Aimee Mann: In Conversation with City Arts & Lectures' Brenden Salmon.
Grammy winner Aimee Mann writes smart, sardonic songs that have a literary quality to them, like short stories set to music. Mann's ballads abound with vivid details and flawed characters. On "The Forgotten Arm," her fifth solo album and second release on Mann's own label Superego Records, the singer imagines an ill-fated couple, who wind up in a casino town. Mann's delicate instrumentation carries the rich lyrics on all of her albums, including "Bachelor No. 2," "Lost in Space," and "One More Drifter in the Snow," a Christmas album.
In 1999, director Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Mann's music for the screenplay of "Magnolia." The film's complicated plot line revolves around eight songs composed and performed by Mann, including the Oscar-nominated "Save Me," written in collaboration with Anderson's screenplay- City Arts & Lectures
Aimee Mann is an American rock guitarist, bassist, singer, and noted songwriter. She is a veteran in the music industry and was known for her Oscar nomination for the movie Magnolia.
Please welcome Aimee Mann.Nice one.I think yeah. Hi.Hello I have never walked out on the stage and just sat before. I don't really know what I was supposed to do.Well .So we shake hands?I don't know I didn't know yeah of course.Here it is, let us commence the interview.It is because I was talking about the high five. So you didn't know how to start. Youknow, the sitting looks good. If you want to .Starting with the high five, I don't know, I will end it with a high five.The hand shake was very nice. So how do you normally come out on to a stage, is it likeblaring, stadium, craziness?It's a lot of this.A lot of that -.Like -.They could be doing it, we just can't see.A lot of "wooh."A lot of that Wow.I was I was fishing for "woohs."It sounds like they will do anything you ask them to do it, any how. That's like throwingmoney on the stage.Yeah yeah a lot of stacks of dollars that appear on the stage.Hundreds that's where musicians makes their money.I just as soon as you said throwing money, I I knew that somebody will threw aquarters. And then that's why I had to switch it to bills, yeah, because we are going toget some quarters and I don't think we want that.Have you ever have ever been hit by a coin on stage?No no.Okay no now is no like a -?I am not like a dancing monkey.What do you what do you do again? Exactly? I had a whole outline. This wasn't part of it.What is ?What is the first thing?Yeah what's your what is your first thing on your on your path?Well sideways after no actually I was going to hopefully see if we could start from thestart, if you have a memory of I mean when you first started playing an instrument or doyou remember picking up the guitar or it was like green apples if you want to -?Does anyone eat an apple on stage? Is that what really that will really add a littlesomething to the interviewWe are all interested.No I I apologize -No, Jerry Lewis -.- because it's a hard business to get used to.Jerry Lewis ate an apple and spat it on the carpet, he's the only person.I can't believe that I thought of the same gag I guess Jerry Lewis. That's not cool.No, it is cool it's very cool. Okay so .Okay so -.So you were picking up the guitar and what what was that?I have started playing guitar when I was 12 because I got sick, I got mono. I am tellingyou by the way, if this like microphone thing is like not if it's it's like this weird andinvisible mic. So if it's not you know, I feel very awkward with it. It's like the thisfilament that sort of you know, magically I was supposed to pick up my words. So, I gotsick, I got mono and and so I was in bed for three weeks and I was sort of too exhaustedto like usually reading was my thing, and I was too exhausted to read. And so for somereason I thought I would take the guitar that my brothers had got for Christmas, out oftheir closet and I can't and kind of help myself how to play, in a really rudimentary way.I mean I am not like much of a guitar player. It's sort of like you know, chords and juststrumming chords. But but just you know, kind of teach myself how to play. I thinklike you know, like a Neil Young song or something.Did your did your brother or brothers who played to help you did they show youchords or you were just sitting like -.Oh no no.They didn't want something in the mono room?Just that if you know my family, like the sentence that starts did your brothers helplike like that. That's not our family. That's not our thing. Actually the miracle was thatis that my brother did not beat me up for taking things out of his closet. Like, that was amiracle like I don't may be I hid it or something, because generally, I guess like ourfamily is very dug in the manger, like even if you are playing that guitar and like theynever played it, like nobody knew how to play the guitar. I don't know why anybody gotit for Christmas. But like regardless of you if you play guitar or not god damn it, noone else was going to so that was more of the Christmas miracle. So I didn't get beatenup for taking that guitar.That is a good story, because its I am glad that you you have the good guitar playing,guitar learning experience. Did you sit with it, I mean you are I imagine you are infighting your sick wood. Did you play it upright when you started or were you it waslaying down -?No it was like -.- because you were small.That's probably like propped up by some pillows or something.Yeah.And then that was that was a, is that I want to play guitar forever and -?No, I just think that it was like a sing, you know like when you are a kid and you knowlike you are 12, and you are miserable of course and and -.Of course.Right?It seems it happened for you.I accept just the possibility that they exist. When you are me and you are 12 and you aremiserable, I think it's just like it's just that thing that like I don't know like it's thatyou can have and it's personal and like music is the sort of great thing and you knowlike if there are songs that you love then and something you sort of playing and then likeI don't know, it's kind of that's I don't know, like suddenly you have somethingthat's yours you know. And it was is really it was really nice and I think just kind ofI don't know that like I just put them in my back pocket and and it's not like I meanI was never one of those kids like you know my husband Michael Penn you know,talks about like oh yeah I remember like learning how to play that Beatle song, youknow like the learning like like figuring it out from the record like immediately likeoh my god, like that's was just way too advanced. And you know, it's but I couldlike in the you know music books they have like it's just like a little grid that showsyou where to put your fingers on a guitar. And so like I you know, that was more myspeed. But you know, so it wasn't like I never considered myself a musician and itwas kind of just a mistake almost that I became I mean it was like sort of a shot in thedark, you know like yeah I liked playing guitar and like I tried to write songs, but likethey were sort of disasters and and how I became a musician was I had of heard aboutthis school called Berklee College of Music, that was in Boston, and the person tellingme about it said like, yeah it's kind of a jazz school, but just sort of pop music andand you don't have the audition, because most music schools then were you know likekind of kind of classical -- and that was it. And you know when I you know with my four chords, on acousticguitar you know like where am I going with that, and -.Julliard here.Yeah, I know.Trust me, I got something inside, you can't see it, but it's there.And it's like "G" four times.Yeah, like check it out and -.You are going to regret this?And I can't like really sing either. So it wasn't like I can't really do anything. You knowlike I kind of liked music and could play a couple of chords, like that one you know.And so I had heard about this school and I and I thought, well maybe if I learn aboutmusic, then I'll know if I have any talent, like I I don't really know like music was abig mystery to me in a lot of ways. But I was a big you know, a believer in like learningself, like you know that an idea that if you you know like really applied yourself tosomething that you know, that you'd get results. And and so I did this summer sessionat Berklee, because I actually didn't like even though they don't have auditions like Istill kind of I didn't I still couldn't get in. So I mean I just said like really, like youknow you got to start somewhere. I mean you know like I don't like you know Ididn't have anything to offer. So but I did this seven week session where you knowI had to offer was you know, the price of admission and and I did really well. And itwas you know a real revelation, like a lot of things where real revelation, like first of allthat that you could through taking ear training classes, you could improve yourability to like remember and sing back melodies, or like recognize chords or chordprogressions. I couldn't like I was like really, like you can better, I thought like youI thought you either had it or you don't. And you can get better at you know hearingdispirit elements within you know, within the production of a song. And you knowbecause to me like music was just like a vocal and then a bunch of stuff, you know like abig thing, and then the vocal sat on top of it. So I could never hear you know, peoplewill go like, listen to that snare and I was like, what, like how can you possibly take outlike one thing. And so I realized that through practice you could get better at those thingsand I started playing the bass because I always wanted to play bass and I and I andlike I got I got you know, I practiced a lot and I got better and and that was sort oflike so you know, the third lesson like, practice and you get better.So you know, I sort of so I thought like, well I will take this as far as I can, like untillike I reach like an obstacle or a road block and then you know, then I will quit, you know,because I mean I was like like I mean I talked like this. You know, people would go likeyou know music business is hard, like you know it's nobody ever knew -.But you know it's not true.And I knew like I don't really have that much talent, like I you know, so I mean I waslike I am with you you know, like I you know, so it was like, well I would do thisuntil you know, there is sort of a clear signal, like you are barking up the wrong tree.And I I just never got that signal.You know it was like I I formed a band and band did really well around town and andthen I formed another band, then we got signed and you know, it just like kept going on.Well the first band is the The Young .Yeah that was kind of like the Punky, arty band called The Young Snakes.The Young Snakes.Which is it was not my name. I always thought it was kind of stupid.It's a good name.I kind of like it better in retrospect.Here today well let me tell you, here is the name I wanted.It was 1980, okay, The Astro Pops. Is that the greatest name ever? The Astro Pops.Was it like one night after a gig and you are like, you know what, I don't want to be TheYoung Snakes, I want to be The Astro Pops and there was like a heated discussion?No we had talked about we had talked about the name and that that was one of thenames and the the drummer booked us a gig, the drummer wanted the name The YoungSnakes and he just booked it under The Young Snakes, really a jack ass. Now its stuck the yeah.And did you did you tour with them? I mean I know if one thinks says -?No no we played them we played around around Boston and I actually you know,I actually was able to make a living, playing in The Young Snakes, I could gigs aroundBoston, you know, like $50 here and $75 there, I mean you know -.Did you still like singing?- it was like low level living, but .You were playing bass and singing?Just playing bass and singing.Yeah and you were writing the songs at that time?Yeah we sort of wrote them together. I mean songs as just being kind like youknow, it's like a punk punk thing and you know, the the idea was like we are breakingall the rules. You know like we are not going to do anything that other people do, youknow like, what do other people do like half chords is not for us you know like,melody fuck that. So it was really like it was really unlistenable like it was prettyit was pretty grading and it was mentally grading you know ee-o-o-aa-ee like it getspretty odd, doesn't it?Was there any dance moves that went along with it?No, no, no but like you know, I mean my hero's were Devo and you know like I lovethat sort of new wave stuff. But it was pretty like Nina Hagen and I don't know if youknow who she is, but likeNo, I don't.- she was like just crazy east German and she used to be an opera singer. So she was like itit was kind of opera punky vocals and like she was idol, so I tried to imitate that and -.She has got some other fans here too, oh yeah she is alive.It was it was a tough road. But umm.Well I wanted-But you know I mean that was really you know that was a lot of fun and it was like allpurely experimental and and then there came a point where I sort of felt like youknow, this punk thing with like its no rules is sort of like it's very restrictive. Like youknow, you can't write about love or relationships or you know, like the all the stuff it'syou know, there is no melody you know, like it's nothing can be pretty or you know,sentimental or you know, or emotion like like we have had songs about like I had asong about an electric dog and Carl Kanine the electric dog. I actually mybrother wrote the lyrics to that. But you know that will give you like an idea, so.Yeah, Electric dog is very punk.Yeah. Yeah it was super super punky new wave.Yeah was it punks coming to the show?Yeah I mean you know, such as such as they were in Boston in 1980.Yeah. We had some we had some punks.I I believe it.I I believe itYou know we had several we have some Mohawks, I don't think we didn't.I I know there were Mohawks there at that time. It's on a it all on YouTube now. I nowwant to I want to obviously before but just briefly before we move away fromchildhood and all this I mean what were listening to when you started playing guitar? Imean what were you when you were in high school, what bands I know you havetalked about Sgt. Pepper's.Yeah the you know, I was I was one of those people who I am like in a way I amnot a music fan. I don't there is not like a lot of stuff I like. But when I like something Ireally like it and I listen to it over and over. And the stuff for me was early-early EltonJohn, you know like Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed Connection, that stuff. Iwas a big fan of his. You know Beatles, Badfinger, just I am trying to I am trying tothink, because sometimes I was like odd ball stuff like Leon Russell, like you know youdon't even know what I am talking about.No I don't. You like to the look, you know like I don't like and all that.You know.You know what I am saying.He also Neil Young I loved and Dylan but not like not even all of Dylan because in away he wasn't really melodic enough me. And you know when I was a kid likeMonkeys and the Partridge Family, you know I mean like really they are melodic songwriter the stuff I loved.Oh I read a thing I heard you had the thing for The Rutles actually.Yeah yeah I love them.Do you guys know who The Rutles are?I love the Rutles.And you are in a you sang with .Neil Innes.Yeah and you are in a documentary, there is a real Rutles connection.Yeah there is a documentary that's being made right now, you know.Yeah, what's what's that about?Well, I don't know. I mean I saw that I saw that movie when it was on TV you knowand like it was 1976 and I just loved it. I mean you know its like who doesn't love amockumentary. And I don't know I thought it was funny but I also I kind of loved themusic. I love music parodies, like I think there is almost no music parody that I don't likelike from Allan Sherman who is you definitely don't know who that is and or like"Weird Al" or you know, like anybody who does a music parody. I just I truly love it.I don't know why, but -.Yeah, you know I am with you on the Weird Al, on the other I'll check out the other stuff hopefully.Allan Sherman is like he was like the Weird Al of like the 60s.Really?Yeah.That's so hard to picture. Well okay, so and back to and then obviously fans mostpeople here know you from that weren't punks in Boston in the 80s know you from 'Til TuesdayYeah.- and how did you guys form and I mean -?When that was right on the heels of The Young Snakes, when I kind of got sick of thatwhole that whole thing and you know, sick of that whole punk scene and you knowthe more dance, new wave stuff was coming in and I was working on a record store andlike a chain you know like strawberries, it grows like a chain, a bigger chain and andthey will play a lot of dance music. And which then was sort of like, I don't even knowif I can the Gap Band like I can't really remember names of bands but I was sort ofthen I got into the dance thing and that sort of sat with the new wavy stuff and so 'TilTuesday, that was kind of 'Til Tuesday's thing it was you know you know, likeThompsons Twins you kind of stuff.Have you met the other members of 'Til Tuesday at the Berklee School of Music or -?The drummer Michael Hausman I wasn't going about any of them Hausman went toBerklee, but he was in a you know, we have met each other just through other bands inthe Boston scene.He is now your manager?And he turned into you guys and they are working quite a lot together.Yeah, yeah, he sort of managed the band. He was the drummer of 'Til Tuesday, but likehe was kind of like the guy who he was like the smart guy who would look through allthe contracts and stuff.He wasn't the same guy who named you The Young Snakes.No, no, - it was another guy. So, yeah, so we ended up working together just you knowfrom the you know like 1980 on. Actually I think he played drums in The YoungSnakes for a few you know, so it was like a re-lap.Yeah, and you 'Til Tuesday was named MTV's you know it was kind of hit that1985 New Artist of The Year, I mean which was a big that's a big deal at that time.Yeah.So and now looking back, I mean at that point were you thinking, we've made it,everything is fine, major labels here we come, I mean that's it.Yeah. It's a kind of the thinking.So how did that go, then after it so you are obviously very excited and then who do yousign with at that point.We signed with Epic Records and it's complicated because I think it's I think the timewhen you are really excited is like right before you get signed. And then you think youknow, you are going to get signed and you are going to make it, and then and then youjust you have venue like in the vortex, like you just realize how weird it is and howcomplicated it is and you know then there is always like we are political stuff of a recordcompany and you know you didn't thank somebody and then somebody gets bent out ofshape you know. You know, what I mean like I remember the music awards, I didn'tthank the record company which I just you know, and sort of naively and sort of go.Oh and a word for video, thank you to the video director, like that's sort of you know,the one who made the video that's getting the award. And I remember people getting madat me because I didn't thank the record company like nobody gives a shit about therecord company. I mean like like the audience doesn't care you know, what I mean.Yeah.Then you sort of realize it's just all like crazy egos out of control and I don't know likeits its weird. It was weird for me because because we have like a video that was youknow, that was popular, we were really recognizable, but we weren't making like anymoney. We had bad managers and our managers made some weird decisions about nottaking tour support, so so our first tour was opening for Hall & Oates and like andlike arenas. And so we were driving ourselves in a van like you know you know, likewe were driving ourselves in a van over miles and mile I mean like you know, eighthour drives 10 hour you know, like it was crazy and staying you know, like doublingit up in rooms like in motel sixes, like we worse than motel like truck's top, like browswhere the bed sags and there is like cigarette burns in the bed spread and stuff. And youknow like sharing a bed, so so it was like really low level. And then .Where were Hall & Oates staying?You know, they were standing.They were okay.Yeah they were living a life.They weren't sharing like bed like next door.No, no, they had buses and stuff. You know, they were they had buses and they weredoing overnight drives and they were like trying to drive during the day and make the gigon time that but I mean we just had we had no money. And you know, becauseusually you do is you take tour support from the you know, the record company and forsome reason our manager is just is this not like it's the super dull for people .I don't no I don't think so.No, no I am just kind of talking and assuming you will like shut me up when it getsboring. But for some reason our managers have this idea like we don't want to get intodebt with the record company like you know, that's ridiculous idea because we arealways in debt to the record company, no matter what you do. And then they I got likesome publishing money and then they they like talked me into giving it, like supportingthe bands or likeThe record label did.No, no our managers .Oh, that's a nice of them.Yeah, I know it was like a whole it's really weird. So like the anyway the upshot iswe we were playing in arenas and making a $150 a week. And so and but like peoplewere following us home. So it was really like there was a really creepy disconnect andand then you know, we are all like, on the roads too much and and then I just started tolike lose my mind.Yeah that's really, I don't know like I you just think it would be fun and it was like itwas not fun, I have to say.It doesn't actually .I got to say I mean I hated then, but it was not fun.I mean is touring you have much more experience with that now that being your first.I mean touring just unavoidably exhausting. No matter, I mean you have toured -.Touring is exhausting, it is exhausting, just because traveling is exhausting. You knowlike flying just does something to you and its exhausting and staying at different placesevery night, it's I don't know, it's sort of like you know, especially with touring thereis no excitement of novelty, because it's all the same. But there is no comfort of routineeither. So, like it's just kind of like you know, mentally exhausting. And you know, likethank god. Yeah, I really like I know musicians who go like, "They don't pay me for -you know the one hour I am on stage, they pay me for the other 23. You know so it's notlike, you know, I mean the playing is great. But I think especially when I was in 'TilTuesday and playing arenas, I felt I was totally out of my depths. I mean you know, likefirst of all like, what kind of clothes are you going to buy on a $150 a week like youknow like those groovy, romantic clothes, don't buy themselves, people. So that waslike you were just out of your depths and you were like, we don't know what we weredoing. You know this giant stage and like you don't know what you are doing and andthen it get like a lot of like the manager is like really where I can't stress what aproblem they were, because you know because it's like you are super young and youdon't know what you are doing and then people are telling you stuff and you know like,really like I you know, like where we go like you got to move around more and learnsome dance moves and I am like, that's totally no I think, like you know, but you aresort of the you know, like I just didn't have you know, the wherewithal, or like thepresence of mind to go like, this is what I you know, I want to do this thing and figureout what that was and you know, here I am you know, I don't know like our first timealbum was like sort of a dance, pop new wavy thing, because that's what we weredoing at the time and then we kind of were off it and wanted to do different thing and -- you know, and then of course the record company didn't want that because it wasn't like the first one and -And yet I mean, and yet the songs actually I have I have been listening to everything.They really hold out, for as I mean they are a new wave, but there are great songs too.Thank you.So yeah, so that's nicely you did that because we have them now.Well, thank you.So, okay so getting of bad management so you you have the wherewithal to atsome point start your own record label and you kind of have to -.That's really jumping.Well you want to or we could go in the back. I just feel like you know, you gotbogged down. Well okay, so so you had buy your -.He told it like it was I mean, I asked for it.Well, that okay, so you had to where from that did you end up not having a record thatthat you could release for three years, I think this is on Geffen, that you ended uphaving to buy the masters one day?That was the one.- eight years ago.I had yeah. That was like, we were on Epic and then 'Til Tuesday kind of dissolved alittle bit and and you know, basically what happens in record companies is they look atyou like there is always like the personnel always changes. And then the new guyscomes and they goes, "Hah, you should do this." And then you are like, "I don't do, that'snot my thing and and "Well, hope you don't mind not having your record released". Orlike, "Well we will release your record and then bury it." You know, so that's kind of thevibe that that I when we actually got that link every record because every recordhad different people working at the record company and so this is period where I justwas like, I am not going to make another record for you people and have you throw itaway. So, you know and they really wanted me to write with different people like youknow like super commercial writers, and stuff. And so that was like a three year sort ofembargo where I sort it secretly made another record, I sold the record and just waitedit out, you know. And then, I guess they are finally they are like, "Well, her career is over."So we can release her now."Yeah.But you know, the same thing, it just happens over and over. And I wound up and atGeffen I was sort of okay for a while and and then there was like a big merger and thatwas the same thing and but they said like; you know you could stay you can stay onthe label if you want. But but, no they said, we want you to stay. But but you know wethink; you know, you are going to have to keep working on this record that you know,that I had already finished and and you know write with more people and blah blahblah. And but you know when they said that you can leave if you want, I was like, I am out of here.Had they heard -?I was like take it and run.Had they heard what you have been working on?Oh yeah.So at least to get more this, more that and you .Well, it was one of those things. It's just like you have them meeting with Mr. Big andyou know, like the guy. And you know I got my lawyer $400 an hour waiting there andyou know the guy does something like an hour late and you know its like; this record isnot done until I say it's done. You are like, all right, well is it done, like well I haven'theard it yet. You know, you are like "Ooh". And I was just like I just didn't want to gothrough that again. We are like you wait til the guy hears it, then he says, you know you needneed to do this, you need to do that. I just wanted to make records. I just wanted to makethe records I wanted to make.So they let you go and you now and you have the -?And then I bought it back, like we worked that the .You bought it back.And then that became Bachelor No. 2?Yeah.And that was on this is at the first record on your record label.Yeah.And so how did you sign I mean, so you really had become kind of business savvy.No.No not at all.No. I don't I don't do of any of that. That's my that's Michael Hausman.Okay. So you started the way whereWell, just a word, I I you know, don't get the impression I know anything. I am still allat, ding-dong ding-dong' right, I'm writing my little song.You're not like crunching numbers, like; bring me more pencils, like -.Yeah, exactly.Carry the one?Carry the one, yeah I don't know any I don't know any of that stuff.And how well how was Super Ego different from as in independent label, different from the majors?That's it's because its it's only me. It's got one well we did not try to like sign anybody.That that sounds perfect.Yeah.So you really get to creative control.I do what yeah, I make what you know I pay for it. If I can pay for it, I can do it, youknow. So, if I have money to have a string session; you know or like hire some horns,then I can do it and if I don't I don't do it.