The Roots Report: An Interview with Aimee Mann

John Fuzek: Hi, Aimee, how are you? Where are you calling from?
Aimee Mann: Good, I am in Los Angeles.
JF: Are you currently on tour or home?
AM: I am at home for a couple of weeks, we’re going back out on the 19th
JF: How long will you be out on the road?
AM: This time I think it’s just a few weeks.
JF: So, you live in LA?
AM: Yes
JF: Does being in LA help you get involved with film work as well as music?
AM: You know I think there is a thing that living in LA, it helps just being around, there are certain things where you just run into people or seeing someone at a party and they have a project, it’s more likely that they think of you than somebody that they haven’t seen for a long time, I think there’s a weird causal effect that helps
JF: Is that how you wound up playing a maid in Portlandia?
AM: Yeah, well, I’ve known Fred Armisen for a long time, he lived out here, i knew him from the Largo Comedy scene, there’s a comedy club out here called Cafe Largo and um, before he was on Saturday Night Live, so, yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time, I did meet him out here.
JF: Do you have any projects like that coming up or do they just pop up randomly?
AM: There’s a new Comedy Central TV show, I don’t think it will be out until next year, called Anton Deville (somewhat inaudible ?) and I have a part, I am in one of those, it’s fun to get calls for that stuff
JF: Are you still married to Michael Penn?
AM: Yes
JF: How come I never really hear about his music anymore?
AM: He’s not into performing, it’s not his thing, he does a lot of scoring, he scored The Girls TV show and Masters Of Sex, he likes to be more behind the scenes.
JF: Does he ever play on your recordings? I haven’t seen his name on one.
AM: No, we keep our stuff pretty separate.
JF: I was wondering about the title of your latest CD, Mental Illness, you have a running theme throughout your music with despondent type characters, what was the reason for choosing Mental Illness as the CD name?
AM: It kind of came about half as a joke, I was talking to some friends and they were asking what the record was about and I said it was my usual songs about mental illness, and one of them suggested that I should call it Mental Illness, and um, I thought that was so funny that I kind of had to take that suggestion, because really a lot of the songs are about mental illness, it can’t necessarily be boiled down that simply but there is something about that idea of just calling it something so stark I felt was kind of funny
JF: Have you gotten any blowback from mental health advocates or people with mental illnesses?
AM: No, I haven’t, I would like to think that people can tell that I am treating these themes with a lot of understanding and compassion, I do have a lot of personal experience with friends and my own problems,
JF: I can relate. The reason I asked is because folks can be touchy these days.
AM: You kind of have to hope that your intentions are coming through, I really do have a lot of compassion for people, I think in just general it’s very hard to be a person, you know struggling with anxiety every day, all the time, and obsessive thinking, it’s really exhausting,
JF: I know, trust me
AM: You have to really actively try to combat it with active strategies and it’s really tough, I could be struggling with anxiety right now, I don’t know why, but I think I should be, I guess the career of a musician, especially over a certain age, and a certain time where people don’t buy records, like I should be really anxious all the time and I’m not maybe that’s because I have done a lot of work to try to interrupt the flow of anxiety, I have a lot of close friends who really struggle with it and it’s really tough, you know, I have another friend who has bipolar disease and when they’re in the manic phase, that is a really rough situation
JF: Do you agree that the blessing and the curse of being an artist, that mental illness and creativity can go hand in hand?
AM: From my own experience any kind of mental or emotional problems I’ve had have been more of an interference, depression kind of depresses everything, it doesn’t sort of make me more creative, it makes me not be able to do anything and anxiety is so incapacitating in it’s own way, I never found any of those two things particularly helpful, but it gives you a lot of compassion and understanding for other people who go through similar things
JF: I just saw this, the anti-Trump, “Can’t You Tell?” song, from the record 30 Days, 30 Songs, a CD for a Trump free America, was that written specifically for the CD?
AM: Yes, that was for Dave Eggers’ project, that’s part of his assignment
JF: “Isn’t anybody going to stop me, I don’t want this job” that is perfect
AM: Yes, and now we’re seeing how accurate that is, I mean he really does not seem like this is a job he actually wants to do, he doesn’t understand how to do it, and I don’t think he wants to do it, either
JF: Will you be performing that song on this tour?
AM: I don’t think so because I am playing a lot of new songs and that would be another new song and I am keeping the new songs to the ones that are on the record, I don’t necessarily need to talk about Trump during my show
JF: So, we are the same age and i remember that you used to play in Providence at the Living Room, right?
AM: yes
JF: how long did you actually go to Berklee for?
AM: Four semesters
JF: I made through one as a music major
AM: In and out! I needed Berklee, I really like Berklee and I think I would have stayed, I wanted to study engineering there and their department had just started and I didn’t know that much about engineering but I could tell that they did not have it together and I was just really worried about like wasting my father’s money because Berklee was expensive so I thought that if i am not getting the most out of this experience I don’t want to waste his money, but I really did like Berklee and I felt like I learned a lot things that were very helpful to me, you know, their teaching of, I think that they had a really simple and understandable way of teaching music theory that made a lot of sense to me when I hadn’t understood music theory before, I wish that I had stayed longer honestly but but I was kind of hyper aware of, well, my father was one of those guys who worried about money all the time so I worried about that
JF: Who influenced you and whose styles have you tried to emulate over the years?
AM: Honestly, probably the biggest influences for me are Neil Young’s Harvest, acoustic guitar stuff, more folky stuff, I was a big Elton John fan in the early 70’s and that kind of 70’s pop, harmonic stuff is probably in there, all that time period, Beatles, can’t avoid being influenced by the Beatles
JF: I have a few of your CDs and pretty much been a fan of yours since ‘Til Tuesday
AM: Thank You!
JF: and I noticed that you went from the “Voices Carry” type music and eventually went into the “Coming Up Close” type and it seemed that that song, “Coming Up Close”, was the direction you sent yourself in, a transitional song for you
AM: I think that is where I started writing songs on acoustic guitar because I had been writing songs on bass and the first ‘Til Tuesday record, we were really influenced by, um, obviously that’s post new wave, Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby type stuff, he’s a great songwriter, too, but we were also influenced by some R&B stuff that was happening like Gap Band, we used to listen to a lot, besides new wave, so writing songs on bass kind of made sense but I really wasn’t much of an R&B bass player, it was an amalgamation of styles
JF: Did you start with guitar and switch to bass or vice versa?
AM: I played bass in, well, I learned to play bass, um, I always wanted to be a bass player, I don’t know why, but that was my instrument at Berklee and you know, I played acoustic guitar, a few chords, not very well, and I never really progressed past that because I just basically play acoustic to accompany myself enough to write songs and play live, I was never really interested in being a guitar player, you know, fleshing it out as a guitar player in any way, I don’t even know if I had an acoustic guitar around then but it makes a lot of difference when you can hear those thirds in the chords
JF: Do you play piano at all?
AM: There are a few songs that I have written on piano, I am actually trying to write a song on piano right now, I just don’t play very well, so I have to constantly stop and go “where’s this chord, how do I make this chord, what am I playing?” it just doesn’t come as naturally, piano is good, it really does give a whole different, it can do different things, it’s hard not to get into ruts with acoustic guitar playing, playing the same shapes, I don’t even know how to play sevenths on an acoustic! It gets the job done
JF: So, I listened to the new CD and I really like it. My two favorite CDs of yours are Lost In Space and The Forgotten Arm. I heard that you were going to going to work on a stage show/musical of The Forgotten Arm but it’s been put on a back burner? Any plans to try to move forward with it?
AM: Yeah, we’re trying to go forward with it, I am working with a creative director of the Public Theatre and a writer, David Henry Hwang who is very well respected in the theater world, I am working with Paul Bryan, who is my producer, we are writing new songs for it because I knew I would never if I didn’t have a partner to bounce ideas off of it would be a lot harder to get done, it’s takes a long time because the writer and the Public Theatre are in New York, we’re just not there very often, so it’s very hard for everybody to not get distracted by other projects, but we’re actually going to have a meeting right before the tour and the song that I am working on on piano right now is one of the new songs for the show, you know, so it is moving forward, but I am going to see if I can step up the pace a little bit
JF: A couple notes I made while listening to this CD, I noticed that you like to write in 3/4 time more than most people
AM: That is sort of what I wanted to do for this record, write as many songs in 3/4 cause I felt like it
JF:The song Goose In A Snow Cone, what does that actually mean?
AM: It was a reference, to, when I was on tour, and I was looking at Instagram, and there was this cat named Goose and she had this very sweet face with white fur that looked like a little snow cone, so, I was writing this melancholy song and for some reason it was making me feel really homesick, I was going to replace it but I couldn’t figure out another phrase that would convey that same feeling so I just left it
JF: Well, we are running out of time, I had more I wanted to ask you about lyrics but i will just wrap it up with asking you about what you have on tap for the show at the Columbus on June 29th?
AM: My friend Jonathan Colton is opening, he’s a great singer songwriter, very funny, my label, Super Ego records is putting his record out, which is terrific, I joined him on a couple of songs, we wrote a couple of songs on my record, he comes out and he joins me halfway through the show, I play new stuff, I play old stuff, Ted Leo is probably going to sit in because he lives near Providence, so he will probably come in and do some shredding, so.
JF: Well, thanks so much for chatting and I look forward to the show!
AM: Thanks! Bye!

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