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Interview: Aimee Mann

On Wednesday morning, July 30, Aimee Mann will appear on The View. That evening she will perform at the Highline Ballroom (advance tickets are sold out; check with the club for day of show admission). On August 1 Mann will headline the Music Hall of Williamsburg (that show is also sold out). In between, on the evening of July 31st, Mann and Netherland author Joseph O'Neill will appear at the Barnes & Nobles at Union Square as part of the store's 'Upstairs at the Square' series. Admission is free.

Maybe "we're all broken and nobody gets out alive."

Interview: Aimee Mann

photo by Sheryl Nields

File Aimee Mann under Master of Melancholy. From the purely plaintive mid-'80s MTV hit "Voices Carry" through the mid-tempo minor chords highlighted in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, Mann's music has ministered to more than one midnight self-pity party. And such improbable sing-alongs as "Deathly," "You Could Make A Killing," "Nothing Is Good Enough," "Calling It Quits," "I've Had It" and "Save Me" certify that the former 'Til Tuesday frontwoman long ago found her niche, and yet over time has managed enough melodic maneuverability (2005's conceptual The Forgotten Arm chronicles a drug-addicted pugilist while her latest, @#%&*! Smilers, operates without the safety net of so much as a single electric guitar) to maintain a primarily pristine poignancy.

In late June, with Mann at home in Los Angeles between stints of her current tour, we did the cross-country phone thing and covered topics like songwriting, sequencing and setlists, and the relatively unique struggles of folks in their forties.I'm getting confused by different recorders that aren't working.  

Is your recorder working?

My recorder is working. It's just not the recorder that I wanted to work. But it's a long story and if we've only got 20 minutes . . .  

Yeah, but I can talk fast.

Well, I can't because I'm from Alabama, so it's not a story worth telling.

(laughs)

I promise I'm going to ask deep and philosophical songwriting questions, but I want to save them for the end.  

Okay.

Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.

I've never done that giant ski jump thing.

Yeah, there's a name for that. They have that at Lake Placid.

Yeah, what is it?  The long distance jump?

That sounds good. Do you have a fear of heights or is it just me who would be scared by that?

Yeah, it's got a flavor of "one false move and wow, it's going to go horribly wrong."

I mean, I'm not saying that I can't go to the top of the Empire State Building . . . 

I can't go to the top of the Empire State Building.

Oh, you're worse than I am then.  

Yeah. I think I'd rather do the skiing thing because, you know, there's an element of like skill and control and you're going to land. I would rather do the ski jump than sky dive, which I've never done either.

Okay. Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.

There's probably many.

 

I'm sure there are. And aren't I nice to only ask for one?

Yeah. Okay, it's sort of like a weird psychological test or word association.

One time I ate uni, and one time only. That is never going to happen again. And it was sort of like in the '80s when sushi just came out. I was at the table with somebody and like I didn't know anything about sushi and they go, 'Here.' And like stuck a giant uni in my mouth. Like an entire mouthful of it. And its texture was disgusting and I hadn't even been broken in on like tuna or anything.

That's horrible.

Yeah. Big, giant uni mouthful.

Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice.

Great Gatsby.

The name of a movie you've seen at least three times.

Probably The Graduate.

Do you own a rake?

No.

And who is your favorite Beatle?

Ringo.

Okay, so Smilers begins with a song about addiction, and that subject's come up in your songwriting several times before. I'm not looking for any kind of 'stick a needle in your arm and hope to die' thing, but are you empathetic to these kind of obsessive desires or is the interest purely clinical?  

I know what it's like to be obsessive about things. You know, something to get into a state where you are thinking about something so much that it almost becomes involuntary. I have never had addiction to any kind of substance, but like the obsessive thinking . . . I mean, I think I could just relate to it and I think the reason I write about it is because it's close to the feelings I've had, but not the same feelings. So, you know, I can relate to it. It's easier to write about it objectively because it doesn't really have anything to do with me, you know, except I know drug addicts and as I've gotten older . . . I mean, I am also clinically interested in all this stuff. Like I do a lot of reading about it, but kind of along the way I have met a handful of people who are hardcore drug addicts, still unrecovered drug addicts, and then that's like a whole education in and of itself.

You said, 'It's easier to write about it objectively.' Is it easier to write a song when you have distance from the subject, such as someone else's addiction?  Or is it easier when it's more autobiographical and you're kind of working through your own emotions?

I think it doesn't really matter. I think I always try to relate it to myself anyway, and it's certainly less uncomfortable to write it when it's a little bit objective and a little bit outside of yourself. Writing's something that's like really autobiographical. It's sort of like you don't necessarily want to go there. You don't really want to feel like you're totally alone in your own mess, you know, so it's easier to write about somebody else and be able relate to them. And also you don't really want to think about people going, 'Oh, I know what that's about.'

Speaking of being 'totally alone in your own mess,' we've got the Anne Sexton reference in 'Stranger into Starman.' What's the particular draw for you there?   Because Anne Sexton is a big old proper noun that's almost as heavy as the word 'blood.' I mean, Anne Sexton comes with a whole lot of connotations.  

Yeah, none of which I really thought about before I put it in there. But maybe that's another word association. I don't know. Like the explanation of why you write a song is always like so much more prosaic than other explanations that people come up with for you.   You know, I really was doing a crossword puzzle, and there was a clue and I started writing 'starman,' because it really did fit. It was like, 's-t-blank-blank-something.' And then I realized like, 'Oh, I'm like a letter short.' Or like one letter off. And then when I realized what it really was I found a certain significance. And, well, that's, in a way, kind of typical for me to do. To sort of put a kind of glory or importance on people who I don't necessarily know well enough to be doing that. And that did start me just thinking about writing songs and puzzles and word puzzles and that kind of thing, and I was just reminded of Anne Sexton, you know, and how she kind of really . . . You know, there was like a paragraph where she was talking about realizing that 'stars' backwards was 'rats.' Like when I first read that I was like, 'Really, that's pretty exciting' (sarcastic tone). But it made sense to include with the song because the song was about sort of words and finding significance in words and having those moments where you go like, 'Oh.' You know, like an anagram or that kind of thing. And I love that sort of stuff too.

But it's funny because thinking about Anne Sexton, my introduction to Anne Sexton was from a roadie that we used to work with. A really interesting character. He had spent a little time in jail. His name was Spider because he was a second-story man. He was from Worcester, Mass.

I'm sorry. When you say 'we,' is that 'Til Tuesday days?  Because I just had it in my head that Anne Sexton is probably in your face if you live in Boston.

No, like you can live in Boston and not be of Boston. You know, like most people kind of come there to go to school. Yeah, I didn't find out about her until . . . Yeah, this was way after 'Til Tuesday.

Okay. Sorry to have interrupted.

Oh, that's okay. So Spider, you know, he was one of those strange guys who seemed very, very working class. He would call me 'Mom,' and he was always trying to like better himself. Like, I mean, he was obviously not that well educated, but he was always trying to better himself. And for my birthday he gave me an Anne Sexton book. And it was like, 'Way to go, Spider.' Because it was perfect. Like I'd never read Anne Sexton. I didn't know who she was. And it was perfect and it was great, obviously. But anyway, Spider, later on when he was on tour with the Eels, died of an overdose. So it's sort of like, everything, in some way, ties back to this. I don't know. You know, maybe it's the music business or maybe it's just there's a lot of broken people in the world.

 

And they're all drawn to you.

Or I'm drawn to them, you know. Or we're all broken and nobody gets out alive.

That may explain why I never leave my apartment.

[laughs]

I understand that not every song has to be three minutes long, but how do you know "Starman" is finished?  I mean, did you try to make it longer?  

Yeah, I didn't feel like that needed to be . . . It was almost a bit of an interlude song or an introductory song and I kind of knew that it would work on a record that way.

'Introductory' is an interesting word since that almost always means first ["Stranger Into Starman" is Smilers' second track]. I know that both Magnetic Fields and the Breeders have released albums this year with these kind of almost incantations leading off. When you wrote 'Freeway,' did you know that it would be the first song on the record?

Well, after I wrote it I knew it was my favorite song and I thought there was a good chance it would end up being the first song.

Does that happen often?  I know that you don't literally decide, 'My favorite song is first and my least favorite song is tenth,' but does your favorite song on an album often get pushed towards the front of the disc?

You know, I like the first song to be kind of uptempo, like an overture. And I don't usually have that many uptempo songs so it's not like there's a big list of songs to choose from. And I also like, production-wise, the first song to have elements that are going to be introduced throughout the record. So 'Freeway' has a lot of the Moog sounds on it and, you know, to me sort of sums up an attitude that's going to be coming. So like you sort of have the overture and then it starts. And so then 'Starman' starts the record.

So where does 'Starman' come in the set?

You know what?  I think we're doing it first right now.

See, that would make all the sense in the world based on what my friend Aimee Mann just told me.

I think live it's a little bit different because sometimes you like to start with a bang. Sometimes it's nice to ease into it so I've been finding that that's worked. And we've only played a handful of shows, but towards the end of it I was like, 'You know, I like when we start with 'Starman,'' so that's what we've been doing.

Okay, so here's some unwanted input. I think that's a really good idea.

You know what?  Now that you have signed off on it . . .

Well, you know, I am a professional music critic.

[laughs]  That is all the back up we needed.

I thought that was probably what you were waiting on. The length of your career probably wasn't quite the comfort you needed. It was probably some stranger's voice over a cell-phone connection.

I have to say, I'm not the most objective person because I don't really go to a lot of shows.

It can't be easy to be really objective about your own work.

Yeah, but you can say, you know, 'Oh, I went to this show and this is what I didn't like about it.' Which I actually just did go to a show so I did get a little insight of like, 'Oh, when they did this I liked that, so maybe I will keep that in mind when I'm structuring my own show.'

And if it's a scouting trip you can write the cost off on your taxes.

Well, I got in free. Maybe I could write off all the drinks we had. And the hot dogs.

You drink with hot dogs?

Well, that's all they had to eat. And to make it even more sad, I'm one of those people that has that wheat allergy thing.

Oh, my spouse has that. You people are a lot of fun to go out to dinner with.

Do you know how not fun it is to be on the road and never be able to eat a sandwich or pizza or anything mobile and portable?

You have to like eat the hot dog out of the bun.  

That sounds about as bad as being force-fed uni.

In an interview earlier this year you said, 'I think my favorite song, both as a song and a song I like to play, is 'You Could Make A Killing.'' Does that still hold true?

We're not playing it in the set because it's my favorite song to play. I played it, you know, probably the last couple of years I put it in the set. We try to change it. I'm playing a lot of new stuff in the set, actually.

But as a songwriter is that the gold star?  If you can be objective, and I know it's hard, you're still, 'Boy, I really did some good work that day?'

I like it, but liking to play it isn't necessarily like the best song.

So what song, as a songwriter, makes you think, 'You know, I'm actually pretty good?'

I mean, I do think there's something about that that really did sum up exactly . . . Like when I hear it, I go like, 'Yep, that is the feeling that I had at that time.'

I don't really know how you can ask for more than that, so let's use 'Killing' as an example. How quickly do you write that song? 

That was really quick. But then again, you know, it's not like it's a song that is very finished. There's no bridge. It's like verse, chorus, verse, chorus. So, you know, like in a way I sort of feel like I sort of dropped the songwriting ball. And at the same time I'm like, 'And I wouldn't want to hear a bridge.' But, you know, three verses and then you're out. Is that really enough?  I don't know. 

The quick writing versus the figurative blood, sweat and tears on the page. Do you feel more proud of the songs that take more effort or is that like kind of an unromantic craft thing and the ones that come quickly, the ones that feel maybe more like a gift, those are the ones that serve as like the anti-uni?

I don't think I really have those like 'all come at the same time, bolt from heaven' songs.

No pristine rushes?

Yeah, I don't really get that. You know, sometimes it's just easier than others, and your brain kind of works on its own. Like your brain goes right into its priming for meter, for exact rhymes, for, you know, aphorisms and figures of speech and like your little online thesaurus in your head. Like those things are all working and then it sort of spits out. Like you phrase it like this and you go like, 'That's nice.' But sometimes it's not. Sometimes you're like, 'Oh shit. Really?  Do I have get out the thesaurus and like try to figure out a different way to say this that will be easier to rhyme?'  And either one is fine. Like as long as I get the end result where I feel like I did pretty good writing, then I'm happy.  

The ones where there's a lot of dicking around . . . Like this has happened with songs for movies where you change it a lot and you're just trying too hard and you go like, 'Well, I know they asked for . . .' I remember writing some song and they go like, 'We really wanted an anthem.' And you go like, 'Ugh, like that's so like not my style.' And then I go, 'I'll try to make it more anthem-y,' and then you end up writing stuff that you think is dumb because anthems are dumb and, you know, you go like, 'I'll try to simplify it because anthems are simple.' And that just makes it dumb and then you go, 'Is this any good?'  And even if it's good, you hate it. So those are always bad.   Truly. It's happened to me a couple of times in the last year, and I will never do that again. Just write the fucking song you want to write and just play it for them and if it's gone completely into left field then so be it and they won't use it and fine. But like better that than wind up with some pieced-together Frankenstein, you know, semi-anthemic thing with a bunch of clichés that's not even very good.

That almost sounds like work. And I know you learn your living from all of this, but you know most listeners, I'm sure, would rather think of music, and songwriting in particular, as more of an avocation rather than a vocation. And that whole writing for assignment just sounds, you know, real fucking icky.

It is icky but I'm also, 'I can't do it.' Like I can't then look at it objectively. And it isn't good. You know, like it really isn't good.

 

Let me ask you one last songwriting question and I will get out of your way and apologize if I've overstayed my welcome.

You are welcome and nobody's calling so this is perfectly fine.

Wonderful.

And also I like the initial kind of goofy questions. Mayonnaise or mustard?  Those kind of questions.

Thank you. I'm sorry. I'm not going back there. But I do want to touch on your enthusiasm for boxing and see if I can somehow make it analogous to songwriting. We all drop our jaws when like George Foreman's still in the ring at like 45, because we know damn well, no matter how in shape he is - and he's not - that his timing's not what it was. The quickness isn't what it was, and the power probably isn't what it was. Physically he's lost some steps even though he obviously was operating at the 99th percentile level of skilled boxers well into his 40s. And what we're hoping, if we don't want to see him just pummeled, is that his experience in the ring makes up for the physical diminishment of his skills.  

As a songwriter, obviously you have some skills that come from experience. You've got some skills that maybe you didn't have 15 years ago. But have you lost anything as a songwriter?

I don't think so. I really feel like I'm better. You know, I feel like I get better because I think I just get better. You know, your brain just becomes primed. You know, you practice. You practice writing. You practice structuring lines and meter and reaching for metaphors and analogies and then you're just better at it. I mean, I definitely think I'm better and it's too bad I'm not sort of super young to, you know, have the energy to kind of spring onto the scene and be all new and interesting to people.

You know what?  I just realized that I fucked up really badly. Before I asked that question I was supposed to tell you that I'm pretty much the same age you are in case there was something . . . 

Yeah, you sounded like, you know, maybe we were more or less peers.

Well, I didn't want you to think in asking that question that I was calling you old or suggesting that you should get into the grill business. It really was more of a songwriting question.

Oh, I was flattered that you mentioned someone who was 45 instead of 47 (laughs).

I read about this theory - I think it was in the Times a couple of months ago - but  I read that regardless of gender, religious affiliation, sexual preference, or geographic location, you're never going to find more depressed people than those between the ages of 40 and 49.   The theory suggests that before the age of 40 you still think, 'Well, you know, I can do something else if I want to.' And from age 50 onward you've had enough friends die that you're really just kind of glad to still be here, and so 40 to 49 are the big Xanax years. I don't want to go into your medicine cabinet, but is there anything funky about this particular decade where youth is gone but you don't yet qualify for the AARP discount so it's kind of like a small slice of purgatory?  Or is it just me?

Well, I think that I have been doing the best and the happiest and feeling like I have the most energy and super lively and like interested in stuff in the last three years. But I'm, you know, somebody who, you know, has suffered from pretty severe like depression and anxiety all my life, which has kind of forced me to like have to deal with it. Like fairly early. And so, you know, I've been in therapy for a long time. I mean, I actually haven't gone in a while because I feel great.  

So in answer to your question, I feel like my life is like totally awesome and I've never been happier. But, you know, I'm also mindful that there's certain things, like kind of physical stuff where you go . . . I think I was at the gym, which, believe me, does not happen very often, and I was running on the treadmill or I was like jogging or something, and I wanted to do intervals, so you know I would jog for three minutes and then sprint for a minute or something, and then I kind of like got a glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror or something, and my sprint was like, 'Oh, that looks like a jog.' And my jog was like, you know, a Palm Beach Shuffle.

[laughs]

Like this old guy shuffling along the beach in his leisure suit. So that was a little shocking because I sort of felt like (laughs), you know, the sprint should be the sprint and it did not look like a sprint at all.

Those moments of forced humility are not fun. And, you know, they were a lot easier to brush off at a younger age.

This is what happens in your 40s. You realize willpower is not the only missing ingredient anymore. Because you always sort of felt like, 'If I just really put my mind to it I could really get in shape.' And like, you know, with boxing, I could really get in shape and I could spar and I could like make it happen. I'm just lazy. But now I have to go, 'Willpower cannot overcome everything.' That is humbling, but it's humbling in a good way because guess what?  Willpower cannot overcome everything.

On Wednesday morning, July 30, Aimee Mann will appear on The View. That evening she will perform at the Highline Ballroom (advance tickets are sold out; check with the club for day of show admission). On August 1 Mann will headline the Music Hall of Williamsburg (that show is also sold out). In between, on the evening of July 31st, Mann and Netherland author Joseph O'Neill will appear at the Barnes & Nobles at Union Square as part of the store's 'Upstairs at the Square' series. Admission is free.


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