Manning up

7.7.2009

By Noah Michelson

Aimee Mann had her first taste of fame in 1985 when her band, 'Til Tuesday, hit the Billboard Top 10 with their song 'Voices Carry.' Five years later Mann left the group to begin a solo career and since then she has released nine albums (including the soundtrack to the film Magnolia which scored her an Oscar nomination, a live album, and a Christmas record), the most recent of which is 2008's @#%&*! Smilers.

Over the last 18 years Mann has been signed to a major label, left to languish on said major label, gone indie, and secured a ferocious fan base that has already scooped up enough tickets to sell out much of her upcoming tour. Beloved for her uncanny ability to distill the anguish of lost love and the surprises and disappointments of everyday life into gorgeous, four minute melodic folk rock packages, Mann chatted with us about her saddest song, her new hobby painting the worst presidents in American history, and trying to nail her single speaking line on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Out: You're about to head back on the road again. How is this tour going to be different from other tours you've done?
Aimee Mann: The last tour was a full band tour specifically promoting my new record. I had two keyboard players and bass and drums and I played acoustic guitar, so the renditions of the songs were pretty faithful to the arrangements on the record. This tour is an acoustic tour -- well, semi-acoustic -- with a stripped down format: it's me and the two keyboard players. We haven't started rehearsing yet so I'm not really sure, but I think depending on the venue we're going to do an almost all request show. But, you know, there are some shows where you can't do that, so we'll have a set that we can do too. I'm trying to play a lot of songs that I don't usually play live, just to kind of change it up. We'll probably switch off instruments and each play everything. Obviously because they're keyboard players they do the lion's share of the keyboards but I'll probably play a little bit of piano and acoustic guitar and bass.

2005's The Forgotten Arm marked the first time you really started playing the piano. Why did you decide to move over to the keys?
I really just wanted to try writing songs with a different instrument in case that led to new ideas. Acoustic guitar I've played for so long and I'm not really a 'guitar player' guitar player -- I just play chords and I do find myself almost automatically playing the same kind of chord progressions, so, it was just an attempt to stay out of any rut and keep it interesting. And I like knowing I'm learning new things as a musician.

When I saw you play on the Lost In Space tour you mentioned that people were saying your song 'It's Not' is the saddest song you've ever written. That was over seven years ago -- do you feel like you've outdone yourself and come up with something even more tragic since then?
I think it's pretty tragic. I played it a little bit on the last tour and I think it could be the saddest song. It's a song where nothing bad has happened: it's not somebody saying, 'I'm sad because I broke up with someone' -- it's really about a deep inner ennui and this complete inability to move forward and not know why you can't move and not know why you're stuck. It's about not really knowing anything and having this sort of vague yearning that something could make you feel better, but also knowing that that won't work either. It's sort of like that in between where you're like, I want to change my life and not do the same things over and over, but I don't know what to do next.

It makes me think of '31 Today' off @#%&*! Smilers. I'm actually turning 31 next week and while I'm nowhere near feeling the depths of despair that the character in the song is feeling, there's something very close to home there. And that song reminds me of 'It's Not' as well -- something about that nauseating sense of This is not where I wanted to be and I don't have any clue how to get where I want to be.
Exactly. Exactly. And also I think with certain numbers -- I can't remember if I had this when I was 31 -- I probably had it more when I was 41 -- where you hit milestones of 30 or 40 and you're like, Meh. That wasn't so bad! I don't feel any different, and then you come to the next year and you realize that on some level you maybe thought you were going to go backwards, like, Oh, right -- people get older. I know we know this and it seems ridiculous but there are times when you just realize it: People get older and it's not going to be any different for me. I think that's part of becoming more mature -- realizing that there's this shared trauma in everybody's life that they have to face and help each other through.
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You're so good at mining that shared trauma but you yourself don't come across as morbidly depressed. Why are you so good at sad songs?
I think I have been really depressed. Depression and anxiety have been -- for most of my life -- things I've really struggled with. But it's a struggle that I feel like I've kind of won. That's the amazing good news: you can really sort of bust out of that stuff. But it literally has to be your top priority -- becoming better. And becoming a better person is also part of that because it doesn't happen if you just go, I want to feel better! I want to be happy! The goal has to be becoming a better person. And understanding that your happiness is part of becoming a better person and realizing that you're not somehow exempt from the good part of the lottery, either. You can't allow yourself to be a martyr to your own depression like, I'm so special and I'm depressed. You have to have compassion for yourself but you can't stay stuck in that martyr-y mindset.

Have you ever tried to force yourself to write a happy song?
I think I've deliberately sat down and tried to write songs about topics that didn't have any strong emotional resonance for me. And I think that was a response to the idea that there was a criticism about me that I wasn't happy enough. But I think that was early on and later I was like, Eh, I don't fucking care. A song like '31 Today' was not remotely written when I was feeling in that kind of mood. But I felt that the music felt like that -- that the piece of music that I had went with it. The first line that I had was 'drinking Guinness in the afternoon' and it made me think of a time when I was about 31 and that was sort of my life. I'd meet up with people and we'd start drinking and it was the afternoon. You're sleeping late and you're getting up and suddenly you're having breakfast and you're drinking! I wasn't even a big drinker -- that wasn't necessarily my thing, but you find yourself doing it and that's almost worse. So that's why I started thinking about that period of time.

Are there songs that you just can't bring yourself to play anymore?
I think that there are probably a couple of songs that I feel aren't very well written -- or overwritten probably.

Do you want to name any names?
It's funny because I have been listening to all this older stuff and trying to remember -- or at least try to figure out what the key of it was. I was thinking about the song 'Fifty Years After the Fair' ' it's too wildly overwritten. There's a tag and then a tag of the tag and then the end part of the chorus and then another chorus -- it feel likes too many sections.

It's incredibly indulgent but I love it.
It's like one chord change and now we're going over here and now we're going over there. [Laughs]

A few years ago on your message board one fan was asking a few others how he could get you to play 'Voices Carry.' And a couple of people responded, 'Don't ask her. She doesn't want to play it.' But you still do play it occasionally, so, you must not totally hate it?
I think it's OK. Lyrically it doesn't have a lot going for it. Sometimes my criteria for whether or not I enjoy playing a song has nothing to do with the song. Sometimes I realize, Oh, I've been playing this in the wrong key and I have to change the key because it's not fun to sing because it's not in a good place for my voice. So sometimes it's as simple as changing the key and I think 'Voices Carry''s lyrics aren't super great. I do play it sometimes and I think especially on an all request night [I'll do it]. I'm thinking of making a two song 'Til Tuesday limit. Presumably there's not going to be a lot of 'Til Tuesday requests, but you know what? I'm not going back and learning the catalog. There are three 'Til Tuesday songs that I'll know anyhow.

What are the chances of a 'Til Tuesday reunion?
I can't really picture it but I guess if I felt that millions were clamoring for such a thing? [Laughs] I don't think I'd completely object to it but I don't think I'd do a whole tour.
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What about the graphic novel you've been talking about writing. I know you said at one point you were practicing drawing by cartooning your friends' conversations.
Here's where I am: I did a lot of cartooning and I practiced drawing a lot -- enough to realize that it takes professional people who do this all the time and are really good at it years and years to do a book. So, that seems pretty daunting. And then I realized that my work ethic may not be up to those standards. [Laughs] But what I did start to do is that I started painting. Every few years I'll go, I want to paint! and I'll get out the paints and the easel and then start painting and go, Oh. This is really hard and then put it away again. But I started painting again and I realized that all the practice that I got from cartooning made it a lot easier. So I've been doing that and it's been super fun.

Are you going to have a big exhibition like Marilyn Manson did?
Is Marilyn Manson a painter?

Huge. They go for thousands of dollars.
That's awesome. Are they any good?

They're exactly what you'd think they'd be: creepy children missing limbs, stuff like that.
Oh my god. That's awesome. Really, what I'm painting right now is this project that came about by accident but I feel like it's fun practice for me. I have a friend who works at the White House, who's Deputy Assistant to Obama and he works on Joe Biden's campaign, and I visited him a few months ago and he had just moved into his new office and it has really high ceilings and gigantic empty walls. He had like, one photograph of Obama and I was kind of making fun of him saying, 'I really love your artwork. It really fills up that wall.' And he said, 'You do art. You should do a mural of the presidents.' He was like, 'Where's my portrait of Millard Fillmore?' and so kind of as a joke I thought, I'm going to paint him a portrait of Millard Fillmore, and then we were joking about this via email and it developed into 'How about the three worst presidents?' Three really dud presidents like Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan and whomever. And so I started painting and I wanted more to choose from because they were getting better as I went along so I thought, I'll do the 10 worst presidents.

I'm seeing a new line of tour T-shirts.
[Laughs] I have a couple more presidents left to go. I think I have eight of the worst ones.

Just for fun I ran one of your songs through the Genius function on iTunes to see who else would come up. I got everyone from the Velvet Underground to Beck to Fiona Apple to Simon and Garfunkel to Neko Case. Where do you think you fit into the musical landscape?
I think I feel like I'm pretty influenced by people like Neil Young -- that kind of post-post folk, melodic, acoustic guitar-y stuff with some sort of basic Beatles influence that no one can escape.

When you went out on your own it was the '90s and there was that whole 'Women In Music' rocker chick thing going on. Did you feel like a part of that? Do you feel like fit into a that club?
There are two ways to think of it. Back then, when I was on a major label, a lot of the conversations would be people at the label saying that they didn't know how to market my music and I'd go, 'Come on! Look at all these other women -- Liz Phair, etc. Surely it fits in with those people.' So I never thought it was so different. Of course you like to think you're different because you're an artist and all that but I guess I never thought I'm breaking any kind of new ground. There are a few artists every now and then that I'm very influenced by. When Liz Phair's first record came out I was very influenced by that. There was a band called the Loud Family -- Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things was a record that I listened to like a million times. I was very influenced by Scott Miller's songwriting. I was very influenced by Elliott Smith. To me it's really obvious -- I can hear myself being influenced by those people. And Fiona. I definitely had this moment when Fiona came out where I was like, Well, I can quit now! [Laughs] Like She's doing kind of what I would want to do -- but better.

You've done some acting -- you were in The Big Lebowski and a few other things. Do you want to do more?
When I do my Christmas shows I make these little videos that I show and just from doing that I got a little experience improvising with my comedian friends and I thought that was really fun. I think if it's a situation where I'm more or less playing myself and I can improvise a little bit, I'm up for it. As soon as I have to say something word for word then it just feels stiff and I die and don't know how to make it work.

I love that you were on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How did you get roped into that?
I guess somebody in the camp was a fan. I had actually never really watched the show and wasn't familiar with the whole phenomenon but everyone I know was like, 'Oh, you have to do it!' And I said, 'OK. I'll do it.'

Do you remember your big line?
I remember I said it like 20 times and it was really embarrassing that I couldn't get this one line natural. You always think, Acting is going to be easy! but for me it's really hard and I kept thinking, This is really not going across very well.

Especially when they have you saying, 'I hate playing in vampire towns.'
Right? It's hard to go, How would I say this in real life? [Laughs]

Aimee Mann is currently on tour. For a full list of tour dates and other info, check out her website.

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