Aimee Mann is a serious artist. But that doesn't mean she takes herself too seriously. The evidence is overwhelming. On her Twitter page, she describes herself as "Oscar Loser" (which, of course refers to her close call with Academy Award glory for her music composed for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia). She poked fun at herself by recently appearing as herself on the hit indie TV series Portlandia. She frequently has comedians open for her on tour. The name of her self-owned label is SuperEgo. And she titled her last album @#%&*! Smilers.
Despite her affinity for self-deprecation, she's taken seriously by fans and critics alike, who consider her to be one of the best songwriters on the planet. NPR has called her "one of the top 10 living songwriters along with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen," and The New York Times has called her "One of the finest songwriters of her generation." Her masterful melodies, intelligent lyrics and refined song craft have won her legions of admirers, including President Obama and the First Lady, for whom she performed last year at the White House as part of a poetry event.
Mann has just released a long-awaited new album called Charmer, on which she has some fun with new wave sounds of the '70s and '80s as well as with special guests including comedian Tim Heidecker and James Mercer from The Shins. It's another collection of impeccable writing from one of today's leading ladies of song. While on tour recently, Mann spoke to Playback about pop, process and playing for the Prez.
You've thrived through several phases of the music industry, and are now someone who can release a record when you're ready on your own label. How does that affect your creative process?
It makes you more creative, because you don't have to look over your shoulder to make sure people are approving what you're doing or not. Anytime there is hounding to make a record, there's hounding to make a certain type of record, and hounding to make a record with certain people. Then you enter the constant negotiation of how to get these people off your back, so that you can do your best work. It's really hard, because if you're using your brain to figure out how to get people away from you, the creative side of your brain is inaccessible.
What were your goals for this record?
I wanted to make a pop record. That idea was refined into what my definition of pop is. I don't define it as the Katy Perry style pop of today. So I started of thinking about the pop music that I most respected and most enjoyed when I was younger. I thought of songs from era to era, from when I was a small kid. Music that my parents played, like Jimmy Webb songs, Glen Campbell songs. I listened to music from the '70s, Abba, and some other pop singles from Blondie's Parallel Lines.
So they served as musical inspiration?
These things served as a bit of influence while I was writing the record. I'm not a replicator; I can't listen to something and decide, "Let's do an exact version of that." It was music that I listened to a little bit and was thinking about, and I just kind of had these influences in my mind in a general way when I was working on writing. It is always through the filter of my style of writing and my style of recording.
Do you feel like you altered your writing lyrically, or tried to do something that perhaps you hadn't done before?
I don't know about that. I have one general rule: Always try to be good. It's usually more about saying what you mean. You want to say what you are intending to say. You want to create a certain vibe and tone. You want the craftsmanship of it to be good, tight and well constructed. You want the meter to be consistent, and the rhymes to be good. Those are all part of craftsmanship aspects that I'm always working on getting better at. I always think that your taste dictates your style. If your taste lies in a certain direction that doesn't require a lot of craftsmanship, then your bow will wash up on that shore eventually.
You live in L.A, which is sort of a crazy town itself, and we're living in this tempestuous political environment with all sorts of media drenching us all the time with stimuli. Do you get inspiration from those mainstream sources, or does it still come through personal relationships and people you know?
I have to have some kind of personal connection with something, even if it's seeing something out in the world, and it reminds me of something. I do have to relate it to myself, my own experience or those of people that I know. It allows me to put myself in their shoes and sort of think, "What must this be like for them?" It really has to interest me, otherwise you don't make it through the whole song, and you get bored and give up.
You're known for writing razor sharp lyrics. Have you ever written anything that you think doesn't sound like you or that doesn't fit into your "persona" that has developed over the years?
I don't really know what my persona would be. I don't know it that would be visible to anyone else. There are certain kinds of images that I tend not to use, and there are certain images that I tend to use. For instance, on this record, there is a song called "Labrador." That is not an expression that I would usually use, but I think that the character and in the circumstances that person would use that expression. I also felt like there was a naïveté. The line is "Let's shine in the time we have remaining." I felt like this person is coming from a place of open-hearted generosity and naïveté, and that's what they mean. Yet, that's such a subtle thing, I don't know if anyone would ever deem that as inconsistent.
Do you ever feel like you need to compete with your prior work?
No. Sometimes there are songs where you sit down and you write them entirely, and those are really great moments, and you feel great about those songs. That happens so infrequently. Then there are songs that you just have to hammer out, and you just have to work on it. It's work! You have to think of "What rhymes with moon?" You ask yourself, "Why can't every song be like the way I just sit down and it comes out?" But that's just the way it is. It doesn't really feel like competing. You can't will those moments of inspiration.
You've often had comedians open for you at your shows. On this record you actually co-wrote a song, "Soon Enough," with Tim Heidecker from the comedy duo Tim and Eric. How did that come about?
We're really good buddies. I'm very familiar with his musical stuff, and I go see him play with his band, Heidecker & Wood. At one point, when I was writing songs for the last record, a couple of years ago, I told him, "If you have any piece of music that you haven't turned into a song, send them to me." He sent me some stuff, and I came across it on my computer and thought, I know where I want that to go, I can turn that into something.
How does his seemingly bizarre sensibilities square with yours?
He's a really interesting guy; he really does have some amazing musical ideas. He enjoys the perversity of having musical ideas that keep taking strange little meandering turns. I'm a good editor, so it's easy for me to take an idea, cut out parts, repeat this, write a verse, and this will be the chorus. The hard thing for me is coming up with an idea out of nothing, and he's got a million of those.
How was your experience at the White House last year?
It was a two-part thing. The afternoon was spent with students, and then the evening featured all the poets and musicians performing for the President, the First Lady and selected guests. I didn't really prepare anything. It was more like a seminar where the poets would explain their creative process. That was fascinating to me.
"Soon Enough" by Aimee Mann featuring co-writer Tim Heidecker