Aimee Mann Chats About Charmer And The Perils Of Making Music When No One Wants To Buy Any
I’ve had a soft spot for Aimee Mann ever since I was a wee nerd. It might have something to do with the fact that “Voices Carry” was one of the first 45’s I ever owned (alongside Olivia Newton-John’s “Heart Attack”) or it might simply be because Aimee Mann has consistently written great songs. And for those of us who tend to be glass-half-empty kinds of folks, few other songwriters have been able to give voice to the quiet despair and habitual disappointment of the world’s oddball wallflowers better than Mann. Her new record, Charmer, is arguably the most upbeat thing she’s done since … well, maybe ever. The stark acoustics of previous records have been all but ditched in favor of bubbly synths and singalong-worthy choruses. Still, this is an Aimee Mann record, so listeners may rest assured that plenty of perfectly phrased bon mots abound and there’s still a healthy dose of cynical good humor to give all the peppiness a healthy edge. Not surprisingly, Aimee is a pleasure to talk to.
Stereogum: I didn’t realize there was such a gap in between the last studio record and this one. It’s been more than four years since @#%&*! Smilers came out.
Mann: Yeah, I didn’t really realize either, and I feel kind of idiotic — what was I doing during that whole time?
Stereogum: Well, what were you doing that whole time?
Mann: I think I took a year off where I was working on a musical. We were working with a specific writer, and it really didn’t work out. It’s not that the project got scrapped — we have a whole different writer now — but we’re kind of starting from square one. Me and Paul Bryan, the producer of Charmer, we wrote a bunch of new songs for the musical. So it’s not like the time was totally wasted, but you like to feel like you’re producing something that’s also moving your life along. I think that part of it was because the music business has changed so much and the industry is so weird and people listen to music in an entirely different way, and they acquire music in an entirely different way — it’s hard to know where to get your motivation from to make a record. I felt like, you know, I’m interested in a lot of different things, and I can always work on those things instead. In some ways music has become this thing that people don’t really value, or take seriously, or listen to in any way that they derive much meaning from it. If you’re not really willing to pay for something, it’s hard to not conclude that people don’t value it. Other musicians I know are struggling with it. When no one sells any records it’s hard to feel like anybody cares. If you feel like nobody cares, then you just feel like, “Am I doing this just for my own ego, just to have a record out?” And I’ve put out a lot of records, and I’m sort of older, so I don’t really have that thing of, I’ve gotta prove to the world that I’m great, I’ve gotta get out there and show the world what I can do! So it just put me in a funny place, like if I’m gonna spend all this money making a record, isn’t that just the biggest vanity project ever if it’s not something that other people want to actually have or buy? I think even though artists don’t make art for money, feeling that there’s an audience and that you can make a living at it is a destination that, without it, you do get lost. So that was sort of part of it. It’s a strange thing.
Stereogum: It’s interesting. I’ve had that conversation a lot lately with musicians of all different ages and genres. If there’s a good thing to come of that collapse of the previous system — of people being stuck in the traditional album/touring cycle — perhaps it’s that it forces people to ask themselves important questions. Like, “Why am I doing this?” and “What are my realistic expectations for what I’m getting out of it?”
Mann: Yeah, and I think that my worry is that it kind of leaves … who really succeeds? People who are really good at self-promotion, I guess. Self-promotion is an art form. If you’re really great at self-promotion and have a Twitter presence that’s really great and interesting, that becomes your job, that’s sort of what you’re best at. And there’s a lot of musicians I know who are very quiet, they have a tough time being on tour or playing live sometimes, and are more reclusive, introverted writers. And I just think those people are going to get eaten alive. I don’t even know how those people could survive because without labels that do that stuff for you … I guess it’s not like major labels are any better. I just feel bad because there are so many great bands. It’s great to talk about that romantic notion of, “We’ll just go and tour and sleep in the van and eat scraps out of a toaster for art!” but it’s fucking hard to tour like that.
Stereogum: I always say that people who romanticize that idea have, in all likelihood, probably never done it.
Mann: It’s like being homeless. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. I’ve done some of that — not sleeping-in-a-van level — but the Motel 6 where you share a room with your band members and hookers knock on the door in the middle of the night because they think their john is in your room. It’s extremely stressful and it’s unhealthy. There’s nothing that’s arty about it, nothing conducive to writing and being an artist. And when you work that way over a period of years, it wears on you. It’s not romantic, for sure.
Stereogum: So what was the impetus to make another record?
Mann: It’s probably as simple as, “Well, this is what I do, so I should just do it.” You have to take a leap of faith. I haven’t really answered the question of why, not even for myself. If you are a singer-songwriter, you write and record a record and have to have some amount of faith that you’re not gonna completely starve. For me it’s just you put one foot in front of the other and see what happens. There’s always something that comes out of the woodwork, some interesting thing, and maybe it’s a real left turn and maybe it’s not. You do what you can do. And for now I can still afford to make records. You know maybe there’ll be a time when I can’t and then, I’ll just do what I can. And I can’t worry about the time when maybe I can’t do it.
Stereogum: Where was the bulk of this record made? Do you have your own studio to work out of?
Mann: No, the engineer, Ryan Freeland, has a studio, so most of it was recorded in that studio. And my producer has a little studio at home, so we did some stuff there, too.
Stereogum: Have you found that the process by which you make songs has changed over the years?
Mann: The way I make records is that I’ve become more interested in recording a band mostly live in the studio and getting that kind of inexplicable thing that happens when great musicians play together well. But that could change, and sometimes you’re in a different mood to just put it together bit by bit. But for the last few records I’ve gotten more interested in getting most of the tracks done at the same time.
Stereogum: Do your songs tend to change much during the recording process or do you usually go in with the pretty finished material?
Mann: The song itself is pretty much done. I don’t necessarily hear all the instruments in my head, I’m not one of those people, so sometimes getting the right vibe arrangement-wise is a little hit-or-miss. There were probably two or three songs that we re-recorded from drums up because they just weren’t working. And one of my big failings as a musician is being able to know exactly when I don’t like something, [but not] what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it. Sometimes I’ll play other songs as references and try to figure out what that song is doing that makes it sound like the kind of thing I want, but it’s trial and error sometimes.
Stereogum: How long was the process? How long did you record?
Mann: Not that long, really. I think the basic tracks were like a week. We did 14 songs, but then there were the two songs that we totally re-recorded in Paul Bryan, the producer’s, room. We brought the keyboard player back in and the three of us brainstormed some stuff. That was another week of doing that.
Stereogum: I love “Living A Lie” — the song that you do with James Mercer.
Mann: He’s really so great, just impossibly decent as a person.
Stereogum: Had you guys known each other for a long time?
Mann: No, I mean really that was the most time we’d spent together. I just kind of contacted him out of the blue and crossed my fingers and hoped he had some kind of interest in doing this, and it’s nice because I think when you commit to somebody else’s project you have no idea how it’s going to sound, and he was very game.
Stereogum: I also love the song that you did with Ben Gibbard for his forthcoming solo record.
Mann: Yeah, Ben is terrific. I love his voice and I love his sense of melody. I think he’s a really great writer.
Stereogum: You guys actually recorded that at my friend’s studio, Aaron Espinoza, whom I’ve known for many, many years. He and his wife are close friends of mine.
Mann: He’s in the band Earlimart, yeah? I don’t know much of their stuff, but what I do know I really like.
Stereogum: You will be touring in the fall, yes? What will that tour look like? Are you bringing out a bunch of people with you?
Mann: Yeah, I have a full band. There are two keyboard players, but one plays guitar. Me and bass and drums and two keyboard/guitar players, so yeah it’s a big band compared to what I’ve been touring with because I’ve been doing semi-acoustic shows.
Stereogum: Is it easier if you have a full band with you? Does it feel less exposed than being out by yourself?
Mann: I think for me it’s easier when I have a smaller band, but you definitely miss having the full-band experience and playing with a drummer and getting to hear the songs fleshed out. I think especially for the first tour of a new record, it’s really nice to present the songs more or less as they’re arranged on the record.
Stereogum: We were just talking about the pains of touring. In general do you enjoy it?
Mann: I do enjoy it, but I want to stress that I don’t have to do that sleeping-18-to-a-bed thing anymore. I try to keep it more civilized. Everybody I tour with makes an effort to keep it more civilized. It’s really the only way to get through it. When there’s a lot of chaos and people are going crazy, people devolve very quickly. I think I’ve just learned over the years what works and doesn’t work so I can structure it. We rarely go out for more than three weeks at a time, because three weeks on the road is a really long time, and people start to get exhausted after that. We’ll go out for three weeks, and come back and take a week, and then do the East Coast run. That’s when Ted Leo is touring with us.
Stereogum: He’s one of the nicest dudes in the world.
Mann: He is the greatest person, and really, really funny.
Stereogum: At this point, I feel like you’ve done so many kinds of things to help dispel the notion that people may have of you just based on your songs. Do you have the feeling that people expect you to be this hyper-serious, melancholy person?
Mann: Yeah, well it’s hard to not imagine that … when I hear people’s songs and they’re really serious, it’s hard to not feel like I know the “real” person. Just the act of songwriting or hearing thoughts put to music make it feel like it’s a view into someone’s subconscious. I totally get that. In a way it’s true. But I think I’ve done enough goofy stuff, like being on Portlandia, so maybe people have an idea that I’m not super serious all the time.
Stereogum: Aside from touring, what will the rest of this year be like? Will you be working on the musical as well?
Mann: Well the book writer has to kind of finish his draft and we’ll talk about what songs go where and write new songs, so that’s kind of out of my hands for the time being. I’m doing a movie at the end of August. That will be for three weeks. It’s gonna be this little indie movie. Joe Henry is going to be in it, his brother wrote the screenplay, and it’s going to be shot in Louisville, Kentucky. Loudon Wainwright and John Doe are going to be in it. I have no idea what I’m doing.
Stereogum: Is it super dramatic? Will you have to cry or scream?
Mann: No! Or I never would have taken it. I think there’s a small chance I can get by and have it look like I know what I’m sort of doing. It’s based on a This American Life piece where someone put together a band for a day and put them together in a studio to see what it’s like.
Stereogum: I did a cameo in a feature film earlier this year. It was sort of fun, but also much more nerve-wracking than I could have predicted.
Mann: It’s hair raising! I mean as soon as the camera is on, you realize as soon as you start acting you’re like, “Oh my God listen to me, this is the phoniest acting I’ve ever heard in my life.” And then you’re all act-y and it’s terrible.
Stereogum: It’s amazing to watch people work. I didn’t even have to speak, I just had to pretend to serve a drink, but the first time I did it, I spilled the fake drink and we had to start over.
Mann: Oh yeah, because as soon as you’re self-conscious in any way, it just ruins it all. And how can you not be self-conscious? I think actors have to be crazy in a way.
Stereogum: Well it sounds like it’ll be fun with all those people together in the same place.
Mann: Yes, and Joe is super sweet. John Doe I know a little bit, he seems like a nice guy. I’ve met Loudon and I don’t really know him, but Joe is a really decent guy, so I’m looking forward to spending time with him. We’ll see. I could ruin the whole thing!
Aimee Mann’s Charmer is out now on SuperEgo Records.