The Both: Going Where the Excitement Is

Music Features

Enthusiasm keeps popping up in a conversation with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, the duo of long-time established and acclaimed songwriters who have released their first collaborative album as The Both. And it makes sense, as one of the defining elements of the collection is the audible enthusiasm. One of the most basic levels on which it is displayed is through handclaps, a percussive tool that Leo claims was not always his suggestion, despite the predominance of clapping present on his previous albums with the Pharmacists.

“The second handclaps were mentioned, I was like a squirrel…” Leo says with Mann chiming in to finish his thought, only they say different things, with Mann envisioning the squirrel grabbing for a nut, but Leo seeing the squirrel instead “jumping on a fence.”

“Jumping on a fence to grab a nut,” Leo compromises, and even a simile about the simplest of topics becomes a small glimpse into both their friendship and their working relationship, which seem almost inseparable at this point, and that is probably why it works.

“I think it was the friendship itself that inspired the collaboration,” Mann says, recalling shared tours that eventually would see Leo joining her on songs to duet. “Spending a lot of time together on the road was super fun, and performing with each other was, too. It was this fresh element of performing that to me made me think we should write some songs together, have a little project. Once we started recording, we realized that we wanted to make a whole record and make it a real serious project.”

Mann rose to prominence in the ‘80s with her band Til Tuesday, earning a smash with “Voices Carry,” a song you know even if you think you don’t. She came back into the spotlight the next decade with the original songs for the film Magnolia, P.T. Anderson’s beloved third film. Since then she has been plugging away as a songwriter, collaborating with everyone from Ben Gibbard to James Mercer to her husband, Michael Penn.

Leo’s background is a little more punk-rooted, with him spending time with band Chisel before branching off to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Leo’s success has been more in the underground than Mann’s, as his biggest chart success came with his last album, The Brutalist Bricks, which placed at number 114 its debut week in 2010. Around this time, a false story circulated that Leo was considering retirement due to the realities facing struggling musicians, though the story did have some truth to it.

“I’m certainly not out of the weeds of debt and limited cash flow,” Leo says. “I didn’t have a huge budget to work with on a new record and with the time that takes place between albums after touring a lot, yeah, a little of the wind had gone out of the sails. With Aimee, and the whole idea of being a working musician again, it’s what enables me to approach this with the enthusiasm that I have.”

Though Mann scoffs at the idea that her career inspired Leo to persist as a songwriter, Leo claims otherwise, noting that Mann’s “enthusiasm to being a creative person” has reassured him, in writing music and in even the visual art that they did for the record, things Leo says he does need encouragement in sometimes.

“My approach has always been one foot in front of the other,” Mann says. “The music business is in such a weird time, where it isn’t easy to make a living and certainly people don’t buy records like they used to. Touring, well, I’ve never made money touring. So you try to scrape together a little money here and there, but I think the approach is to think of what the next thing you can do is. Maybe the next thing you can do is write another song. Or maybe it’s play a show, or book a tour. So it really is one foot in front of the other, and I’ll do that until there is no more steps.”

Sometimes those steps lead to an Oscar nomination for Mann, or regular appearances on The Best Show for Leo, and sometimes those steps lead to an album like The Both have made. Leo jokes that there “is very little thought” to these choices, to which Mann elaborates.

“We’re just going to where the excitement is,” she says. “And I think that is the key. If you are really enthusiastic about something, people will respond to it to some extent. I think people like to see others caring about something and putting energy into something regardless of what it is.”

Both Mann and Leo played music through generations where is was cool not to care, but their excitement about their project, and about music in general, is obvious in everything from the recently released music video for “Milwaukee” to, well, to the handclaps—about which they offer up plenty of opinions on what works.

“A meaty hand is preferred,” Leo says.

“Not too damp,” adds Mann.

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