Aimee Mann has been a constant on the music scene for many years. From her beginnings with her former band ‘Til Tuesday, she has carved out a long-lasting solo career, with nine albums to date. Her latest is the more stripped-back sounding ‘Mental Illness’. We caught up with Aimee the week before she released the album.
Hi Aimee. Thanks for talking to us today. Where abouts in the world are you at the moment?
I’m in Los Angeles.
Nice. Good weather there at the moment?
Oh yeah. Although you would expect that. But it has been raining ever since the election. It’s rained almost every day.
Congratulations on the new album. I’ve been listening to it all week, and it’s one of the best things you’ve released so far.
Thank you very much.
It’s out next week, so I’m guessing the last few weeks have been pretty crazy for you?
It’s been all doing interviews and going to rehearsals.
It’s been more than twenty years since ‘Whatever’ was released, and for me it still sounds as fresh as it did back then. Did you have any idea back then what an enduring album it would be?
No. Every time you put a record out you keep your fingers crossed, hope for the best and hope people like it. I knew I was excited about it. Part of that was working with Jon Brion, which is always very exciting, because he’s such a special unicorn in the studio, the guy who can play everything. He has such an excitement about music too.
And I guess because it was your first solo album that kind of added to the excitement?
Yeah, it had been kind of a while since I’d put out a record. Also I lived in London almost a year during that period, and that was really exciting too. That was all part of it for me.
The last song you had out on your own before ‘Mental Illness’ was ‘Can’t You Tell’ from Thirty Songs For Thirty Days. What made you want to get involved with that?
I’m friends with Dave Eggers, the writer who organised that idea. He sent me an email asking me if I wanted to be involved. It’s hard to know how to contribute sometimes, when there’s a cause you want to be part of. So I thought I could write a song, and maybe that could do something. I think every bit helps, and it helps to know that you’re not alone in opposing or supporting certain people, like the women’s march was very encouraging and involving so many people.
I take it you weren’t asked the play at the inaugurartion then?
Oh my God!
Maybe you could have played ‘Stupid Thing’.
Yeah, that would have been good.
The new album has a much sadder sound as a whole than anything you’ve had out before. Was that a conscious decision, or do you just write where the mood takes you?
I was in the mood to write something very acoustic, and stripped down, and introspective, and to not think about writing anything particularly uptempo or cheerful, or anything like that. ‘Charmer’ was more of a pop record for me, and then i had my project with Ted Leo, The Both, and he’s a real rock guitarist, and comes from a post-punk world. Any cravings for uptempo rock music had been satisfied for a while. I was ready to do something very late-Sunday-afternoon-ish. It’s what I like to do best. I’m naturally inclined to do introspective, melancholy songs.
With your lyrics, you usually tell a story within your songs. Are they based on real people, or personal experiences?
Sometimes the music suggests a story that isn’t neccesarilly connected with anything in the here and now, but that i can relate to. Sometimes I’ll start with something that’s based on real people or real events in my life, but it almost always starts to take a turn towards fictional, because that’s just the nature of song writing. Sometimes it’s the emotional story that’s more important, so it’s better told if you make up details or leave out certain things.
A lot of them seem to champion the underdog.
Yeah, the underdog, I never really thought of it that way, but I definitely have a soft spot for the underdog for sure.
There’s a lot in the media at the moment about talking more openly about mental illness. Was that part of your thinking when naming the album?
I think I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for people to talk about mental illness in a way that doesn’t stigmatise it, which is very encouraging. Certainly in the circles I travels in, especially in Los Angeles, no one hesitates to talk about medications they’re on or issues they’ve hasd, or going to therapy or other difficulties. So all that stuff is much more out in the open, so I’m glad to see that attitude is becoming more universal.
How did the title come about?
I was talking to a friend of mine and they asked what my new record was about, and I was being glib and said, it’s my usual topics about mental illness, and they were being glib, and said maybe you should call it ‘Mental Illness’, so I thought maybe I will. As soon as I heard it, I couldn’t call it anything else.
You’re going on tour with the album. Do you still find it scary playing new songs for the first time?
I really love playing new songs. I don’t want people to be bored listening to too many songs they don’t know. I’m aware when people go to a show, they want to hear so songs they’re familiar with, so i don’t want to overload them with brand new stuff. But having said that, I have just rehearsed a set that has six new songs, so we’ll see how that goes. If i feel like I’m losing people, I may have to chop out one or two.
Do you still enjoy playing the classics like ‘I Should Have Known’ and ‘That’s Just What You Are’?
I don’t play either of those songs, so I guess not. The funny thing is, sometimes the criteria for selecting what gets played is not really based on the songs as much as songs like ‘I Should Have Known’ has got a lot of chord changes that are just really hard to play on acoustic guitar, and acoustic guitar is what I’m usually playing.
Are the shows that you’re doing on this tour going to be more stripped back and acoustic to go with the sound of the album?
Yeah, a little bit. We do have bass drums and keyboards, but there’s no electric guitars, so we’ll keep it pretty simple.
What’s your favourite song from ‘Mental Illness’?
I think the song ‘Stuck In The Past’ is my favourite song. I can’t really tell you why. Probably because it’s a little waltz, and I always like waltzes.
Mine’s ‘You Never Loved Me.’
Oh good. Yeah, that track’s kind of brutal.
The whole concept of the album, from the videos, to the uber-cute cover seems really well thought out. When you think about what an album is going to be, is it more than just putting ten or twelve songs together in one place?
I do pretty early on start to have a vision of the feeling of it, and what the artwork might be and what the title might be, and how songs would work together as a collection.
A lot of what people listen to now is through streaming sites, and playlists. Is it still important for you have have an album out a a finished piece?
Yeah, I think it’s just more fun to me to think of it as awhile collection. It gives it focus. It makes it more interesting. It’s probably like when designers release a collection of clothes. People aren’t going to wear all the clothes. They’ll probably just buy one sweater or something, but it’s nice to see it like this, with a cohesive thread running through.
I take it you’re a cat person with the theme of the ‘Goose Snow Cone’ video?
They say you should never work with animals. How easy was it to film?
The song was inspired by the cat called Goose. Goose belongs to my friends Rob and Paloma, who direct and produce videos. So they were the directors and producers of the video. Paloma is in the video. The two of them were wrangling their own cat, so it was probably easier for them that it would be for other people. Having said that, it’s still not that easy to wrangle a cat. You wanted the cat to play, and it did not want to play. When you wanted the cat to sit quietly in a bed, it did not want to sit quietly.
I take it it was much easier to direct the hermit crabs in the ‘Patient Zero’ video?
Yes, they were much easier, and much more transportable .
Is it easier to write songs, living with another songwriter?
Yeah, that’s not really a problem at all. It’s actually much easier for me to write than it is him to write. He scores a lot of movies and TV. I think he agonises over songwriting more than I do. I have little tricks of the mind that I can use to bypass writer’s block. Sometimes it’s just saying to myself, I’m just going to write this, and I don’t have to play it to anyone, it doesn’t have to be an important thing. I don’t even have to finish it if I don’t want to. Just to keep writing, and to keep working, but it’s harder for him because he hasn’t put out a record in a while. It seems more important that the next song seems like it has to be perfect.
Would you ever write anything together?
I really like to write with other people. He doesn’t like it so much, so I think he would take a lot of persuading.
The new album is released on SuperEgo (Mann’s own label). What are the benefits of putting music out on your own?
I just get to control the whole process. I make all my own decisions, how many videos, what to spend on your videos, what the record sounds like, what the artwork is like, who does the artwork. I get to make all those decisions. I can’t imagine having to ask permition from anyone one about any of those decisions.
You started your career as part of a group. What made you want to revisit doing that with The Both? (Mann’s project with rock guitarist Ted Leo).
I think it’s really fun to be part of a group.I really like playing bass. I really like collaborating with people. I like having the shared experience of playing live, and being part of a band where you’re listening to the other person. You’re contributing to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. That’s very satisfying to me.
Was it a natural choice to have Ted come on the new album?
Yeah, he sings backing vocals on a couple of the songs. He didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much to do. There’s no electric guitar, so I couldn’t really have him play. But I’m looking forward to getting back to writing with him, and playing on the next Both record. We already have some ideas for it.
You’re style of writing is quite unique in regards to the lyrics. Do you get inspiration from any other artists, or is what we hear just pure Aimee?
I think I’ve been inspired by a lot of different artists. Liz Phair really inspired me. Elliot Smith is a real inspiration, Scott Miller from the Loud Family is a real inspiration. I was a big Elton John fan when I was a kid. I used to sing Jimmy Webb songs when I was a kid. Bid Dylan I was a big fan of, Bruce Springsteen. I think all of those writers were people that inspired me, or that I was influenced by in some way.
Probably the song you’re known for best is ‘Save Me’ from the Magnolia soundtrack. Did you ever think at the start of your career, that you could be an Oscar nominee?
No, that never occurred to me. I have to say, it never occurred to me. It’s just a series of accidents that lead to that.
What sort of advice would you give to someone at the start of their career to gain the kind of longevity that you’ve had?
I don’t know, because the music business is so different now. The trajectory of my career has not been even. But the music business has not been even, so I think it’s to adapt to today’s times. I think it requires someone to be more attuned to how things are done, or to the alternatives. You become fairly expert at something, then that all changes and goes away. It’s hard to keep up, so I barely know where things are now. The best advice is just to be good. Care more about doing good work than you do about being famous, or known, or making money. Because if you don’t care about being good, then other people aren’t going to either.
Thank you for talking to us. Good luck with the album, and the tour.
Thank you so much.