Aimee Mann Is Not With Stupid- An Interview With The Indie Spiritualist

November 1, 2010 by Chris Grosso

From her work in the 80’s with MTV favorite Til Tuesday through her acclaimed solo discs “Whatever” and “I’m With Stupid” in the 90s, Aimee Mann has always been at the forefront of contemporary songwriters. The close of the millennium brought her greatest success, with the simultaneous releases of Bachelor No. 2 and the soundtrack to the film Magnolia, which garnered nominations for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and three Grammys. After a decade in which her music often took a backseat to corporate mergers and contractual obligations, the message was clear: Aimee Mann is here to stay.

From “Voices Carry” to the Oscar-nominated “Save Me,” Mann has always been known for her clever, literate, and dryly witty takes on emotional sabotage and self-destruction. Though happily married to Michael Penn (with whom she has toured extensively in a double-billed “Acoustic Vaudeville”), her fascination continues with “the freaks who could never love anyone.” With a songcraft often compared with the Beatles and Badfinger, Mann frequently pairs the bleakest of poetry with soaring, infectious melodies.

Mann continued her solo career with the 2002 release of Lost in Space the second release on SuperEgo Records, the label she co-founded with manager and former Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausmann. The opportunity to release her own CD’s independently allowed Mann the power to soar creatively. With Lost in Space Mann produced an album of songs that, like a book of stories or a novel, work collectively to become something more than the sum of the individual parts. “There were aspects of liberation that hadn’t even occurred to me. I became more creative all-around, in terms of marketing and promoting the record as well as writing and recording.” To that end, Mann commissioned graphic-novelist Seth to create a forty-page booklet that accompanied the disc version of Lost In Space.

Lost in Space Special Edition followed in 2003, featuring a second disc containing six live recordings, as well two B-sides and two previously unreleased songs. In  November 2004 Aimee released her first live album and DVD with Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse recorded at a series of July 2004 shows in Brooklyn.

In 2006 Mann released what might be considered her most daring album yet with the critically acclaimed The Forgotten Arm. In a natural progression of her literary writing, the album is a concept album that follows the story of two lovers who meet at the Virginia State Fair. The main character is a boxer who is sent off to fight in the Viet Nam war, the CD explores the themes of love, war, drugs and ultimately recovery and redemption.

The Forgotten Arm is, like so much of Aimee Mann’s music, really about the inexorable pull of co-dependency in human relationships. “The King of the Jailhouse / and the Queen of the Road,” Aimee Mann sings on one song, “think sharing the burden will lighten the load / so they pack up their troubles in an old Cadillac / that’s her in the mirror, asleep in the back.”

Aimee Mann also released a Christmas album titled One More Drifter In The Snow. “I wanted to do a Christmas record that reflected the whole range of emotions that people have around Christmas.” Aimee said, “I thought a lot about the feeling I had about Christmas as a kid, the almost spooky beauty and mystery that the holiday has, and wanted to do something that echoed that musically.” Harkening back to the classic Christmas albums of the 40’s & 50’s the CD features several classic songs and some lesser-known but no-less-classic songs: the Jimmy Webb song “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” which opens the record; “Christmastime” written by Michael Penn; the brilliant “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the Dr. Seuss cartoon “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” featuring Grant Lee Phillips’ inspired narration; and an original song, co-written with producer Paul Bryan, “Calling On Mary.”

In conjunction with the holiday inspired album Ms. Mann has also launched an annual sell-out Christmas tour, incorporating various comedic hosts and fellow musicians who vary from town to town. This year’s tour included host Paul F. Thompkins and guest appearances from Jackson Brown, Nellie McKay, Ben Lee, Ben Gibbard, Patrick Park, Sean Hayes, Chuck Prophet, Josh Ritter, Joe Henry, Grant Lee Phillips, members of the Decemberists and Morgan Murphy. (Bio from aimeemann.com) The following interview was conducted on 10/28/10.

The Aimee Mann Interview

TIS: What are some of the freedoms you enjoy as an independent artist that those on major labels don’t?

AM: Well, you know it’s funny, because I have no idea what being on a major label is like anymore. I would imagine it’s like clinging to the Titanic as it’s bubbling under.

TIS: Haha, sounds about right.

AM: I left around ’98 or so, and at that point, everything was changing for me. My manager really put it into perspective a year or so after the transition, he said, “All my work, the phone calls, meetings, and emails were all geared towards trying to get other people to do their job, but now, all the calls, meetings, and emails etc, are geared towards actually getting things done.” That was really huge to hear because there was so much time spent figuring out how to cheerlead, inspire, beg or manipulate people working at the labels, who were supposed to be doing this for you in the first place. It was really frustrating, especially because their idea of doing their job, such as marketing and promoting, was to try and tell you how to make the record, as if they could come up with some formula that would produce this perfect record. One that would just fucking market itself, you know? Sorry for cursing.

TIS: No worries, it’s quite alright.

AM: It’s just so maddening. I welcome constructive criticism because I want to constantly improve my stuff, I want it to be good, but when somebody who doesn’t know what they are talking about tries to tell you what to do, it’s really frustrating. And then you become the jerk that tells them they have no idea what they’re talking about. When someone who has never made a record before, doesn’t know the songwriting process, or even really listen to music, well where’s the qualifications?

It would go over much better if they were a fan of music, or someone who listened to it all the time. There has always been a pocket of A&R people at record companies who really love music, and they were great, but they would usually get squashed down too. So I guess the difference is that everything is different. I can make decisions based on music.

The other thing that was really shocking was that a lot of the decisions didn’t seem to have anything to do with money. For example, sometimes we’d come up with ways to promote things, like there was an acoustic radio tour we wanted to do. This was a long time ago before people were doing it, and that’s the reason it got rejected. That was crazy because it wouldn’t have costed anything, and at the same time been highly effective. So it seemed like decisions were often made from fear, the fear of doing something new.

Iwas literally like “Hallelujah, I am never looking back” when I left. Running a label wasn’t rocket science. Now it’s much more complicated because no one buys records, or really shops at record stores, but then, it was simply getting your record into the store, and then do some touring, and work with a publicist, buy some indie promoters, it wasn’t that hard. I will say we always felt like the lunatics were running the asylum.

TIS: Sounds pretty disheartening. So you’ve done some amazing collaboration work with Jon Brion, most notably on The Magnolia Soundtrack which was nominated for an Oscar. What’s the writing process like when the two of you get together?

AM: Well Jon is a great generator of ideas, but not a great finisher, and I’ve always been a great finisher. The interesting thing about Jon is that as soon as he would start playing a chord progression or melody, I’d tell him I knew where the song needed to go. We just had a real connection, one in which I could feel where the songs were supposed to go. When I’d hear Jon playing, it was easy to build off of, because it was apart from me, it was separate, whereas when I generate an idea, it’s harder to be objective.

TIS: Years ago you created “Acoustic Vaudeville” with your husband Mike Penn, which is a conglomerate of music and stand-up comedy. How did that concept arise?

AM: We used to play this club called Largo, which still exists, just in a different location now, but it was a super tiny place that held maybe a hundred people or so. We used to play there a lot, and on Monday night’s they’d had comedy night, so we would go out and eventually we became friendly with the various comedians.

Michael & I would play shows and afterwards we’d always have the inevitable “how do you think it went” conversation. We always felt like the music part would go ok, but knowing what to say between songs was just so difficult for us. I had an idea similar to baseball, where they have the pinch hitter because the guy can’t hit that well.  Well I thought, who’s more of an expert at bantering than comedians? My initial idea was for them to write chunks of banter on index cards for us to read from, but that developed into having them actually come up and talk, while we were tuning between songs etc. The comedians we knew were so great like Andy Kindler, Paul F Tompkins & Patton Oswald, who did the most shows of all of them. We also had David Cross & Todd Barry do some shows. Janeane Garafolo actually did one too. They made the show fun for us because we knew we’d get a treat between songs.

TIS: Is that something you guys would possibly do again or has it run its course?

AM: I think it’s run it’s course. After hanging around comedians for a while, I’ve learned how to be more at ease on stage. 

TIS: Right on. Was it a conscious decision to go the synth, wurlitzer direction on your most recent album @#%&*! Smilers, or did it happen organically?

AM: It happened in rehearsals. The keyboard player started playing these great sounds and it really struck a chord in me, especially because I was playing acoustic guitar, and the drummer had such an organic sound. It was really cool to hear a sort of organic, woody sound together with these almost old school synthesized sounds.

TIS: So would it be fair to say that’s how all of your albums evolve as you’re writing them?

AM: I think sonically, that’s how this one happened, in rehearsals. The songs are just the songs, and they probably cluster around a certain vibe, but it’s certainly not deliberate or an intentional stylistic vibe. I think stylistically, my writing has firm roots in 1969-1972.

TIS: Yeah, I hear that. What’s your set list like on this tour?

AM: I always like to play stuff from every album, probably not too much off the first one though. I’m currently writing a musical, so I’m playing three new songs from that in the set.

TIS: Great. Are you at liberty to talk about the musical?

AM: Well what I’m finding out, as well as being told, is that it’s a long process. The musical is based on my record The Forgotten Arm, which I’m writing new songs for. I like musicals, but I like really old fashioned musicals the most. The ones where the songs are generated from the story. A concept album is more vaguely alluding to characters, and emotional circumstances, rather than specific events, so I started writing new songs. I’m writing them with Paul Bryan who produced my last record and I’ve worked with for many years. We just starting writing together and it’s been amazingly fast, easy and fun.

TIS: Well I was going to ask if you had any ideas for, or were currently working on a new album, but the musical is the priority right now?

AM: Yeah, we’re pretty focused on it. We’re working with a book writer and sort of have a rough draft, but I think we may honestly just start all over again with the book writing process. We already have a bunch of new songs written for this. I think when I get home though, I’m really going to start looking at the songs I have for the new record, which there are already a handful of, so I’m not too worried about it. I’ll probably start recording sometime in January.

TIS: I know you’ve since made peace with ICE-T regarding the minor Twitter feud the two of you had, but were you nervous in that short time that you were going to get New Jack Hustled?

AM: Um, I don’t know what that means, but really what I did was very dumb. Here was the process for me; When I twitter, I think that nobody is paying attention and that nobody cares, especially what my opinion about Ice-T or Law and Order is. Well, shortly after that Twitter, someone texted me saying Ice-T was mad at me. As soon as I got that text, my initial thought was oh man, I hurt somebody’s feelings.

You know, sometimes you say something super critical about somebody and then they catch wind of it and you immediately know you’ve made a mistake. I really didn’t think about the fact that that would ever get back to him. It was the kind of thing I would to say to my friends, because they’re my friends. I didn’t want to get involved in reading what he wrote about me, and I told people not to tell me, because that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had hurt somebody’s feelings, and that’s why I apologized. It wasn’t cool of me, and it’s not cool to hurt peoples feelings, even over the internet.

People easily forget, as I did, that there is someone else on the other end of that communication, whether it’s by computer or cell phone etc. I just didn’t think that many people were following me, or would even care, but it’s easy to forget because when you’re on the internet, it’s as if you’re talking to no one. So we all need to be careful about hurting people’s feelings, because it’s not cool.

TIS: Agreed. And just so you know for future reference, New Jack Hustler was the name of one of Ice-T’s old songs from a movie he did called New Jack City.

AM: Yeah, I’m going to assume that being New Jack Hustled is a painful and unpleasant experience, one that you probably wouldn’t want to have.

TIS: I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Thanks much for your time.

AM: And thank you.

Visit Aimee Mann Online Here!

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.
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