by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 20, 2012
10:52 AMBox Office
Q & A: Aimee Mann
Once in love with AIMEE MANN’s music, always in love with it—or so it seems for listeners who can’t get enough of the way she weds intricate yet accessible melodies with sometimes loving, sometimes lacerating, sometimes darkly comic lyrical observations. The good news: This spring, Mann, 51, will release her eighth solo album—her first since 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers—and you can catch a preview Jan. 20, when she performs at the Ridgefield Playhouse (203/438-5795; ridgefieldplayhouse.org) and Jan. 30, when she comes to Infinity Music Hall & Bistro (866/666-6306; infinityhall.com). The latter show will be filmed by CPTV for the "Infinity Hall Live" series.
Tell us about the new album you'll be releasing in the spring. I understand the central theme is "charm."
Well, it's not a theme that runs through every song, but it is something that I'm interested in and ended up writing a lot about. I'm definitely fascinated by people who are charming—of course, everyone loves them when they're attentive and funny and tell great stories. When you're watching each presidential candidate on the televised debates, you see a lot of charm on parade. You think, "Yeah, I can see how you got to this point." But after a while, it starts to get . . .you start to see cracks in the façade; it has a darker underside.
Then, of course, there's the type of charm that has a real dark underside, in which people use their charm to manipulate others. I find that particularly interesting.
In your opinion, who specifically exemplifies easy charm?
I'm assuming most people who come across really well on TV have it. When he was in the presidential race I was completely fascinated by Herman Cain, who's just wildly glib even in the midst of controversy—he acts like, "I'm just going to go along as if nothing's happening. Nope, there's no problem. I haven't set a foot wrong." It's amazing to me, and I think a lot goes into it . . . like maybe real denial, or the person's belief that he can bullshit anyone. To me, that's like the credo of the kind of charmer you have to keep an eye out for. They create a persona for a reason, then they kind of get trapped in it.
Will you have any special guests on this album?
There won't be a ton of outside guests; I'd rather assemble and feature a band that works well together. But I did a duet with James Mercer of The Shins on one song, and we had Sara Watkins come in and play violin on another track. I also wrote a song with a friend of mine, Tim Heidecker, who's part of the show on Adult Swim, "Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job." He's out of his mind. He's been obsessed with Herman Cain, too, and wrote nine parody songs that are almost like cheerleading songs—all together the result is called Cainthology: Songs in the Key of Cain, and it's available on iTunes, with proceeds going to charity.
He does a lot of musical parody. So we wrote a song together, because I think he's got a nice melodic sense.
One of the things that's always amazed me about your work is how easily you seem to hitch your lyrics to—and I kind of hate this word—melodies with great "hooks."
If something is catchy or hooky, it's pure luck. The way I write songs is I start with the music. I find that the music sets the mood, and gets you thinking, "What kind of story goes with this?" It's like word association. One of the new songs, about charm in its darker form, is about a murder; it's called "Swanee River." It's written from the point of view of the murdered person, who's found at the bottom of the Swanee. The tone of the music just sounded so creepy to me, that this is what it made me think of.
I think when you're in the mood of being open to the music, it's easier to have your brain relax and come up with words and images in a way that's much harder to do when you're just speaking. You need to be very self-possessed and unaffected by stress or anxiety in order to really formulate great sentences or paragraphs—I find that very difficult.
Getting back to the idea of "Swanee River" being about charm in its darker form: Would you say there are any lighter counterparts to that?
I never get that light, just because I'm me. The tone of the record—and maybe this is graded on a gloomy singer-songwriter scale—is very poppy. I wrote about half the songs on the album, or more than half, right after I got off my last tour, the idea being to create the kind of songs I'd want to create live.
Your early solo albums are very "first-person." More recently, it seems you've gotten away from that.
I do a lot of second-person writing—sometimes I switch back and forth between first and second person in the same song—because there's the personal take, and then you start talking about yourself from an observational point of view. And by using a second-person voice in writing about other people, you can express your ability to relate to what they're going through more easily.
I wanted to ask about your experience last May at the White House Poetry Night.
That was so great. I loved that day, and that night, so much. We were there all day, because there was a workshop and a poetry seminar for high school students from all around the country. And the poets all talked about their process; it was really genuinely inspiring and exciting to hear from Billy Collins in particular. I was like, "I'm very glad to be asked to this event, but I'm not exactly sure why I'm here. But if someone feels my lyrics are a kind of poetry, I'll go along with that." Playing in a situation like that is quite novel and different from playing in a situation where you're thinking, "I hope the monitors work" or wondering if there's a place for the bass player to plug in.
It's really exciting to see the White House think that art is important in a way that's not just . . . a thing you add on when everything else is in place. I admit I've thought of art and music in that way, as something "extra." I've started to think of it differently, as something that can be genuinely transformative in almost a religious way, that can have a real impact on your life—not just as a fun, pretty thing to distract you.
And obviously, it was a thrill to play for the Obamas. You could tell how genuinely excited Michelle Obama was to have us all there, and that was very sweet.
As I recall, there was a lot of silly negative hoopla about Common being there . . .
You can make something out of anything, twist the slimmest of facts into the grossest of distortions. He was heartfelt and inspired, and did this jazz-flavored rap about uplifting poor people. Of course, God forbid we try to uplift those less fortunate.
Is President Obama a fan?
I only had a couple of handshake moments with him. We all think of the president as being remote, on a pedestal. The feeling I get from himis that he's kind of a nerd, and probably a fan of things in that sort of way. He's got kind of a "Dad" vibe going, in the way you had to explain to your Dad who the Beatles were [laughs]. I'm just guessing about that, I don't know.
I understand you've been working on a musical based on your solo album The Forgotten Arm.
Someone had suggested I do that ages ago, and I was like, "eh, that sounds like a lot of work." Then, I was talking to my producer Paul Bryan, because I thought we could write some songs together. I wanted to write some new songs, because the kind of musicals I like are more traditional musicals, not rock musicals, and I wanted something to offset the rock aspect of the original album. I started going to musicals and taking notes. We had one book writer who didn't work out, but we have a new writer, David Henry Hwang [M. Butterfly, Chinglish], so we're creating a treatment and have a handful of newer songs that hopefully make sense in the context of the story.
Are you thinking this could be a Broadway show?
Actually, I've become very friendly with Oscar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, so the show would definitely go there.
What fascinates you about boxing?
I'd met this character, a non-recovering drug addict—my song "Freeway" is about him—who had done some boxing, and I got interested through him, because he casually taught me some basic moves. I wanted to learn it when I was a kid, but back then, women were barely allowed to play softball. So I started taking boxing lessons, then through a friend I started going to the Wild Card Boxing Club in L.A., which is Freddie Roach's gym—he's a very famous trainer, and he and I became good friends.
For me boxing is interesting because it teaches you to keep your head, regardless of what's going on. And you can't react defensively, in anger. You have to stick to your plan and wait for your move, duck so the punch goes past you. To learn to keep your head in a panicked, adrenalized state—to strategize when you're getting punched in the face—is an interesting discipline.
I did very little sparring, just enough to get a taste and see what it's about. There's very few people appropriate for me to spar with anyway. One gym I trained at had sparring class and I ended up sparring with guys who were 40 pounds heavier. It was kind of crazy.
One last thing I wanted to mention: You seems to have a great affection for comedy. You've done a number of comic turns yourself onscreen, particularly in "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and "Portlandia."
Ninety percent of my friends are comedians. It's a skill I really, really admire because of the wordplay involved. Comedy requires you to be articulate in a certain kind of way, to craft a joke that you make or break by the use of one perfect word. I'm really fascinated with what comedians do and how they do it; I think it's incredible.Q & A: Aimee Mann