With her eighth album, Charmer, Aimee Mann turns a gimlet eye on charm and its practitioners -- not that she considers herself one.
Aimee Mann may be the smartest songwriter you're not listening to. After 30 years in the music industry -- a handful of them as the front woman of the '80s pop group 'Til Tuesday, whose video "Voices Carry" was a staple of early MTV -- Mann is the idol of a smallish but fiercely devoted fanbase. For much of the rest of the world, she's the woman whose songs scored Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. (Her best-known of these, "Save Me," was nominated for an Academy Award and a Grammy; she lost to a Phil Collins love theme from Disney's Tarzan and Macy Gray's "I Try," respectively, neither of which has weathered the intervening years as well as hers.) The major labels for which she recorded didn't appreciate her much more. Disputes with them eventually led her, in a blaze of irritated song craft ("Nothing Is Good Enough"), to found her own.
Sweet and sour tend to mingle in Mann's work: There are few songwriters out there with a sweeter ear for melody, and few as ready to twist the knife lyrically. "What's the point, we're only flogging the horse," she sings on "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist,"co-written with Elvis Costello for 2000's Bachelor No. 2, "when the horseman has up and died." (Not for nothing washer 2008 album called @#%&*! Smilers.) With her new album, Charmer, Mann delivers again, spinning 11 tales of relationships past their expiration dates and the charmers who stay in them. Despite the penchant for dark material and deadpan treatment, she's warm, clever, and unusually willing to laugh at herself and others -- case in point, her cameo on Portlandia and her new video for "Labrador," a recreation of the original "Voices Carry" video, her own regrettable hairstyle included. She checked in with Paper from Los Angeles to talk charm,comedy, and the industrialist allure of Theodore Dreiser.
Tell me a bit about the conceit of Charmer. It's an encouraging enough name -- but I've heard you say it's a synonym for"narcissist."
I think if you think of charming people and what that consists of, pretty quickly you realize it starts to tread on narcissist territory. It's kind of on a continuum from people who are charming in a nice way -- [they're] friendly and take an interest in you in a healthy and benevolent way that's fun for everyone--and then it can start to creep into a territory of manipulation and flattery towards a certain end. That's kind of a different situation. It starts to get a little sinister.
Do you think of yourself as a charmer?
I don't feel like I'm that charming, no. I try to be friendly and interested in people, but I don't feel like I'm charming. It's a different skill set. It takes a lot of confidence and sometimes bravado that I don't really have.
Do you think that kind of charm is an expectation, or maybe even a responsibility, of doing what you do? That kind of taking an interest -- is that what people expect of those in the public eye?
I think people do expect it. Or you know, I don't know-- I don't know what people expect. I think when people know any kind of public performer through their music or work or whatever, there's always an expectation, a relationship that already pre-exists on one side. So I think those performers who are charming in person have a better time of it, because the ones who are shy and awkward are very disappointing to people.
Do you think that extends to the work itself? Do you feel you're always having to explain what you're doing or why you're doing it? Even when I say, for instance, that I think this album is very dark, and you say, no, actually, it's not...
I guess it depends on what you mean by dark. To me, to explore the idea that the kind of charming people who become very dependent on outside approval or outside validation might feel kind of empty inside -- to me, that's standard-issue darkness. Believe me, it can get worse. I know people whose charm is borderline criminal. I've encountered that. I'm not writing about that.
I wanted to ask you about comedy, because you're so connected to the comedy world, which I don't know if everyone expects of their singer-songwriters.
Me and my husband, it just turns out that we have a lot of friends who are comedians--that we make friends who are comedians, probably stemming from the comedians and musicians playing at Largo in Los Angeles. They had a comedy night that we would always go to, and we started doing shows together and becoming friends with different comics. I think comedy's really fascinating. I think [comics'] minds work in a really particular kind of way that's very extemporaneous, which is exactly not what my skill set is, so I'm really in awe of that. The nerve that it takes to go up and talk about yourself. That's exactly what I can't do.
I would have thought that's a big part of what you do. Do you think of the songs that you sing and the characters you sing about as very distinct from yourself?
I don't think they're totally distinct from myself. I can always relate to everybody that I'm singing about, or whatever characters I'm singing about, because otherwise I don't think I'd be able to write about them.
But have you moved from a more confessional mode to a more fictionalized one?
I don't know. I think maybe it is more fictional, but even saying that -- if I wanted to, I could always say, this started to be about that person but it merged with this other person and became a conglomerate, and here's my own experience that I threw in...It's a recipe.
The new videos for "Charmer" and"Labrador" are great. Laura Linney as as Robot Aimee Mann! Jon Hamm as a creepy alter ego of the actual director! How'd those come about?
It's another comedy-world connection. The director, Tom Scharpling, is a really good friend of mine. He's a comedy writer, and he's done a handful of videos that I really liked; he did this great one for the New Pornographers for their song "Moves." I had been wanting to work with him for a while. I wanted to do two videos and try to do them at once, and thought maybe I could afford it if we filmed them at the same time. He came up with these two concepts that I thought were terrific. By some stroke of luck, I got Laura Linney to be in one, and John Hodgman, and then Jon Hamm to be in the other. My friend Jon Wurster, he does a lot of comedy bits with Tom Scharpling.He plays drums with Superchunk and the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould, but he's also super funny, so he has a foot in the comedy world too.
For people like Jon Hamm, was this an unusual request?
Jon Hamm does a lot of comedy stuff. Hodgman had been in a couple of Scharpling videos before, so I knew that was a reasonably safe assumption. Jon Wurster, too. Laura Linney, I just went out on a limb with. I had met her at a show, I knew she was a fan, I didn't know if she was enough of a fan to even consider being part of something so ridiculous, but I took a chance and she happened to have some time off and she was in New York and she happened to be game. It was very nice of her, I have to say. It was pretty decent to just jump right in.
Don't know if you know that the guy who plays the robot delivery guy from "Charmer," Alex Scordelis, is a Paper copy editor and music writer?
God, is that right? Yeah, Alex. That's hilarious.
Everybody needs a good six or seven different professions to keep going.
And you've got yours,too. You've done a bit of comedy acting yourself. I think your Portlandia cameo is a new classic.
I definitely get recognized for that more than music. It seems to have hit people in some kind of way.
Are you fielding house cleaning questions?
There's a lot of those jokes, yeah.
Speaking of guest appearances, you recently played for the President and First Lady at the White House.
It was really an inspiring, incredible event. I really didn't know what to expect. It was part of a day celebrating poetry, which is an honor to be included in there, that someone thinks your lyrics are good enough to be considered poetry. In the afternoon, there was a seminar for high school poetry students. They asked questions, and the poets talked about their process... that alone was really inspiring, to listen to these poets talk about art and writing, how they approach it and how they think. Then in the evening,there was a performance. And the President of the United States is, like, 10 feet away from me. It was crazy.
He seemed to be enjoying it, I think. I'm very fortunate that a couple of good friends of mine actually work in the White House, so I asked them to sit up front so I could see a reassuring face and not be too nervous.
I can imagine there's an aura surrounding him that would be a bit nerve-wracking.
I did get to meet him and the First Lady beforehand. They were very friendly and very sweet. I just think the unusual aspect... it's bizarre, to tell yourself, "I'm in the White House and I'm playing for the President of the United States."
To go back to poetry to a second: Your lyrics are so literary. Are you a big reader? Is literature something that's particularly influential to you and the way you write?
I am a big reader. It's not like "literature" in quotes is necessarily a big influence, but I love language and words, and I like seeing how other people use language and put words together to articulate complicated ideas in a simple way. To me, that's all very interesting. Any body who manipulates words for a living is interesting to me.
Are there any writers in particular who are especially meaningful to you?
F. Scott Fitzgerald clearly is a giant for me. Theodore Dreiser. Edith Wharton. Just kind of randomly choosing people.
They're all congregating in the beginning of the 20th Century, I notice. And I don't think Dreiser gets name-checked as often as perhaps he should.
That's true! But every now and then, I go on a Dreiser jag, I don't know why [laughs].
He kind of has an Aimee Mann feeling to me.
There's sort of a spare, Americana, Industrial Age, a kind of...
...a bracing grimness.
Yes, exactly! "A bracing grimness." Thank you. Very well put. I'm going to use that now. When you see that phrase come up in other interviews, you'll know I stole it from you.
I'll take it,proudly. Last question: I read on Wikipedia, that faultless resource, that you're six feet tall. Can that be true?
No! That's insane. A very, very short person must've seen me and thought... I'm 5'9", maybe. Six feet is crazy tall.
Take it as a compliment, I guess. The world sees you bestriding the globe like a colossus.
Oh, my god. I'm a colossus? Finally.
Photo by Sheryl Nields