Tristen ever gets around to recording it.