All photography by Sheryl Nields.
If you’ve not heard Aimee Mann’s latest hit, “Goose Snow Cone”, listen now … I’ll wait! For decades, the Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning singer has grown a following under the assumption she’s a melancholic custodian of metaphors and self-exploration, but a close listen to the Mental Illness single reveals much more. Those that have been listening closely throughout her career have long heard the sly confidence, sense of humor, and daring spirit that burn bright on “Goose Snow Cone” and the album as a whole. The song somehow traces the line between being inspired by a cat Mann saw on Instagram and intense loneliness.
Like so much of her work, Mental Illness is a remarkably direct, captivating love letter to vitality in the face of darkness, poured from the spirit of someone utterly enamoured with the human mind, which we are then invited to grasp. From the first note, it becomes clear that Mann has something more powerful going on than on past records, as well as engendering a feeling that you just want to be sitting beside her. That personal feeling comes from the same experience Mann so enjoyed herself. “The records that have impacted me most have by and large been like Elliott Smith, a quiet voice in a bedroom speaking to you with an acoustic guitar,” she says. “That’s the stuff that’s had the biggest impact on me.”
From the first exhale, you’ll want to pick at her music with the precision of a needle, as if tracing the stitches of a healing wound. With repeated listens, the lesion fully heals, and pure joy arrives when the truth about how the wound got there reveals itself. A feeling of defiance and strength, celebrating pain by pushing right through it and paving a new way for the heart to heal. “If there’s a familiar theme when I write a song, it’s probably because that wheel keeps turning, and you just hope that the next time it turns it doesn’t crush you beneath it quite as badly,” she says. Mann’s music is about softly, yet fearlessly making space for oneself in this world.
Here is an artist fighting through her own skin to not only strip away our preconceptions of this type of music, but also of the manner and sort of music that a powerful voice can charge. And all of this is done to gain a better understanding of self, to find the inner reason amidst the chaos, no matter how scary that may be. “If there are things that are inside you that are unknown, that you are not in touch with, they’re going to come out one way or another,” she admits. “But it’s better to have it come out in a conscious way, where you can reason it out and look at it rather than act it out and not know what the hell you’re doing wrong.”
In a conversation so dimensional and even more revealing than her already expansive songs, we spoke about her new album, breaking out of harmful thought patterns, and reckoning with music in the Trump era.
After sinking into this album, asking you how you are feels ridiculously loaded, even slightly elementary. How do you navigate this little spell you’re in before the album is released? Can you relax at all?
I took a lot of time off and actually finished this record last summer! So I’ve taken a lot of time off before releasing it. I had a good long few months to do all my relaxing. Right now, I’m going to go on one of those music cruises. I’m working, so it’s not a vacation or anything. It’s my friend Jonathan Coulton, whose record is being put out on my label, SuperEgo. He’s going to open the shows for me, and I wrote a couple of songs on this record with him, too. I’m playing in his band, so I’m learning his songs on bass. I’m also doing a show with Ted Leo, and I’m practicing for that. So, I’m not even thinking about my own tour yet.
There’s a little bit of beauty to that. You can focus on other things and then maybe this process will seem more natural. Jonathan Coulton is so incredibly talented. I listen to NPR’s “Ask Me Another” quite religiously, actually. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that.
[Laughs] He’s so great and so funny! He’s so committed to it, too, and does it so straight and deadpan. He really is such a good performer. I really envy his audience interaction. I wish I had that. He’s real with people, and I really admire that.
When you finished touring your last album, Charmer, did you stop and take a moment to figure out what you wanted to do, or did you just carry on? I know in that stretch you worked with Ted Leo, but do you ever take any sort of break?
There was almost no break at all to be honest. Ted was opening for me on the Charmer tour, and then we became friends and started playing and singing together while on tour. We decided we wanted to do a project together and immediately started writing songs, recorded a record, and put out the record. There was really no break between any of that. It was kind of like a four-year period from the fall of 2012 on, four solid years of just going and going and going. I suddenly just sort of collapsed right after finishing this record. I was like, “Man, I can’t imagine going on tour right now.” Or doing anything for that matter.
I always wonder about creative addiction or creative compulsion. The healthy kind, where you just keep going when you’re feeling creatively charged. There must be some kind of high that you get from it. You’ve been making music for such a long time. Is that something that you’re fueled by?
I think the thing that’s most inspiring, what I get the most enjoyment out of, is the songwriting. It really is just a great feeling when you have a complicated emotional feeling and you get it into words in as simplified form as a song; you distill the essence of it. I like to solve the puzzle of words and rhymes and meter. It’s just really satisfying. But it depends. Sometimes other people can inspire you, like working with Ted — that was very inspirational. He makes a live show really fun, so that made me really want to be in a band with him. That was a very specific feeling, just playing on stage. I wanted to do more of that. I really liked his songwriting; I liked him as a performer. He’s an incredible musician.
Especially the way you write — it’s more poetic than anything. There’s an intertextuality, where nothing is simple and linear.
Different songwriters have different things that are interesting to them. You can tell what their concerns are. I really like language and having lyrics not only mean something, or tell a story, or have some kind of emotional core to it. I like working with language and being a craftsman, too. For me, when other people do it, it enhances the story, and it enhances the experience.
And there’s a real sense of imagery in your music. I mean, you rhymed “gone” with “lexicon,” and I just gasped and said, “Oh that’s so Aimee!” For someone who loves language, there’s always a deeper connection. While there are different types of songwriters who get their own creative fulfillment, you must be ambitious to a certain extent, pushing yourself a little more each time?
It always comes down to the songwriting for me, and over the years I’ve come to like really writing with other people. It’s fun to throw ideas back and forth, utilizing somebody else’s skill set, which just makes everything easier. I’m not someone who insists that the idea in the song needs to come from me. But the songwriting is the most fulfilling part of it. The studio is fun, but a little less so because there’s always a little tension. It feels permanent, a forever. Suppose I make a mistake, and I later listen to it and realize I recorded the wrong thing, or didn’t play the right part, or it doesn’t sound right. There’s always a little bit too much stress there.
This record is your ninth, and at the risk of sounding incredibly syrupy right now, what does music mean to you after all these years? How is your relationship with it, and how have you kept going and honing your skill and your sound?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. All of a sudden, I feel very unable to articulate my ideas, but if I have a piece of music to write with, it helps me. It’s easier to listen to the music because it feels like the music itself is about something, and it’s easier to say, “Okay, what is this music about, and what story would go with this?” That’s better because I’m interpreting something rather than trying to put my own thoughts into words. Of course, they are my own thoughts, but it’s a catalyst that I think I need. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever thought of writing a book, but I really have to have the music in order to come up with the words. It needs to lock in with something; it doesn’t happen on its own.
That’s interesting to hear about the relationship between the two elements. I can understand how the two are interlinked, especially on the new record. Your voice feels more pronounced, different. I don’t know if that’s a weird thing to say.
No, it’s okay. I like it, and I completely agree with you.
When musicians loosen a tight grip, they can find new ways to form and shape music. Do you think there have been aspects of your vocal technique or even composition that you feel now that you might not have felt before this album?
My approach to composition hasn’t really changed, but sometimes if I have trouble coming up with musical ideas, I have tricks. I’ll have chords written on pieces of paper that I’ll throw up in the air, so I’ll have random sequence and see where that leads. But it all kind of adds up to the same thing. Your mind ends up listening, making changes, and interpreting something. It’s like a word-association test in a way.
But then why do you think that people equate that honesty, that realness to a feeling like “melancholy?” Though I don’t find this album melancholic, some songs are desperately sad…
[Laughs] Oh my god, yeah!
I was like, “No, I’m sobbing again!” But there are songs that are so beautifully uplifting. Why do you think people attach heaviness or darkness to depth?
People are always going to feel that unless something’s overtly happy, it gets put into the sad, depressing, or melancholy category. When someone articulates a feeling really well that’s maybe sad or upsetting, if they talk about it in a way that makes you understand it, and they articulate their complicated feelings about some terrible thing that’s also happened to you, it’s really uplifting to me. As a songwriter, you hope that you do that for people. Also, when you have a feeling, it’s just a big blur. You can’t parse it out, you can’t explain it to people, and you feel like an idiot because you have this unexplainable thing. And then you judge yourself for it. It’s really helpful to have somebody have similar feelings and say, “This is how it is, this is an image that helps to explain it, this is a metaphor that helps to explain it.” So, I hope that I do that for people, but that is certainly what so-called “melancholy music” does for me.
I just don’t understand how people shy away from it. I suppose you have to be self-aware, but also terribly self-doubt-y, almost on the cusp between the two. Sometimes I find comedians to be the saddest people when I wind up chatting to them.
Oh, my god, I know, and they really are. A lot of my friends are comedians, and they’re the most disturbed, saddest, most melancholy creatures.
It masks a vulnerability very well. What do you think is the most common misconception about you, then?
I don’t know about me, specifically, but certainly the “melancholy lady singer-songwriters.” I think people are really driven by wanting to be cool. And it just depends on what their definition of cool is, but usually it includes “not being weak,” and usually not being weak is defined as not liking things that ladies like. [Laughs]
As though you and your gender are speaking different languages.
I understand that wish to not be weak, to not have feelings, to not care. I’m no stranger to knowing what it’s like to want to be cool and have cool defined as not needing other people or not caring about things. But at a certain point, you have to go, “Well, is that the altar I want to worship at? Is that where I want to plant my flag?” It’s also a very weak position, ironically.
Isn’t the big conundrum in life to go with your gut, with what’s inside, to feel your heart? So if everything around you is dictating what you’re feeling, it makes sense why we all feel so whirlwind-y, because the world is like that and we’re trying to latch onto something that serves a purpose.
For me, it’s when people speak the truth, when people call a lie a lie. That’s very helpful to me. We’re in an era where our president is obsessed with the appearance of strength, and yet, what could be weaker than to be held hostage by the idea that people don’t like you?
Do you feel like the particular political situation that’s going on in this awful world has changed the kind of music that you feel is necessary to make?
I’m still a little in shock since November 8th. I don’t know how I feel about the role of music in my or anyone else’s life, and if it’s valuable. Things feel like such an emergency, and it’s hard to think about anything in subtler terms than putting out fires. I started listening to jazz, but a certain kind of jazz, like Miles Davis, very soft, and sad, lonely ‘60s jazz records. I found that very comforting. Maybe there’s some correlation between my record having a similar feeling.
I wrote a song about Donald Trump, and even that song, you try to put yourself in somebody else’s position. It’s like, look, I get what it’s like to be unreasonably angry and trying to find things to blame that anger on, and you don’t want to have any feelings about it, and then you get yourself into a hole, and your desires are competing and clashing. Donald Trump doesn’t want the work of the job; his idea was to be the most famous man in the world. “I’ll be king, and once and for all I can say, ‘See, everyone likes me more than you!’”
Like a child!
Like a child. But we all think like children once in awhile. And so on some level, I can relate to that. It’s just too fucking bad. That someone’s immature desires are going to affect us all in a really drastic way.
And the search for truth feels like a very motivating quality of your music. You certainly do seek that out on this album, especially the song “Poor Judge”. During the last line, you sing: “I can see your light on/ Calling me back to make the same mistake again.” You’re almost beckoning the listener to restart the album and go around again on the search, to live through the experiences again.
That song I co-wrote with a guy named John Roderick, so I have to give him credit. There is so much truth there, which is why I responded to it. I felt that that song had a great melody, but also supports an idea that I can relate to. In a couple of other songs, I had written about the idea that you’re trying to make a change, but you keep doing things over and over, and at what point in the cycle can I make a change? How do I make a change? What does a permanent change look like? I think that’s a big problem for most people. They want to change, but they don’t know how. They can’t see how the things that they’re doing are still more versions of the same.
How do you get out of repeating a thought pattern that might send you down the wrong road?
There’s two really simple things that I’ve learned to do. One is to ask for help, and the other is to ask for perspective. If you have three or four friends who you trust and aren’t crazy, ask them: “What do you do in your life?” And then take their advice. [Laughs] I’ve been around people who will say, “I can’t stand my life, it’s terrible!” And you say, “Well, how about trying this thing?” And they go, “No, I can’t!” Then I guess they’re just going to keep doing the same things. Ask for perspective. There’s a lot of times where I’ve been, you know, in a disagreement with somebody or in a friendship that isn’t working, and it’s driving me crazy, but it’s hard to know if I’m perceiving it wrong. Maybe I’m the crazy one? So, it’s good to have friends and say, “When you see me interacting with this person, what do you see?” Which is scary. Nobody wants honest feedback, because sometimes the feedback can be that you’re terribly misreading things. I often get, “That person was being nice, and you’re being the jerk.”
Then how does the story of this album resonate with your life over the last few years? You explore and expose friction between the ego and the crazy universal perspective that we all feel.
Sometimes it’s variations of the same struggles that you’ve had throughout your life. For instance, there’s a dynamic I can get into with friends that’s very similar to the dynamic I had with my stepmother, and I can recognize it, but when you’re in it, it’s still really hard. It’s really hard to know if you’re reading things wrong or if you should set more boundaries. But then where are those boundaries? Is it unreasonable to tell the person that they can’t come over? If problems have a historical echo, then it’s really tough to have perspective on it. So, when I write a song, if there’s a similar theme, it’s probably because that wheel keeps turning, and you just hope that the next time it turns it doesn’t crush you beneath it quite as badly. The hope is that you can recognize it and say, “Well, here I am in a similar relationship, but you know what, this time I can respond differently.”
The song “Rollercoasters” struck me for how blunt it is. You move from a chorus about theme park rides to repeating the words “Please, baby, please.” It’s just such a difficult and beautifully tragic contrast to put those kind of begging words to music.
You have those moments where you’re just like, “Oh come on, please, just give me what I want. Do the thing I’m telling you to do!” You know it’s not reasonable, you know it’s not possible, but you just have those moments where you’re just like, “Oh please!”
Do you find that you step into a role when you’re singing some of these songs? I’m thinking of “Simple Fix”, which is relentless. You sound quite calm about something that’s potentially dissolving. Do you find that you step into calm demeanor to detach from your personal perspective? How do you not let it swallow you?
It’s interesting. I do think that the very act of writing about it makes it a different experience for me. The tone of that song is very resigned. “I guess we’re just gonna do this forever. We’re just going to keep having misread tensions.” You can feel the depression of the narrator in it. It’s funny, because writing the song you build up to a chorus and sometimes surprise yourself to hear what you’re saying. When I came up with that chorus, it was very much a question that was posed to me. “What is the simple fix?” It’s like, I think it’s just “Get out.” Get out altogether. That’s the simple fix. Just walk away.
I particularly loved the song “You Never Loved Me”, with its rolling toms, falsetto backing vocals, and swooning strings. How did you and producer/arranger Paul Bryan approach this?
Paul wrote the string arrangements and they’re all so great, and song to song they’re really different in approach. I was really into this idea of background vocals, these ethereal ‘oohs’ that were partly ‘70s easy listening, partly a little jazzy. I would call it space-jazz vocals! I wanted to do them on almost every single song.
The title of the record, Mental Illness, is such an entrenched cultural image at the moment. Calling your album that is such a positive thing. I feel like people are really researching it, understanding it, linking their own mental health to conversations about it. They’re not afraid of it, as much.
Partly it’s a joke, but partly it’s true. There are songs about actual mental illness. The experience I’ve had with people with bipolar disorder and their behavior during manic phases. Someone I know who’s a pathological liar and probably has some sociopathy in there. Certainly our old friends anxiety and depression, they’re always there. When I was growing up, the joke was that anyone who went to see a psychiatrist had to have their head examined. People really thought that meant you were crazy in an eradicable way. They just didn’t understand. That speaks to the idea that if you ask for help, you are seen as weak. And people ought to be, in this viewpoint, able to solve their own problems. Well, they created their own problems? It’s not a mechanism that works both ways. The same brain that’s causing the problems is not going to be the brain that’s solving the problems.
The notion of the tortured artist has become this weird meme, this stubborn thing. There are studies tying mental illness to creativity where artists have gotten into a creative state almost similar to a bipolar episode.
That’s always been a trope, hasn’t it? That there’s a fine line between genius and crazy. I never really bought into that, because I feel that being creative takes a certain amount of stability, too. If I’m actually depressed, it’s almost impossible to work, because the state of depression is one of tamping down, not one of letting out.
Obviously that level of stability allows you more improvisation as well. You need to be quite stable to let yourself roam free.
That’s exactly right. I feel like structure plays a huge part in artistic expression, and it’s way undervalued. Because it sounds dull, but to me it’s essential. If I hadn’t learned music theory, structure, chord progressions, that kind of thing, I never would have become a musician. I wasn’t one of those where I could listen to a song and play it back. I had to learn about what the underlying structures were, and then I could be creative on top of that.
You’ve mentioned that you’re friends with a lot of comedians. You’ve got Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick on this album. Do you see comedy and darkness as inextricably linked in what you do?
I think it’s good to not take things too seriously. I don’t think that I have lines in my songs that are overtly funny, but they’re lines that make me laugh where it’s funny because it is true, but it’s blunt, like the title Mental Illness. That is so blunt that it’s kind of funny. It’s probably only funny to me, but there’s an element where the intersection with comedy comes in. When it comes to comedians, it’s their use of language, their specific choice of words and the arrangement of words. It’s very musical. Jokes might not work if you put certain words at the front of the sentence rather than the back. That’s fascinating, and I really admire that. That they can do that on the spot, without music is really impressive to me.
Comedians and songwriters are linked because the subject matter of each is social commentary. You’ve been on Comedy Bang Bang and Portlandia. Would you ever go further into comedy?
I just did a small part in this show called Hampton Deville that’s going to be on Comedy Central. I always say yes because I feel like there’ll be people who will help me make things funnier. As far as stand-up, I can’t even imagine. I took part in a roast for Paul F. Tompkins years ago, and I had friends write jokes for me. Delivering jokes, even when you know they’re great, is really hard. [Laughs] I practiced with a comedian friend, and he gave me tips, but I felt like that was one of the challenging triumphs of my life that I got through, and I got some laughs.