Catching Up With… Aimee Mann

Music Features Aimee Mann

When we were going through our Aimee Mann photos for the second issue of Paste back in 2002, we were surprised that in one of them, she’d broken into a beautiful, wide grin. Because we couldn’t recall seeing a picture of her smiling, we ran it on our cover. That’s why I cracked up when I heard that her new album was called @#%&! Smilers.

Paste: So, Aimee, what is it about smilers that you’re rebelling against here?
Mann: Well actually, I just thought it was kind of funny. There used to be this news group called Alt.Bitter that a friend of mine and I used to read and then kind of compare notes on, and one of the threads was “Fucking Smilers.” And it was people who were bitter about when other people would, like, pass them in the hall or whatever and say, “Smile! It can’t be that bad,” and that kind of thing. Which I always did find really irritating, I mean don’t you think it’s irritating when people tell you to smile if you’re not in the mood? I mean, even smiling for a picture, being told to smile for a picture, like a school photo, is kind of annoying. ’Cause you know, if you felt like smiling, you’d be smiling. So I think it was kind of inspired by that, and I was thinking about that news group because I had read this article about some study that was done on the kinds of images that people respond to, and human faces were what people responded to most. Universally everybody responds to a smiling cartoon face. So I thought that was kind of funny. And that sort of went along with the artwork that I wanted to have. It’s not a smiling cartoon face actually, but it is a cartoon face. He’s like a cranky little guy. It was supposed to be a smiling face, but the artist took it in a different direction.

Paste: You have no electric guitars anywhere on this record; what prompted that decision?
Mann: It wasn’t really needed. Me and the bass player, the drummer and the keyboard player rehearsed together and cut the basics together, and then realized that the basics were full and great. And we did a couple of overdubs with keyboards, but the keyboards really held down that sonic space that a guitar usually takes up, without [interfering] with vocals [the way] an electric guitar can. So we were just really enjoying the sort of interwoven keyboard sound.

Paste: There’s a lot of string arrangements here, as well.
Mann: Yeah, there’s some string arrangements and there’s some horn arrangements, too. We just wanted to change it up from song to song. I think the keyboards and analog sense really play a big part too.

Paste: Despite those changes, it’s not a huge departure for you. But one of my favorite songs on the album, “31 Today,” definitely has the keyboards right up front and in your face, so that’s a little something different.
Mann: I think keyboards aren’t usually featured that much on my records, especially not played this way, and generally not sort of those analog synthesizers—the Moogs and stuff, Clavinets and Wurlitzers.

Paste: You also have a song on here that you co-wrote with Grant Lee Phillips, what was that like?
Mann: I had pieces of a song. I had the music, but I didn’t have the lyrics and I didn’t really know what to write about. I sort of had some words for the chorus, and then he gave it this great sort of odd twist, like a ghost story, and I added a little to it and turned it more specifically into a story about a séance. But that’s very Grant, too, which I really like. That’s really his sensibility; the idea of a ghost story is sort of perfect for him.

Paste: Had you done much co-writing in the past?
Mann: I used to do a lot of co-writing with Jon Brion when we worked together. Every now and then, it sort of depends. It’s a fun thing to do, but it’s not that easy to match up skill sets.

Paste: Early in your career you had to fight a little bit with your record labels and that angst came out a lot in your records. What are you using as your muse these days?
Mann: I think everybody’s interesting. People always have dramas going on, and problems, and intrigues. People are fascinating. There’s kind of no end of things to write about. You just have to be interested in things.

Paste: Being on your own, independently now, does that make things smoother sailing for you?
Mann: It’s certainly smoother sailing when it comes to writing and recording because I don’t have that feeling that somebody’s looking over my shoulder, and so much of my time before was spent trying to figure out strategies for getting stuff on the record in a way that would circumvent arguments about why it wasn’t commercial enough or something. Which I always thought was ridiculous, because I always felt that my music was completely accessible, and I never understood that I would get in an argument that I was too left of center. That just seemed crazy to me. But you have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how you were going to pitch your own record basically to them in terms where they would kind of not give you a hard time about it. But you know they always do because it’s just reflexive, so that was a drag.

Paste: So much in the record industry has changed since then. Do you think it’s going to be easier or harder for new artists?
Mann: I think it’s going to be harder. Record companies now are…the kinds of deals they make new artists sign are deals where they sign away everything because it’s so hard to make money selling records. So you sign away the money that you’re going to make if you sell t-shirts; it’s this all inclusive thing where it includes merchandise and anything else you may do, songs you have in movies, and anything else.

Paste: I’m sure you have artists coming up to you looking for advice, are there any words of wisdom that you usually share?
Mann: No, I mean, I don’t have people coming up to me for advice and there is no advice. I wouldn’t know how to maneuver around the climate today. I wouldn’t know how a new artist could make money. Obviously it’s not all about making money, but just making a living even, I really can’t imagine.

Paste: So much emphasis these days is put on the relationship between the artist and the fans, being accessible on blogs and things. Is that something you embrace or enjoy?
Mann: I write a blog every now and then, but I’m just really bad about keeping it up, you know? I can’t even manage to call my father once every three months. Yeah, I think I’m just essentially lazy and forgetful, which are two sort of deadly…it’s kind of hard to keep a constant stream of information going.

Paste: You’re going to be doing a lot of touring with this album. Anything we can expect from a live show?
Mann: No idea! The one thing we are going to do is we’re not taking an electric guitar player; we’re having two keyboard players, so it’s going to be crazy keyboards. And the two of them when they get together, it’s just a nerd festival. It’s so fantastic because they do nothing but discuss obscure old keyboards and sound and patches, and it’s hilarious, [like] dueling keyboards. We’ve played a little bit together with the two keyboards, and it’s pretty great, I have to say.

Paste: Have you tried any of the old songs with the keyboard arrangements?
Mann: Yeah, we have. You know, it’s totally doable.

Paste: Any old songs that got a new life with the keys?
Mann: Well, we did a little touring last summer. I can’t actually remember what we played, but I remember feeling like I really enjoyed actually hearing older stuff without the electric guitar. And our keyboard players, both of them are so great, and they just are really good at figuring interesting ways to solve those kind of problems and make it sound interesting and make it sound cool and full and exciting.

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