After recording several albums with ‘Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann began a successful solo career that spawned a string of eclectic but seriously engaging albums, from 1993’s Whatever to 2012’s Charmer.
Mann also has lent her talents to several film soundtracks, most notably the score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia; her song from that film, “Save Me,” landed her an Academy Award nomination in 2000. And then there’s The Both, her 2014 collaboration with guitarist Ted Leo, which received critical acclaim.
Her new album, Mental Illness, which is out today (March 31), once again showcases her incisive and wry melancholia in a nearly all-acoustic format, with a style inspired by some of Mann’s favorite folk-rock records from the Sixties and Seventies. With string arrangements by Mann’s longtime producer, Paul Bryan, the 11-song album also features contributions by Leo (backing vocals), Jonathan Coulton (guitar), Jay Bellerose (drums) and Jamie Edwards (piano).
I recently spoke to Mann about Mental Illness and her time working with Rush on “Time Stand Still” 30 years ago.
Mental Illness is a departure from Charmer and The Both. How did it come about?
Charmer was more of a pop and R&B record in a modern sense and was a little more produced and fleshed out, and my project with Ted [The Both] was fairly stripped down but was a real rock band. After that, I felt like it was time to write a bunch of real acoustic songs and make a record that’s really stripped down and melancholy without worrying about up-tempo songs and trying to offset my natural strength for wistful, downbeat songs.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I usually start by having some kind of melody idea or chord progression. If there’s something interesting that stands out, I’ll say to myself, “OK, what does this music sound like? What’s its emotional center and what kind of story would suit that center?” Then I’ll figure out where I intersect with that kind of narrative.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from Mental Illness, starting with “Goose Snow Cone.”
That was a song I started when I was on tour in Ireland. I remember it was very snowy outside and I was feeling kind of homesick. I was looking on Instagram and saw a picture of one of my “cat friends” whose name is Goose. She was looking up at the camera and she reminded me of a snow cone and I started writing about her. Then it started weaving, with feelings of a snowy day and feeling homesick and lonely. People asked me to change the “snow cone” part to something else, but I couldn’t think of anything I liked better [laughs]!
That was a song I started a few years ago. It was inspired after meeting Andrew Garfield at a party; this was before Spiderman. It was one of the first times he had been to L.A. and I got the impression he felt uncomfortable about it and the whole Hollywood experience. He seemed like a real artist and a more introspective person. Hollywood, with its rewarding of narcissism, is tough to people like that.
So I wrote a song that was based on the idea of somebody with a lot of talent coming to Hollywood to star in a big movie and then having these disreputable forces working against him.
What was the recording process like for Mental Illness, not to mention working with Paul Bryan [producer] and Jonathan Coulton?
I’ve worked with Paul a lot in the past. He has his own studio and we did most of the recording at his place. I wrote a few songs with Jonathan who did a lot of background vocals and some fingerpicking guitar. He’s an interesting guy because he’s a great songwriter but also has this side that’s cross-folky, finger-picky and a love for the soft-rock of the Seventies. My record label is putting out his new album and he’ll be opening for me on the new tour.
Speaking of touring, what can fans expect from the Mental Illness tour?
I’ll be playing a lot of new stuff with my band that includes bass drums and keyboards. It will be a nice mix of old and new.
What’s your live setup like these days?
For acoustic guitars, I play Gibson J-45’s. I usually play Precision basses but don’t play bass live on my solo stuff because Paul Bryan plays bass. Paul knows a guy who makes custom basses and he recently built me one. It’s got a Jaguar body with a pre-amp and Fender pickups and a custom neck that’s half-way between a Jaguar and a Precision, because I like a chunkier neck. It’s a pretty cool bass.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Rush’s “Time Stand Still,” to which you contributed a memorable vocal. How did your involvement with the band come about?
I’m not sure if they had heard a song of mine or someone told them about me, but they contacted my manager at the time and asked me if I wanted to sing on it. I didn’t know Rush’s stuff that much but I thought, why not? I liked the song and thought the part was really pretty.
Originally, Geddy Lee was singing it. He’s got such a powerful voice and I remember saying to him, “Dude, your falsetto is so great. You shouldn’t have me.” But they really wanted to have a different singer on it. I’m very proud that I had that opportunity.
Did you always know music would be your calling?
Music was something that I was always interested in because it felt like a big mystery. There was something magical about it. I didn’t really have an innate ability to play by ear the way other people could, but I knew I wanted to learn about it. So I set a goal for myself. I’d go to school and learn about music until I hit a wall. I was always encouraged by getting better, writing songs and learning how to play.
I started a band and when that one collapsed I started another band. I never did hit that wall. But I also never thought about being a big star. I just said I’m going to go until I can’t go anymore. It’s the way I still feel about my career. I’m just going to keep going forward until I can’t go forward anymore.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.