In The Big Sleep, one of the most famous gumshoes in American literature is hired to figure out who is blackmailing a young woman named Carmen Sternwood. She might be embroiled in a pornography ring, or she might be deep in debt to a gambling ring. Without spoiling it for you, Carmen is not quite who she appears to be. She’s a puzzle that Philip Marlowe, along with the reader, must put together. But in a Raymond Chandler novel, who doesn’t have a few secrets?
Carmen has a brief walk-on role in “Patient Zero,” a standout on Aimee Mann’s new album, Mental Illness. I can’t quote the line here without giving away vital plot points, but Mann isn’t too concerned whether or not listeners get the reference. “People might be going, ‘Who is this person?'” she says. “But I’m an obsessive reader of Raymond Chandler. You know how if you’re really super into a book, you forget that other people haven’t read and might not know what you’re talking about.”
Mann may not write knottily plotted mysteries set in LA’s tarnished-glamour heyday, but she has a lot in common with her favorite writer. She has a blunt way with lyrics, deploying the fewest words possible to make the greatest impact. Her songs are full of abrupt revelations and strange twists that can flatten you emotionally. Just like Chandler, she’s unsentimentally sentimental: tough-skinned and hard-boiled, but nursing the wounds of seeing people at their worst and living in a world gone bad.
A showcase for her considerable craft and her knife-edge wit, Mental Illness is one of Mann’s sharpest albums of the century, a spiritual cousin to 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in terms of story and mood. But these songs sound more like Chapin than Chandler. After the crunchy power pop of 2012’s Charmer, Mann strips things down, settling these songs in acoustic arrangements that recall the heyday of the SoCal singer-songwriter, when acts like Bread and Loggins & Messina finger-picked epic soap-opera story-songs and somehow got them on the radio. They might have sold millions in the ’70s, but today they’re fodder for the dollar bin at your local record store. Her affection for these pop-cultural artifacts is not ironic, although she makes the most of the wry contrast between hard-hearted lyrics and easy-listening sounds.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the sound of this record. Is that something you were thinking about while you were writing these songs?
MANN: A couple of the songs were written a while ago, and when I started to think about a solo record, I was just coming off of my project with Ted Leo, which is a rock record. I was really in the mood to make a record that was as quiet and stripped down and bare bones as I could possibly manage. At that point I really did give myself permission to write. Because I write on acoustic guitar, my tendency is to write songs that are going to sound pretty acoustic. So I just really relaxed into that idea. I was writing softer, melancholy songs, which is the thing that comes easiest and is most fun for me. It’s not a deliberate thing. It’s more like: Do what you feel like doing. For other records, I try to make an effort to write a slightly different way, or I make an effort to have more uptempo songs and more rock songs, so that becomes a little bit more deliberate.
STEREOGUM: You’ve mentioned Dan Fogelberg as someone who served as a guide for this record.
MANN: Ted and I were listening to Bread on long drives while we were touring. I started listening to Bread, and then I started listening to the Bread station on Pandora. All this super-soft stuff started coming up. It was funny to me, but also charming. The first time around, when I was a kid listening to that music, I thought it was twee: too soft, not cool. Listening to it today, I realize the incredible musicianship and I love how those records sound. So that stuff did become an influence on this record.
STEREOGUM: I keep thinking there will be a Fogelberg revival, since you can buy his entire catalog on original vinyl for five or six bucks these days.
MANN: Oh, no kidding. I always get these guys confused. Is it Loggins & Messina who did that finger-picky song, “Danny’s Song”? [It was. -Ed] I can’t remember who did which things, but I feel like I’m on pretty safe ground citing them as an influence.
STEREOGUM: I thought of Fogelberg’s “Leader Of The Band” listening to this record. I think that’s finger-picked. I don’t usually mean that as a compliment, but in this case I do.
MANN: It all has its charm and appeal. You listen to Bread radio, and man, there’s some soft stuff. Do you know that song “Same Auld Lang Syne”? Was that Dan Fogelberg? [It was. -Ed]
STEREOGUM: I don’t know that song.
MANN: I didn’t know either, but my friend Jonathan Colton was talking about it, and then it came up on Bread radio. It’s one of the story-songs. It’s Christmas Eve, or it’s New Year’s Eve or something like that. He goes to the grocery store and runs into an old girlfriend, and they start talking. It’s so like, “Oh my god, this story!” And they’re drinking beer in their car. It’s just like the saddest, softest, twee-est story, but it’s so great. You have to listen to that.
STEREOGUM: Sort of like “Taxi” by Harry Chapin. It’s about a guy who picks up an ex in his cab.
MANN: It’s very similar. When I was a kid, I loved “Taxi.” I thought the story was so sad. He’s driving a taxi and she’s living in a mansion. It’s really tragic.
STEREOGUM: The ’70s were weird.
MANN: I know! They just kicked back and were like, “I’m going to tell you a really long story in 18 verses.” And you go, “OK, I’m along for the ride.” Even then I thought it must be the pop version of the folk era, when Dylan songs would have 18 verses.
STEREOGUM: When you take these songs out on tour, will you keep them to this acoustic setting?
MANN: Because most of them are very acoustic, I think I’ll keep that. There’s a lot of strings on the record, and we’ll probably tour without a string section. It’s never a matter of will or interest. It’s just a matter of how much can you do? It’s not like the tour makes very much money. There’s a lot of maneuvering to try to keep it viable enough to pay for itself.
STEREOGUM: I talk to a lot of people for whom touring is their main source of income. The albums don’t sell, but they can make money on the road.
MANN: It depends on how much money. With three crew members and three or four band members, there’s a lot of juggling. I couldn’t live on what I make touring. People are sleeping on other people’s couches. As somebody in her fifties, I’m not sleeping on a stranger’s couch. It’s just too much for me. Also, if you’re a woman — unless you’re Amanda Palmer and apparently game for anything — there’s only so much that you can do without collapsing.
STEREOGUM: Do you find that fans prefer you in rock mode or folk mode?
MANN: I don’t know. I really don’t. I guess we’ll find out, because this tour will definitely be more low key than the tour for my last album. It’s more fun for me to play acoustic shows with a trio than it is for me to play a rock show with a full band. I mean, I like playing in a rock band, and if it’s louder, I like to be the bass player. That’s my setup with Ted in our band the Both. But usually I play acoustic guitar and have someone else play bass.
STEREOGUM: These new songs seem to be very story-oriented. Obviously a lot of your songwriting is narrative, but it’s especially foregrounded on this album.
MANN: Some of the songs, certainly. “Patient Zero” is a real story, a Hollywood story. Generally, I try to hint at a story rather than tell it outright.
STEREOGUM: That’s the one with the Carmen Sternwood reference, right? How do you deal with a reference that someone might not get? Is there a temptation to edit that out?
MANN: I keep it in. For people who really listen to lyrics, that can be a fun treat. If there’s a saying they don’t know about, it can lead them down a path. And if people don’t pay attention to lyrics, then they don’t care.
STEREOGUM: I have to go back and research, but I feel like there’s more names of places on this album than on your prior albums.
MANN: I’m going to look at my lyrics now. I’m curious. I like to have specific references to keep you anchored in a song. They make it a little more real.
STEREOGUM: There are references to Houston and Louisville and Seattle and even Leavenworth. It has that kind of roadmap feel to it.
MANN: That’s totally unconscious. I think that’s just song to song. Houston is on “Stuck In The Past” because I had this backstory in my mind — not really a told story, like, this happened and then that happened. People were talking about this mission to Mars, and they knew people who wanted to sign up for it. Of course, it’s a mission you never come back from, which seemed crazy to me. I started thinking about that as the backstory of the song, where the person who volunteered had a family. OK, you’re married to somebody who is like, “Yeah, I really want to go on a mission to Mars.” That feels like, “You’re going to commit suicide in front of me.” That’s crazy. That feels so sad. Would you try to talk the person out of it? Maybe you wouldn’t, but you would regret not trying.
STEREOGUM: It’s like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss flies off with the aliens and leaves his family behind.
MANN: Yeah, it’s not such a great story. It doesn’t end so well for his wife and kids. For me, the feeling of that song is like, “I should have done something,” and that regret is just so killer. You have hundreds of moments in your life where you’re like, “Why didn’t I say something?” Then the moment’s over and it’s too late.
STEREOGUM: “Lies Of Summer” also seems very story-driven.
MANN: That song was inspired by this guy I knew, a friend of a friend, and he turned out to be … I can’t even explain it. It turned out he was bipolar, but also had some sociopathic stuff going on. We all found out some things that he had done and were really surprised — a lot of pathological lying. When you know someone like that, or find out something like that, a lot of stuff starts to become clear. Very confusing things in the past or confusing conversations start to make sense in light of that. You start to think, “Oh, what about…” A lot of the song is about rewinding through all of your past encounters with this person.
STEREOGUM: That song illustrates the album title at its most literal.
MANN: It’s definitely about an encounter with someone who is mentally ill in one or more ways. There’s a lot of compassion to it, but it’s also about trying to be realistic about what you’re dealing with.
STEREOGUM: Do the people that you write about, the real-life people, know that you’re writing about them?
MANN: I don’t tell them. Sometimes the songs are stuff that’s completely made up. “Lies Of Summer” is not made up, although some of it is fictionalized. I always hope people don’t really know that I’m writing about them. And of course, I’ve had people think I was writing about them even when I wasn’t at all. That can be weird. They get really mad at me. I’m like, “That’s not even about you at all!” It’s easier just to disguise them in the song. Also, by the time they’re in a song, the song has taken on a new life. The song is king, so if a song doesn’t tend toward the topic you start out with, you just go with it. If it starts to change a little bit, that’s fine. You have a new topic.
STEREOGUM: I think people tend to think of songs as inherently nonfictional, but it sounds like it’s inevitable that there will be some elements of fiction.
MANN: There has to be. “Lies Of Summer” really is about this person I know who is bipolar, but it’s not like I was in the hospital with them. There are specific things, references, but they just make for a more interesting visual, a more interesting story. They’re not necessarily untrue, even if they didn’t actually happen.
STEREOGUM: Does that aspect of your songwriting make it easier to live with songs and sing them night after night? Do they change over the years, or do the stories reveal new meanings or implications?
MANN: I think people tend to have these dynamics that get called up over and over in their lives that are particular to them. There are definitely times where I’m singing a song and think, Oh my god, this is exactly like this situation I’m in now. Or this character is like this person I’m friends with now who’s driving me crazy. Or whatever. That happens way more often than not.
Mental Illness is out 3/31 via SuperEgo Records. Pre-order it here. Aimee Mann will be touring behind the album, too. Here are the dates:
04/20 Washington, DC @ Lincoln Theatre
04/21 Philadelphia, PA @ Keswick Theatre
04/22 New York, NY @ The Town Hall
04/24 Boston, MA @ The Wilbur Theatre
04/25 Albany, NY @ The Egg Center For The Performing Arts
04/26 Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall
04/28 Ann Arbor, MI @ The Ark
04/29 Chicago, IL @ Park West
04/30 Milwaukee, WI @ Pabst Theatre
05/02 Madison, WI @ Barrymore Theatre
05/03 Minneapolis, MN @ Fitzgerald Theatre
05/05 Boulder, CO @ Boulder Theatre
05/06 Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
05/08 Missoula, MT @ The Wilma
05/09 Seattle, WA @ Neptune
05/10 Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
05/12 San Francisco, CA @ Fillmore Theatre
05/13 Los Angeles, CA @ The Theatre At Ace Hotel