veronica slaght interviews acclaimed singer-songwriter Aimee Mann …
On Aimee Mann’s Twitter page, she describes herself as “Oscar loser, singer/songwriter, wanna-be musical writer.”
Of course, anyone else would boast about being “Oscar-nominated.” But it’s not surprising that Mann takes a wry, self-deprecating view of her almost-win. The L.A.-based musician’s ability to see the world from different points of view comes across in her songs — many of which are written from the perspectives of lonely, regretful characters — and it has helped her become one of the most admired singer-songwriters of our time.
Aimee Mann — who opens her 2011 tour at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen, N.J., on April 8 — is also known for her haunting, low voice; memorable melodies; independent recording (she founded her own label, SuperEgo Records) and frank lyrics (such as, “Come on and save me from the ranks of the freaks who could never love anyone”). She is currently working on a musical AND a new album.
If you aren’t familiar with her stuff, “Save Me” is a good place to start. It’s one of the songs she wrote for the 1999 critically acclaimed film Magnolia — and it earned her the aforementioned Oscar nomination for Best Song, which she lost to Phil Collins. Not only did Magnolia feature Mann’s songs, but it was actually inspired by her work. Two other great songs by Mann are “Lost In Space” from the eponymous album, and “31 Today” from her latest record, @#%&*! Smilers.
Pop-Break’s Veronica Slaght spoke with Mann on the phone last week about the upcoming tour, why she wears men’s clothing on stage, her interest in show tunes and more …
Pop-Break: So I’m the kind of person who listens to a lot of music but has no idea what the musicians look like, or what’s going on in their personal lives, like if they’re pregnant or anything …
Aimee Mann: [laughs]
PB: So, even though I’ve been listening to you since I was, like, 15 — when Magnolia came out — I didn’t see video of you performing until recently, thanks to YouTube. I noticed you often wear a suit jacket and tie on stage, which is very androgynous and hip. I was wondering if that’s become like your uniform for performances?
AM: I think it’s just a really easy look to put together. I mean, it’s so easy for guys. All they have to do is match the tie to the shirt and jacket. It’s hard to find something that works on stage for women. You know, you have a guitar strap, and then the sort-of belt pack thing, and then your back pocket for the monitor. … So that’s the solution I came up with.
PB: Speaking of me listening to you, I’m sure it’s obvious from my voice, I’m only 26. And I was listening to the Magnolia soundtrack when I was 15. So, what music were you listening to when you were in high school? Do you remember any particular favorites?
AM: It’s interesting because … it felt like there weren’t that many choices out there. What you heard was word of mouth; someone might come over with a record and play it for you. There was a pop radio station, and then an FM radio station that played more underground stuff. But now it seems like there’s just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bands, because anyone who is making music at all, even if they’re not really playing it live or they don’t have a record, they’re out there. It’s hard to sort through it all, I think. When I was in high school … it was partially stuff like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and, you know, like the classic singer-songwriters. Then later on, when I first heard new wave and punk, I was like, “Wow, this is totally different.” And that was really exciting … the first Talking Heads record, or Elvis Costello. It was really exciting because it seemed like it was totally unlike anything that I had heard before. It had the feeling of: “I discovered this.” Music just wasn’t that much in the culture then, like obviously everybody knew who Bob Dylan was, but it … wasn’t all around. Like, when you went to restaurants you wouldn’t necessarily hear music. And now, it’s like there’s music played everywhere, even in gas stations. It’s such a weird thing, it’s almost like you can’t get away from it.
PB: And it is very overwhelming, especially because you hear about so many bands or artists, it’s hard to sort through them. Actually, one of my favorite ways of learning about new music is WXPN 88.5-FM, public radio out of Philadelphia. Have you heard of it?
AM: Yeah, I’ve played there. I should just find them, listen to them on the web or something.
PB: Yeah, they’re phenomenal. They do a really great job of selecting interesting new music and mixing it with classic stuff. Anyway, they played your song, “31 Today,” a lot a couple of years ago. It got me thinking about how your music really captures the sadness of the everyday, and especially with a lot of these really difficult, struggling characters, but it’s not depressing, partially because of your melodies, I think. And it can even be reassuring to the listener. I’m just wondering how it feels to share such intimate songs with the world; whether it makes you feel vulnerable, or whether it’s liberating. I just I can’t imagine having so many people hear what I write.
AM: It’s interesting because you don’t think about other people hearing it when you’re doing it. And sometimes, if I’m writing a song and I know it’s really personal, because, you know, sometimes songs sound personal but they’re not, it’s like I’m sort of trying to get into someone else’s head. But sometimes songs are about me, and I do have these moments, where I’m like, “Oh man, I don’t know if I want to have people hear this.” And usually what I say to myself is, “You know what, just finish it. You don’t have to play it for anybody. See how you feel later.” And usually by the time it’s finished or performed, I feel like, in a way, it’s just another song. Once it’s written, it’s not really personal because you’re not in that state of mind anymore. It’s not really about you anymore. So, I don’t know, it’s best not to think about it. If I thought, so I’m writing this really personal song, and some weird guy who’s waiting outside the door in the alley at the club, you know he’s going to be listening to it, sitting in his underwear with his headphones on, he’s going to be listening to it. If you start having those kind of pictures, I don’t think you’d ever finish anything.
PB: So, I remember when I bought your 2002 album Lost In Space, I was a little too young to appreciate it. But it’s become one of those music staples that’s just stuck with me; it’s such a complete work. I was wondering, do you have the problem where after you create an album, you can’t listen to it anymore?
AM: It’s not that I can’t listen to it. I just don’t. I don’t know what the occasion would be where I’d put on my own record. I mean, maybe the occasion of: I’m gonna play this one live and I can’t remember if the verse or the bridge is this chord or that chord, maybe I’d listen to it then. Or you know if I’m you know I’m doing an in-store at a record store, which is increasingly unlikely because there are no record stores anymore, I might hear it playing on the speakers or whatever, but I don’t seek it out or anything. However, when by chance it does happen, I usually think it’s pretty good. Because sounds like somebody else, I’m not so close to it, it usually doesn’t sound like me anymore, I like it better.
PB: So, what kind of stuff have you been listening to recently?
AM: Because I was working on this musical [based on her 2005 concept album about a boxer called The Forgotten Arm], I’ve tried to listen to more show tunes and stuff from musicals.
PB: Is that a new thing for you? Have you had an interest in that before? Or has this kind of been culture shock for you?
AM: I really liked them when I was in high school — I was in musicals when I was in high school — you know it’s been really fun. Because, really good musical songs are really well done. There’s so much skill that goes into them. And the best of the lyric writers are so good, that it’s actually really inspiring.
PB: Who are some of the musical theater writers you admire?
AM: I think the songs from Guys And Dolls, like “Luck Be A Lady.” It’s such a great song — kind of jazzy, really interesting musical moments, chord changes, melodic changes. And the words are sort of clever and funny, but they also keep to the metaphors of the entire play — all the sort of gambling metaphors, and the relationships between men and women, the guys and dolls, about how people will change when they’re in relationships with each other.
PB: I guess as an artist it must be interesting to work within those creative restrictions, to sort of see what you can come up with.
AM: Exactly. It’s more interesting and more fun when you have a job to do. It has to be in this character’s voice: How would this character talk? What would this character want to say? How does he want to say it? It makes things really interesting.
PB: Any idea when people can expect to see this musical?
AM: That will take forever. We were working with a writer, but it didn’t work out, so it’s kind of on ice right now. So, now I’m into writing songs for a new record. With any luck it’ll be out in a year, but, you know, everything takes forever, and apparently musicals take seven times forever.
PB: (laughs) So, In terms of this tour, what can people expect to hear? Any new stuff? Some of your older work?
AM: I’ll probably play a couple of songs from the musical. I’ll probably play some songs from whatever the new record turns out to be. There’ll be songs from each of the records. We’re playing as a trio, so the arrangements will be different. It’s actually my favorite kind of show to play, because it’s a lot more intimate. It’s more about the musicians on stage playing together, rather than a band just chugging along.
PB: Okay, very cool. If I’m allowed to ask you a silly question …
PB: I’m not sure what your husband’s (Michael Penn) relationship with his brother (Sean Penn) is like, but I was wondering if, like, you’ve been on a double date with Sean and Scarlett Johansson, or if that’s at all part of your world?
AM: [laughs] Oh my God, that would be so hilarious. No. That has not even been officially acknowledged yet. But I read TMZ, so I believe everything they say. It’s probably more accurate than getting information from Sean.
Aimee Mann will play Friday, April 8 in the beautiful, recently restored Forum Theatre at 314 Main Street, Metuchen, N.J. The show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets and information about the venue, visit www.forumtheatrearts.org. To learn more about Mann, check out www.aimeemann.com. Her Twitter feed is www.twitter.com/aimeemann.