"I really wanted to make a pop record, because I still felt that was something I hadn't done properly, and that's a really huge part of who I am," local songstress Tristen tells the Scene when asked what inspired the synth-pop sounds of C A V E S, her new full-length. Her previous album and best-known work, Charlatans at the Garden Gate, was influenced heavily by classic country music, a sound the Chicago-area native had always appreciated but never fully absorbed until moving to Nashville. When the time came for a follow-up, Tristen was determined to make a record that pays homage to Prince, Madonna and other pop-radio heroes of her youth.
With help from her husband and guitarist Buddy Hughen, Tristen demoed the songs that would become C A V E S with a Reagan-era drum machine — the machine became the third member of their touring group when there wasn't enough scratch to pay backup players a fair wage. Though the beatbox was replaced by a laptop when necessary and a live drummer whenever possible, the electronic sounds seeped into the soul of the songs, and there they remained despite going through many hands. A wrecking crew of local MVPs cut bed tracks with Hughen and Battle Tapes' Jeremy Ferguson at the controls, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes fame overdubbed strings and vocals, and eminent British producer Stephen Hague (known for his work with Pet Shop Boys and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) did the final mix.
Synth pop's aural fireworks are seductive, causing more than a few artists to ditch their unique style to fit established formulas, but C A V E S finds Tristen dealing in the same hook-laden handling of complex subject matter as Charlatans, regardless of the sonic context. Ultimately, her identity as a songwriter shows through because she takes on the role of producer throughout the process.
"Even when musicians play live with me, it's not a band in the sense that everybody does their special thing, and then whatever it sounds like in the end, people like or they don't like," Tristen explains. "It's like, the song is the king ... and then once it's decided on the record how the song is going to be, then the record is the king, and the band has to serve the record."
Widespread praise for Charlatans helped turn a local with promise into a national act. One might expect that a deal with a strong indie label would come next — and that's exactly what happened, in a manner of speaking. Working with artist management firm Thirty Tigers, Tristen has established her own label, PUPsnake Records. Emphasizing the copious help she gets from her team, Tristen handles everything that a label traditionally does.
"The more you know about what their job is supposed to be, the better you know how to hire the right person," says Tristen. The 10-year veteran treats her business seriously now, engaging with her managers on a routine basis, and making the effort to understand every business relationship she enters.
"I actually read [all of my contracts] before I sign them, and [my lawyer and I] make sure that I'm completely protected in all of them," Tristen continues. "We're protective of our work, because we have to be. Everybody wants a piece."
Applying the same hands-on approach to her fan relations has made Tristen a resounding crowd-funding success. The Kickstarter campaign to release C A V E S was ambitious, calling for $20,000 to pay the bills (including the hidden costs of producing and shipping incentive items), but finished at 110 percent of its goal.
Tristen gives the most credit to her fan base, but also advises would-be campaigners to get personal: "You have to be willing to offer incentives that might be a little labor-intensive on your end, but it's all about what you have more of — and I've always had more time than money." For C A V E S, those incentives covered every angle of fandom, from a test pressing with a hand-lettered lyric sheet to a recording of a cover song chosen by the backer — the latter proving to be one of the most popular items.
On the flattened playing field of today's music business, the game of finding and reaching an audience has changed so much and so quickly, it seems miraculous when anyone makes a living at it — much less creating a body of work they can be proud of. But with the firm grip and clear focus Tristen has on all her commercial and artistic goals, aspiring songsters and songstresses everywhere would do well to follow her lead.