Even after nine albums, Aimee Mann seems to always find a way to keep things fresh. She’s roared through concept albums, Christmas songs and soundtrack work; her last two albums “@#%&*! Smilers” and last week’s drop of “Charmer” have been decidedly pop-driven efforts, this new one with even more sonic layers and even a James Mercer duet.
The latter is especially representative of Mann’s all-in sensibility, whether it’s putting herself out there as a nihilist in “The Big Lebowski,” as a boxer and sport enthusiast, as a one-time-only standup comedian (“It was terrifying.”), or as an actress in Kickstarter-funded film “Pleased to Meet Me.” Musically, she’s put both feet in ‘70s- and ’80s-inspired power pop for the set.
Below, we talk about “Charmer” and her various relationships to film, comedy and songs about suicide.
This album feels very “up,” it’s very pop for you. Was there something in particular you wanted this to turn out sounding like?
I was really in the mood for a certain kind of pop record, or what I consider to be pop music. There was one song I was listening to, obsessively, which was “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. It’s their one weird song, it doesn’t sound like anything else that band did. But it’s got such a great vibe, both spooky and poppy. That fits a definition for my songs too.
Pop is such a loaded term, it can mean a lot of things.
Yeah, when you say “pop” to someone today, that could mean that it has dance club production all over it. But the first thing I think is Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb: really great songs… beautiful production. I think of the 1970s. I’m a huge Elton John fan, he wrote really great pop music.
I was working on a record with [New Pornographers’] A.C. Newman and we were listening to Gerry Rafferty, talking about Abba post-disco pop music. That gets you into the early ‘80s, with Heart and Blondie, all the way up to today with Death Cab For Cutie.
You have little stories in your songs, some real bummers, but you’ve got them in this pop sound. Does making pop music help you balance these raw emotions?
I just enjoy it more when there’s more going on. It’s like unwrapping a piece of candy and then you bite in and there’s another thing inside, different layers. It comes from one of my pivotal moments as a little kid. I was listening to the radio, and Gilbert O’Sullivan had like two or three hits. “Alone Again (Naturally)” was a really poppy song, but then my friend was like, “Did you know it's about a guy trying to commit suicide?” and I was like “WHAT THE F*CK.” It was a revelation, like a secret message, an impression.
You have a lot of humor in your writing too, little references and inside jokes. You also hang out with a lot of comedians, work with some and perform with comedians at your shows. What does that do for your creative dynamic?
I think performing with comedians helps me be more at-ease on stage. So is boxing, in some weird ways. I often will write something that I think is funny. Lyrics especially close to the bone I think are funny.
There’s also a dynamic of emotional honesty in your music and honesty in comedy. Comics are best at layering, with jokes having this layer of honesty. The art of caring and precision… my friend Patton Oswalt
is one of my favorite people and comedians. The words he chooses are perfectly chosen, carefully chosen for a reason. He could use one word, but close synonym of that word would not have done as well. Like in songwriting, there’s deliberation. Because words have meaning, each one is like “I care.”
Your live performances are especially fun because you try to have funny banter, it’s like lightening the mood after each song.
Yeah, you may be in a mood when you write a song, but when you go on stage, you’re not in that mood. I would love to think I’m funny.
You and Neko Case are similar in that you’re purposefully light-hearted at talking between your songs.
Neko’s funnier than me. I also have the advantage [that] the bar is low for nervous female singer-songwriters.
You’ve been in a couple movies, both writing music for them and acting. What’ve you been up to in that regard, aren't you going to be in something else? Do you want to work in film more?
I was just [shooting] “Pleased to Meet Me,” just this indie movie with a bunch of musicians, Joe Henry, Loudon Wainwright III, John Doe… it was really fun, and Joe’s so great and talented. I’ve never done any "real" acting so we were all super nervous.
But yeah, I’m not a film person. I barely even go to the movies. Isn’t that horrible?
To each their own. Is there a status update on "The Forgotten Arm" musical [a theatrical adaptation of her 2005 album of the same name]? I last heard it was on indefinite hiatus because “The Fighter” and those boxing movies came out at the same time you wanted to finish it.
We have a new story, and a new writer.
David Henry Hwang. But he’s got a million things going on, too, like the rest of us. All I know is that it will eventually happen.