On 2013's Caves, it seemed as if Tristen (née Tristen Gaspadarek), the once-darling folk singer-songwriter with a soaring voice and biting wit, was abandoning her old ship in favor of more expansive indie-pop waters. Built on layers of synths and backing tracks that felt more appropriate for the Eurythmics than a budding alt-country songbird, the record was an impressive show of studio skill and steely ambition, but left Tristen's path forward uncertain.
That uncertainty was amplified by the fact that, after touring on Caves, Tristen joined the touring band of Jenny Lewis for a year, lending her keyboard chops and distinctive voice to somebody who has the kind of career she's actively aspiring to.
Now that she's back with a new, electric guitar-centric single ("Glass Jar") featuring Lewis, and a forthcoming album largely created with her husband and long-time guitarist Buddy Hughen, it seems as if Tristen is finally just herself, as free from any sonic expectations as her former bandleader was upon finally disbanding Rilo Kiley in 2011.
The 11 songs on Sneaker Waves, out July 7 on Modern Outsider, show traces of twang but more often than not seem to take the ambitious arrangements on Caves and filter them through a rich, timeless blend of garage rock, atmospheric country, '60s girl group flourishes, and the eccentric singer-songwriter rock-pop of Harry Nillson.
"I think with Caves I went in with a concept, and everything was sort of defined by the concept," Tristen admits. "When I went into this record, the concept was no concept. We decided to let each song decide what they were going to be like, with no parameters on them."
That fits with the stylistic synthesis occurring on Sneaker Waves, and the sense that you are hearing echoes of older genres even as it fits solidly next to contemporary efforts by the likes of Lewis and Neko Case. Like those two iconoclasts, Tristen proves to be a singer-songwriter with a gift for melody and wry lyricism, but is otherwise indifferent about the need for tradition.
"Writing is an incredibly intuitive process for me — I don't really know what's happening, there's just a flow that I just kind of tap into," she explains. "But I know for a fact that I'm basically a conduit for everything that I listen to and consume myself. That's how I view the creative thing."
And while it would appear as if the influence of the former Rilo Kiley leader looms large over her new album, the truth is that, beyond shared sensibilities, Lewis had very little impact on the new record.
"I had one review that compared me to her before I joined the band, a long time ago," she recalls, "but I didn't know any of Jenny's music before joining the band. I knew 'Silver Lining' and all of the ones that had been on the radio and were more pervasive, but I didn't listen to Rilo Kiley or Jenny Lewis before I joined the band. I learned 30 songs in like a week and a half!"
And, as it turns out, many of the songs on the record pre-date her stint with Lewis, although the lengthy recording process means many of them were not finished until this past year.
"My concept with every record is building, tearing down, and then putting back together [the songs]," Tristen points out. "I try to give myself a lot of time and space from the songs and then go back and decide what's working and what isn't."
Still, Tristen seems cool with the comparison, even if she doesn't quite hear it.
"Jenny and I have a lot of similarities," she says wryly, then jokes that "we both like our steak well-done" before noting that the question isn't wholly without merit.
"I think we are both female, and both write in a sort of folk style with very strong focus on lyrics, and Jenny has a really strong pop-melody sense, and I do too," she allows. "But our voices sound completely different — which is cool, because it's like the best thing in the world to sing together."
But she's more interested in the idea of being compared to other women, and celebrating that, rather than letting it get her down.
"It's hard when only 10 percent of the music world is women and you get put into a women genre. It is hard to be a woman in the music business, but that's not other women in the creative world's fault," she points out. "One of the things I try to do as a feminist is to give opportunity to women and also not shy away from that community. I'd be soulless and empty without all those women in my life."