Aimee Mann (©Sheryl Nields)
A canny, crafty singer-songwriter revisits her '80s pop roots in search of pathos and punch lines
By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
While Aimee Mann first gained notice with her '80s band 'Til Tuesday, it seemed much of her solo career was spent getting away from it. She adopted a sparser sound, garnering Grammy and Oscar nominations for "Save Me," from the film "Magnolia." Throughout it all, though, her lyrics dealt with life's big questions, which she tackles again on "Charmer."
Releasing on Sept. 18, the new solo set marks a conscious return to an earlier pop sound, but with no compromise on lyrics. She sings of narcissists and dysfunctional relationships, winners and losers. She has run her own music label for more than a decade, allowing herself total artistic freedom and fun side projects such as her appearance as herself on "Portlandia," in which she was reduced to cleaning houses because of the wreckage of the music industry.
MSN Music: You're a big comedy fan. I'm finding the catharsis I need these days in comedy when I used to get it primarily from music.
Aimee Mann: I just think there are certain kinds of people who use the language in a very particular way. ... I'm fascinated by the ability to construct a joke. Changing the word order can make something not funny. It's interesting to me because I think there are patterns in it that are very hard to me to discern because that's not my gig. ... I also find that being around comics a lot, their minds are always working. Kind of gathering material like a writer does in a slightly different way. Somebody says something or a topic is introduced and you can see them turning it around in their mind, turning it upside down, picking it apart and pushing it out, seeing what fun they can have with it. That's really interesting.
Both songwriting and comedy make people think about things in ways they hadn't before. In comedy, people think it's all improvised, but as you say, it has to be as intricately performed as song lyrics are or it'll come off wrong.
Exactly. Exactly. That's why I thought about that recent controversy about Daniel Tosh where people were talking about rape jokes or whether rape jokes can be funny or whatever, but the skill of a comic is to make you laugh at things that sometimes are really offensive. But it really takes a lot of skill. Obviously rape is not inherently funny at all. But most topics are not inherently funny at all. Look at the play "The Book of Mormon," which has a lot of very offensive, uncomfortable language and topics. The skill of that play is making you feel all right about laughing at certain things. They do that in a variety of different ways. The end result is you really have to know what you're doing. Certain topics are sensitive enough that you'd better leave them to the experts. Especially if you're really not on top of your game.
"Charmer" examines the balance between charm and manipulation. With the elections coming up, it seems timely.
When I'm talking about charm, probably what that is is narcissism. Narcissists are really fascinating because they're very attuned as to how things appear. And when you're very attuned to how things appear, you become an expert in appearing to be a certain way. Part of that appearing is appearing not to care that much about how you come across. It's fascinating ... if you're somebody who really cares about how things work, you're really going to become an expert in that. And you're going to be very good at it. It's effective, because a lot of charm is based on appearing to be really interested in the other person. It's very flattering. It's how humans interact. They pay attention to each other. And that's nice.
It makes a case for how pervasive narcissism is these days and through history, whether it's running for office or people who will scream on camera to be part of reality TV.
Reality TV has a lot to do with this. That kind of narcissism is becoming more applauded and more celebrated. You're really rewarded for ... promoting yourself. "I should win this because I'm the greatest. I'm clearly the best one for this job" or whatever. That's kind of seen as a plus. That's a very American thing, too, to promote yourself, to brand yourself as a thing that I guess is acceptable. ... Then when you brand yourself, you've become a thing rather than a person. You've become the sum of your appearance rather than having any inner life. Or even knowing that there is an inner life. People really get into psychological trouble when they don't understand that life & is not a series of stories and anecdotes or opinions or shtick & that there's such a thing as an inner self or a real self. People think they are -- "My opinion IS me!" -- and if you don't agree [that] you're a person who's bad and wrong.
Your recordings a decade ago were sparse; the last two are more upbeat and lush.
This record I wanted to make more of a pop record, modeled on a late '70s/early '80s sound, post-disco, just when synthesizers were hitting the scene and people were trying to figure out how to incorporate them into a rock band. To me that's a funny and interesting time, with Blondie's "Parallel Lines" and a little later the Cars and Split Enz, bands like that. [Editor's note: The Cars' hit debut was released three months before "Parallel Lines."] That was kind of our production inspiration.
The theme of balance of power in a relationship has been with you your whole career, from "Voices Carry" to the new song "Labrador."
It's not a thing that just goes away. ... Relationships of any kind are difficult. You bring your own issues into it and you don't even know you're doing it. Sometimes it takes people a long time or a lot of repetition to figure out what they want. "Labrador" is a perfect example. The narrator is a guy who clearly knows what the dynamic of the relationship is but just kept coming back. Often that's what has to happen. Some people just have to learn it when you learn it. Sometimes you have to have the same kind of relationship over and over again or stay in a relationship and make the same mistakes over and over again. ... You learn a little something each time and you can make a move.
Yeah. The interesting thing for me is to write about that exact moment when this person says, "I gotta get out of here. I have to make a move." And it's very sad! That's why people don't wanna do it.
Where are you as an artist in being able to do exactly what you want?
I am making the sort of records I want to make. There's money constraints. It's not like somebody's funding them. So far, so good. I'm able to sell enough to be able to pay for the next one and make a living. Who knows how long that'll continue? It's very, very iffy for every artist out here these days ... even if I did want to pander to the marketplace, what is that anymore? That's off the table. I guess there's music that still sells that's very, very pop and dance-oriented. I'm not interested in that. I don't know how to do it. That's so far out of my wheelhouse it's not even up for consideration. ... There's not a place to have a hit as a singer-songwriter. Even somebody like Taylor Swift, she does makeup commercials and clothing ... it's very intertwined with the music.
Your appearance on "Portlandia" was a riot. Do you plan any more excursions that way?
I'm gonna be in this little indie movie that Joe Henry is doing the music for. He's gonna be in it, Loudon Wainwright is gonna be in it, John Doe is gonna be in it. That should be interesting. ... It's important to say yes to stuff even if it's not the thing you do. You never know what'll happen.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.