Aimee Mann: Fame is the worst

The singer tells Salon we've become a nation of spoiled voyeurs -- and lost track of the value of the arts

Published September 15, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Aimee Mann  (Sheryl Nields)
Aimee Mann (Sheryl Nields)

From the outside, Aimee Mann has one of the most charmed careers in music: A devoted fan base for her always smart and refined songs, and her own label to promote and package her music as she pleases, whether in fancy editions or with graphic novelists doing the cover art. She's the boss of everything.

But she didn't get to this place easily. When Mann fronted 'Til Tuesday in the '80s, the pressure to change her sound, to be someone she wasn't, made her want to walk away from music entirely. And after she escaped the band and Epic Records, her first two solo albums, "Whatever" and "I'm With Stupid," ended up trapped in Dante-esque corporate infighting.

Mann wasn't having any fun -- or making any money. Geffen saw no hits when she submitted "Bachelor No. 2," which merely contained career-defining songs like "How Am I Different," "Red Vines" and "Calling It Quits." So Mann -- aided, yes, when her soundtrack to "Magnolia" earned an Oscar nomination for "Save Me" -- started SuperEgo Records and set out on her own. Thirteen years and several terrific albums later, it's one of the great do-it-yourself stories in music -- but not a road for everyone in the midst of creative-class meltdown. "I have a lot of help," Mann says. "It's asking too much that somebody know how to manage and promote and market themselves as well as make music and tour. I can, quote, 'do it myself' because I have three people there."

"Charmers," Mann's first album in four years, arrives Tuesday, and it's another super-tuneful and tasteful album -- a song cycle about the slicksters with the confidence and magnetism to draw others into tortured relationships that can only end in therapy. Mann's been eerily consistent for a decade; still, songwriting this solid and sturdy and hook-ridden shouldn't ever be dismissed lightly." There's a half-dozen songs here that rank with her very best, including "Labrador," with a rollicking melody that jumps up and licks you in the face; and "Living a Lie," a grand duet with James Mercer of the Shins.

Mann called from Los Angeles to discuss her long path to freedom, the sick charm of Paul Ryan, her visit to the White House, the role of the artist during tough times -- and the insanity of modern politics.

You have a new album out, but I'd like to start someplace completely different: You're so good with those small observational details, the devastating insight into a character. Have you ever thought about writing fiction? I keep waiting for an Aimee Mann short-story collection.

Well, I’m very aware [that] to be really good at any particular art form, one has to have worked on it for many, many, many years to master its particular structures. And I just think it would be too hard. I don’t think it’s that easy. Writing prose is very difficult for me. Because I just can’t. The music does something that helps me be able to find the words. It kind of relaxes me or puts me in a state of mind, or something. As you’ll discover throughout this interview, I feel reasonably stilted in trying to write words and formulate sentences. So I think it’s really not my thing.

You've been mastering this one form for 25 years. Was there a moment when you feel like your songs took that turn toward characters and observational detail and became a little less first-person confessional, like they were in the first part of your career? 

I think the last record, to me, had more of that kind of short-story-ish feel. But even so, I really like writing in the first-person or second-person. It’s just too distancing to write in the third person for a song. So I don’t think it’s ever going to get story-like in that way. You always have to relate it back to experience, to some degree, or it just doesn’t ring true.

This album explores the mysterious allure of the slick, charming man. What was the appeal of the charmer to you, and why did you want to take on that kind of guy?

I really admire people who are charming. It’s a skill that I wish I had. And I am kind of fascinated by it right out of the box. How do people get to where they feel at ease with other people and they can talk to anyone -- where they’re funny and clever and on the spot, and don’t seem to have any self consciousness? To me that’s really remarkable.

But I think that there is a kind of person who is charming who starts from a position of really mostly being concerned with appearances. And when you are mostly concerned with appearances, appearances become your area of expertise. You become expert in knowing how things look to other people, and how things are coming across, and how you’re coming off. And you can make that very subtle. That can be very subtle. Because part of that persona that you’re creating can have elements that look like humility. Or are generous. Or are self-deprecating. And it can really present this very fleshed out picture that is fascinating and attractive, but ultimately not real.

There's a fine line between the charmer and the sociopath, the way you describe it there. 

Yeah, I feel that it’s probably on a continuum. I feel like I’m definitely, like most people, fascinated by the idea and the question of what is a sociopath. Are they born or made? Are they, you know, a combination of the two? The malignant narcissist to the con man to the sociopath. It’s weird. I don’t know if those people are curable, or if they’re motivated to change. Or if they ever even perceive in themselves the need to change.

Do you feel the need to be a charmer, working in this field, performing before audiences? 

I’ve never felt that I was charming. But that would be awesome. Charming people are fun. They make people feel good. They’re entertaining. I don’t think I’m that. That would be great. I mean, some of it is basic social skills that I feel I’m sort of lacking in. I don’t think that all charming people are somehow broken or diseased or dangerous, but I think the whole subject is fascinating.

"When you're a charmer, the world applauds," you write in the title track. "They don't know that secretly charmers feel like they're frauds." There's anxiety attached to being charming.

People have actually said that to me. People in high-level jobs who have said, “I’m waiting to be unmasked as an imposter.” Which has got to be a tough place to be in.

The character in "Labrador" experiences charm from another perspective: He or she keeps being pulled in by that charm, and can't escape being loyal to somebody who does not treat them well. 

Yeah, I think there’s a fine line. It’s hard to know when loyalty is appropriate. Being a loyal person is a very admirable trait, but it becomes a character defect if you allow it to draw you back into situations that are bad for you. I definitely understand that dilemma. I understand the dilemma of [how] you want to believe that the other person has changed, and every time you make a move to get away, they come back and have a new angle. New promises. New ways they’re going to be different. Then it’s just always the same. I definitely know people who have been in those circumstances, and it’s tough. It’s tough to watch from the outside, because usually from the outside you can tell that it’s a disaster.

We’re always really good at spotting the problems in other people’s relationships, even if we’re making the same mistakes ourselves.

Exactly. Like, we can be doing the exact same thing ...

… and be completely blind to it. A lot of these characters are manipulative or going through major problems of their own. So for someone who insists she has never been charming, what's it like to imagine the situation from that point of view?

They’re usually derived from people I know one way or the other. Or people I have known. And I try to relate to them, to relate to both sides of it. That’s the most interesting thing to me. To try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. To try and see what it’s like for them. Or what it could be like for them.

That's what I was trying to ask earlier, perhaps without articulating it very well. Do you feel like you’re trying to write more from the perspective of other people now, compared on earlier albums that might have been more confessional? Or at least seen as more confessional.

I think now I definitely write more about other people. I always try to relate myself to whatever the situation is because that does keep it realistic, emotionally realistic and honest. I do. I don’t know if any of these songs are more about me, but most of them aren’t.

Was that a difficult switch to make at all, craft-wise? Because some of the 'Til Tuesday albums and even your first solo albums on Geffen -- they felt pretty pointed!

I don’t think so. Honestly, I think it’s part of maturity to try to, just as a person, relate to other people’s experiences. And to learn from their mistakes rather than make your own, over and over and over. I think that helps as a person if you can do that. So maybe I will learn from this.

Before you made that turn, there was a time when you were so frustrated with the way your albums were treated by record labels -- and the various messes and demands they'd made all the way back to the 'Til Tuesday days -- that you were ready to walk away from this entirely.

There was certainly a time when I wasn’t getting anything out of it in terms of being associated with a record label. Personally, it was very discouraging. The people were very discouraging. It wasn’t like I was making any money. And then, to add on top of that, people at the label were trying to control the music. You start to think, “Well, I’m not even making any money.” It’s not a situation where I can say to myself, “Look, you’re making a living. People are going to have to make concessions. Bite the bullet.”

So I was like, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this.” It’s one thing to sell out. It’s not like it’s even that easy. I think that when you try to tell somebody how to make their music and how to make it more commercial, how to make it some other way, then I’m trying to think with your brain. And I can’t think with your brain. So why don’t you do it, and I’ll go do something else. I wasn’t trying to be super stubborn. I just couldn’t do that. I just can’t do that.

Anytime I’ve sat down and tried to write a, quote, "song" I thought would be more commercial or a commercial song I thought they wanted, you know, I always ended up writing some jazz waltz or something. I was like, “This is really commercial.” And then you listen to it later and think, “That’s not a commercial song at all.” But that’s, you know, if you’re telling me to do that, that’s my interpretation. So, you can’t make people do things they don’t naturally do.

What you’re gonna get is a lot of people who are so desperate for attention that they’ll do anything to get in front of an audience and show off. And that should yield a lot of "great art." [Sarcasm.] Some of it will be. Because some of those people will, you know ... it doesn’t mean that they aren’t great artists. But you know how it is. If you get people whose main motivation is a desperation to have the approval of thousands of people, then emphasis on art isn’t probably going to be top of the list.

Fame is not a particularly good motivator for much of anything. 

And people have a really distorted idea of what being famous really entails. I think it’s very traumatizing for people. I feel sorry for huge movie stars who are followed around by paparazzi. I think it’s extremely psychologically tortuous and traumatizing. And I don’t think people want to acknowledge it because they have this belief that money and fame are at the top of their value system. That that literally is the goal. That’s madness to me.

Was that kind of fame ever a motivator for you? In the early days when "Voices Carry" was a smash?

No. You know, when I was a kid, I might have thought for a second, “It would be great to be famous,” but I think when you’re a kid what that really means is, “I wish somebody would care about what I did. Care about me in some way.” So, no. My brief brush with fame was when I was in 'Til Tuesday and we had a video that got played a lot. We were very recognizable for a couple of years. I just found it very unsettling. When people recognize you, they’re just going to be disappointed. Because you don’t know them. And they feel like they know you, but ... So you’re perpetually in that circumstance where somebody feels like, “You jerk. You don’t remember me.”

And I don’t want to disappoint people, but there’s nothing you can give a total stranger that’s going to make them happy in that circumstance.

I remember going to school in Boston and reading an interview with you, probably 20 years ago, almost an exit interview of sorts. You talked about being so miserable on those 'Til Tuesday tours that you were ready to cut your hands so you couldn't play.

Touring was exhausting. And that’s another big surprise because it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be difficult; it sounds like it’s going to be fun. And then you sort of start to understand those reports of, “So-and-so was hospitalized for exhaustion.” And I go like, “Yeah, that actually could be true.” Because I know what that state is. You don’t get much sleep. You often don’t get enough to eat. You’re keeping weird hours. It’s hard work. And you’re crossing time zones, so there’s an extra jet-lag exhaustion thing.

How did you manage to take control of your career again and get to a healthier place?

Over time you figure out what works for you, and you kind of insist on it. Leaving the major label really helped with that because the major label really pushes you to do stuff that you can’t do. And then you’re afraid to cross them because you feel like your fate is in their hands.

But once I was on my own, by that point, I’d kind of realized that touring ... well, if I’m going up for three weeks, then I’ll take a week off, take some time off. And if you have a bus, you sleep on the bus. Or you’re with certain people. All of those things are big factors. If you’re out with people that are really out of control or have a drug problem or something, it makes it a million times harder -- because it adds a lot of stress and chaos and drama to the tour and the group dynamic. You just have to be cognizant of all that stuff. And then plan it in advance.

Tell me about being at the White House for celebration of American poetry with President Obama and Michelle. That must have been a wonderful moment.

It was really lovely. And the White House is this adorable museum almost. We got to hang out the whole day there because there were two parts. The afternoon poetry seminar, where the poets talked about their process and they took questions from high school kids -- and it was really inspiring to listen to those people talk. It was just inspiring to be part of the whole day where this idea of poetry and art was really embraced as something that was actually important to humans. Not like in a “How many dollars is it going to yield if we educate our kids in the arts?” [way,] but [in the way] that it’s important as a human being to have art in your life. Because we’re not just a herd of fucking monkeys. We’re not just beasts roaming around in a pack. So that was very inspiring. It made me think about art in a way that I’d never thought about it before. It really was what defined us as a civilization.

How closely are you following the presidential campaign? 

It’s grim. It’s grim. There’s a great tide of fascism that is creeping in, and people are just getting used to it because it’s the slow boiling of the frog. And the media gets caught up in its own ... having to chase things that are sensational because of ratings. And the candidates get caught up in the thing of having to boil their messages down to almost a propaganda-type thing because they ... It’s a crazy system.

But they do, of course, attempt to be charming.  When I listen to the title song of the new record, the character I imagine is Paul Ryan.

Talk about his fucking six pack or, you know, that he’s hot or something. And I know that we’ve become this nation of voyeurs where like, we’re spoiled and we’re tired of everything and are just like, “Let us see his body!” It’s this kind of cynical posture that insulates us from the whole horror of what’s really happening. Nobody is talking about global warming anymore. It’s the main thing that we should be concentrating on, but you know, Obama’s gotta fucking campaign for a solid year because this is the fucked-up system we have, where anybody can buy an election.

It’s the last phase of the Weimar Republic. Right before someone swoops in and takes over. I mean, I don’t mean to be gloomy. I just think it’s kind of an accurate reading. I mean, when we’re talking about Ayn Rand -- that’s fucking crazy.

Speaking of Ryan, exactly. Unlike the character in the song, I'm not sure he believes he's a fraud. I think he believes he's all that and the six pack.

Well, they’ve got God on their side. You know, all thought kind of ceases when you think that God has signed off on what you’re doing, or you know what God wants you to do. You don’t second guess it. And then you lose all of your humility. There is no humility in saying, “I’m God’s right-hand man.” Because, you’re basically saying, “I’m my own higher power now. I’m the decider. I make the decisions." I don’t have to have a sense of humility to sit and think "What is the right thing to do?" It’s when you take on these kind of hard and fast and rigid rules that you apply to everything, you don’t really allow for ... That’s not allowing for any kind of presence of a higher power. Suddenly this discussion has gotten very deep.

What do you think the role of the artist, or the poet, ought to be at a time like this? 

I don’t think artists have a role. But I think, if everyone is lucky, you have the result where people are connected to each other. Once you’re connected and you realize that we’re all in this together, you do start to think about things like health care and global warming and poverty. Birth control. You know, you do start to think about that stuff. Because it’s not just all me.

I think that the vision of the right is the idea that I can go into the wilds of Alaska with a .22 and a bag of rice, and [say], “Fuck all y’all. I can make it on my own, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.” But, first of all, it’s incredibly unrealistic and incredibly arrogant ... and it’s a very idolatrous position where you are worshipping yourself and your own will. And it’s all about you, and you don’t see that you’re affecting other people, and you don’t give a shit.

It’s fun to believe that you are all-powerful. It’s fun to believe that you are a God in yourself. Everybody would like to believe that. It’s fun because it’s only about your ego and your ego would love to believe it. But it just isn’t true. And you can’t build a policy on top of a fucking delusion. Which is the place where we have come.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

MORE FROM David Daley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aimee Mann Music