Subversive Sensitivity

Subversive Sensitivity

Subversive Sensitivity

A Q&A with Aimee Mann


By Geoff Gehman


Aimee Mann specializes in writing sensitive, smart-ass, smart songs about the need to control, be controlled and lose control. She dissects domination in tune after tune after tune: “Pavlov’s Bell,” “Deathly,” “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas.” Her knack for musical therapy is exploited in the film “Magnolia,” where the major characters—all addicts of one kind or another–sing along with a recording of her singing “Wise Up,” a hauntingly stark reminder that surrender may be the first step to easing suffering.

Enablers mix it up with disablers on Mann’s latest record, “Charmer,” released by her self-created label, the aptly named SuperEgo. “Crazytown” follows a cry-wolf woman who makes mental mincemeat out of foolish fixers. In “Labrador” a loyal guy confesses he fetches his girlfriend’s lies, politely known as “artful rearranging.” Both tunes feature Mann’s brisk blend of fluid melody, punchy pace and a voice that feels attached even when it sounds detached.

Mann will sample “Charmer” as well as her charms on April 27 during her first show at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. She’ll share the stage with her new songwriting partner, Ted Leo, a post-punk who plays a nicely spooky guitar in their live version of “Voices Carry,” Mann’s 1985 hit with ’Til Tuesday. Their union continues her adventures with visual artists, comics and filmmakers. In the video for “Labrador,” for example, she plays an obedient companion who suddenly becomes disobedient, a spoof of her part in the video for “Voices Carry.”

During a recent interview from her Los Angeles studio, Mann seemed in control even when she admitted she wasn’t. She easily discussed her unwillingness to write songs with her husband, songwriter Michael Penn, and her unwillingness to listen to her songs with strangers listening.


Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?

A: The first song I really paid attention to, in a different way, was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” I was about 10 and listening to it on the radio when a friend of mine turned to me and said, “You know it’s about a guy who’s going to kill himself,” and I said, “Are you kidding me?” It just blew me away that buried in this song was this really serious, real story. It was the first time I felt that you could say things really important and meaningful in a song almost subversively. It was pretty spooky.


Q: Your musical points of reference while making “Charmer” ranged from New Wave albums like Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ very catchy hit “Jackie Blue.” Did you have any lyrical touchstones? Were you inspired, for example, by that line you like in one of your husband’s songs: “When you think he likes you, you like the way he thinks”?

A: The inspiration was more general than specific. When you start out thinking about charm you naturally begin to think about narcissism, about how you care about appearances and the impressions you’re making. Charm is a way to control the way that people think about you.


Q: Can you think of a favorite, or least favorite, charmer in the music industry who shall go nameless–or not nameless?

A: Heads of record companies who are honestly not that charming–just powerful and very narcissistic. They all have that I’m-the-one-with-the-magic-ears personality. It’s one thing to say: “Oh, I can’t stop singing this song—we have to make it a hit.” But this approach where “We’re going to hammer this together and see how it works”—that always drives me crazy. Manufacturing a song in this deliberate way—obviously, to me, it’s not what music is all about.


Q: I love to discover the surprising afterlife of songs, how they zig when you expect them to zag after you release them to the world. Which song of yours has had the most surprising reception?

A: A lot of people say that “Little Bombs” is one of their favorite songs. It always surprises me when anybody picks out any song of mine they like. When I hear one of my songs played over a public-address system–that’s always very awkward. There’s nothing that makes me want to leave the room faster than hearing one of my songs. I’m worried I’ll hear people saying: “Oh, this dumb thing.”


Q: I know you’re curious about rehab programs; you’ve even attended 12-step meetings. Do you think “Wise Up” could be used for a 12-step campaign?

A: I think so. I’ve actually had friends in 12-step programs who have told me that [“Wise Up”] was a significant part of them getting sober. When somebody tells you that hearing your song led them in part to going to rehab–that’s a pretty heavy statement.


Q: You like working with comics, partly because they’re brave, partly because they inspect familiar things from novel angles. Have you picked up any tips from comics about performing live?

A: It can’t really be boiled down to advice. You soak up an energy, a certain kind of being at ease onstage, that’s helpful. Just watching how their minds work is inspiring.


Q: Touring is highly unnatural and sometimes inhumane—except, perhaps, to a salty dog like Bob Dylan. So how do you stay comfortable and sane on the road?

A: If there’s food on the bus, there’s one less thing you can worry about. A place to put your clothes, a spot to relax—they’re very important, too. The other thing that makes a huge difference is choosing musicians you’re friends with; compatibility is essential when you’re basically living together.


Q: With your fondness for working with songwriters, comics and filmmakers, what would you think about touring in a three-ring show along the lines of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue?

A: That sounds like a lot of fun. I’d like to go out with just two or three people. I’d like to keep it just under carnival/circus level.


Q: Why were you picked to join a poetry celebration at the White House and what did you get out of the event?

A: I think I was included because one of the social secretaries there is a fan of mine. I hope I was included because my lyrics are really good and I would fit in. There was a seminar in the afternoon for high-school students where poets talked about what inspired them. It was really fascinating to listen to people in a different form talk about their relationship to words and to art. I don’t read a lot of poetry, so being around poets was a very refreshing change of pace.


Q: Do you like to write with other songwriters because you’re curious about their processes, and because collaborating makes writing less lonely?

A: I like writing songs alone. I was drawn to working with Ted [Leo] partly because we get along well as friends, partly because he comes from this melodic post-punk world that’s not really close to me. I wanted to find our common denominator; I wanted to find where we’d meet.


Q: You’ve said that you don’t write songs with your songwriter husband because you’re both procrastinators and perfectionists. But do you test new tunes on each other?

A: Not very often. I’ll ask him for advice if I think a song needs a bridge–or if I’m too lazy to write a bridge. Or I’ll check with him if something I’ve written sounds familiar and I want to make sure that I’m not ripping off a melody unconsciously.


Q: So, Aimee, do tell: What’s the most charming part of your personality?

A: Nobody should be the arbiter of whether they’re charming or not. You have to leave it up to somebody—or everybody—to tell you you’re charming–or not.


Aimee Mann: The Scoop


The 2003 deluxe edition of her CD “Lost in Space” contains her live version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”

Her passion for boxing is illustrated by illustrations of boxers for her 2005 CD “The Forgotten Arm.”

She and her songwriter husband Michael Penn have scored three films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson: “Hard Eight” (Penn), “Boogie Nights” (Penn) and “Magnolia” (Mann).

Her Acoustic Vaudeville tour featured comics Patton Oswald and Janeane Garofalo.

In an episode of the TV series “Portlandia” she plays a singer-songwriter-maid adored and abused by her employers.

The Huffington Post named her one of “13 Funny Musicians You Should Follow on Twitter.”


Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. The “Wise Up” singalong in “Magnolia” is one of his favorite musical movie moments. He can be reached at