Aimee Mann's latest solo effort — the intimate-sounding, lovely "Mental Illness" — has several distinct influences: the sparse folk Leonard Cohen favored early in his career and the luxurious soft rock of genre titans Bread and Dan Fogelberg.
The latter inspiration is anything but kitschy or insincere. Mann and her collaborators amplify and celebrate soft rock's meticulous songcraft and intricate vocal arrangements. "Good For Me" blooms with taffy-pulled backing vocals and immersive piano; Mann's vocals on "Knock It Off" are shaded by lush harmonic accompaniment; and the wintry "Goose Snow Cone" boasts honeyed acoustic riffs and ornate strings. "Mental Illness" feels like a cozy record to throw on while sitting by a crackling fire.
Thematically, however, the record shies away from soft rock's gooey-eyed romantic fantasies. Characters often have the rug yanked out from under them, as in "Poor Judge" ("You might have had some other reason to burn me like a tissue screen/ But my heart is a poor judge, and it harbors an old grudge") or "You Never Loved Me" ("I know the tumbleweed lexicon: You never loved me"). Other protagonists, such as the one featured in "Simple Fix," are stuck in a rut, held back by old habits: "But let’s call a spade a spade, I’m going nowhere/ I’m stuck in this hole afraid to make a move/ So once more around the track, another lap."
Mann checked in with Salon via phone from Los Angeles to discuss soft rock's "ballsy" nature, collaborating with songwriters John Roderick and Jonathan Coulton, and why caring about quality creative work matters now more than ever.
What were your major influences as the songs and lyrics were coming together?
For some of the songs . . . me, to a certain extent, but my friends [more] were dealing with [someone] who really did turn out to be mentally ill, to have bipolar disease with some sociopathic stuff in there. And it was just so strange. I ended up writing two or three songs directly influenced by that like the song "You Never Loved Me" is [based on] a friend of mine who had planned to marry this guy and moved across the country to be with him, and then he never showed up. It was like, "What?" It was this really crazy situation.
And then [the inspirations were] just the usual, you know, depressed people or anxious people or people doing the same things over and over [who are] stuck in patterns that they can't get out of.
The characters on the record are in a rut. And they're not necessarily sure how to get out of it. They're kind of coming to the realization that I'm in this rut. What do I do next? They're on the precipice of that.
Yeah, what do you do when you're in the rut? You know, I think everybody's idea when you find yourself in that rut is to think that it's about making big decisions. Do I do this, or do I do that? Do I leave the job? Do I move to Los Angeles? And the answer, of course, is do one small thing. You gotta walk yourself out, one step at a time, just like you walked yourself in one step at a time.
I mean, I don't know if this is necessarily reflected in the songs; now I'm just talking. It's always disappointing to have that be the answer because you want to have a big dramatic thing that you can do that will solve everything all at once. And it doesn't work that way.
Things are incremental. And you want to see a big change because then you're like, "All right something is happening; something is moving forward." And then when it happens gradually, if you're an impatient person especially, it's frustrating.
No one wants to hear, like, "Lose one pound a week." [Laughs.] "No, what will get rid of 20 pounds by the end of the week?"
You said you were listening to a lot of Bread and Dan Fogelberg when approaching this album. The older I get, I find myself really drawn toward that stuff and getting really sentimental about that style of music.
Ted Leo and I listened to a lot of Bread on long drives when we were on tour for our band The Both. I mean you wouldn't think Ted Leo would be interested in Bread. One of things I realized is that it was so pretty, but when I was a kid, I think, I sort of discounted it because I felt like that couldn't be cool.
To listen to it was really a different metric of what cool was. The musicianship is fantastic; the singing is beautiful. It's very soft, but it's kind of ballsy in how it just is like "Yup, I'm fucking soft, and I'm singing soft songs about how I would do anything to keep you" or "Go ahead and do whatever you want, and I'll be here forever." Like, it's so soft all the way through. And that's really kind of a statement — like, that's a bold statement.
It really is. And the fact that they owned it, too. It's not like "Well, we're just going to do one record." It's like "This is what we're doing. We are going to dig in our heels, and this is our career."
I'm sure [Bread's] David [Gates] had a lot of arguments with the other guy in the band who wanted to be in a cool rock band. You know, you're not in a cool rock band; you're in a cool soft band. Embrace the soft.
Was there any particular way that doing the Both record with Ted influenced the way you approached this record? Was "Mental Illness" a reaction to it?
It was more of a reaction to my last solo record, [2012's "Charmer"]. The Both record was actually pretty stripped down. It was a rock record, but there weren't a lot of things on it. It was a power trio, and occasionally there would be an acoustic guitar as well as electric guitar. But we kept it pretty [sparse] — some background vocals, some tambourine, some soul claps. So I think it's more a reaction to my last solo record, which was a more pop production, more fleshed out.
"Mental Illness" was so intimate as well, the production style and the approach. It's very inviting.
I tried to keep it really sparse. Once you're in the studio, it's very tempting to keep sprinkling things here and there — background vocals, piano, strings and fun sounds. It's like getting in the kitchen. I love that I go to a cooking metaphor — I can't cook anything. I imagine that it's like people who love to cook experimenting with different ingredients. But you can't put everything in one pot because then you'll have a big blob of brown. It takes a lot of discipline to keep yourself from continuing to add and add and add. [You need to] take the drawing away from the child before the child ruins it.
You worked with John Roderick, too. I've been a fan of his writing and songs with The Long Winters for years. How did that come about and what was the most gratifying thing about working with him?
Roderick's been part of that whole Jonathan Coulton, John Hodgman group. They're all friends. You know Roderick hasn't put out a record in a long time. And all his songwriting friends have tried to help him and get him to write songs with them because we're all dying to have another record from him. I don't know if it's that he's busy with 10,001 things, or if there's a lot of writer's block at play, or if he just doesn't feel like making another record. It's kind of hard to get him to focus on music. And I suspect that once I wrote a couple of songs with Jonathan, maybe his sense of competition came into play possibly. I don't know.
He sent me a song that was half written, that he had around that he couldn't finish. And that's one of my favorite things because I do like taking somebody else's idea and trying to match what they started, trying to figure out what they're talking about, what they're trying to say. It was very fun to call him up and say, "OK, and the second verse: What's happening here? Where do you want it to go?" And try to fit his ideas . . . you know, try to help him write a song, basically. When somebody starts a song, you want to be true to their original intention. It's very interesting and fun for me to see where that blend of two different writers can meet.
You would make a good editor because that's exactly the mindset you need when you're looking at someone else's writing.
It's fun to be an editor. You know, taking stuff out, adding stuff in and trying to match the new pieces together and discern the original intention of the writer. That really is fun for me. I feel like I've written enough records and I've written enough songs so that I don't have a huge thing of, like, "Every song has to be me and me alone. I have to prove something." I mean I feel like I've pretty much proven that I can write a song. Nobody's going to listen to a song and think that I didn't have a lot to do with it. I don't have to worry about that.
And it's fun collaborating with someone, too. Bouncing ideas off of people and saying, "Hey, what do you think?" It's very engaging.
It's a lot of fun. Unless you're dealing with somebody who has a huge ego problem [with] the bouncing back and forth of ideas, you can get to throwing out a bad idea really fast and coming up with better possibilities really fast, way more than you can on your own. Sometimes you come up with an idea, and then you have to mull it around. And a couple days later you're like, "Eh, that doesn't sound all that great." That process can happen in 30 seconds talking to somebody.
What was the best part about writing with Jonathan Coulton? He has such an amazing, colorful career as a songwriter, too. I've always really admired the way he's really built this career up from the ground up.
He's a great collaborator. He's really funny; he's really clever. His standards are very exacting, and so we share the same exacting standards. If he suggests a line and I say, "Well, that middle part is phrased kinda," he'll immediately know. And he doesn't try to hang on to stuff just because he thought about it. If it's not an exact rhyme, he immediately throws it out. He doesn't try to give you an argument about why it's perfectly fine to rhyme "home" and "alone."
I'm a Virgo and sometimes if things are not symmetrical, I'm just like, I can't do it.
When's your birthday?
Oh! Mine's the eighth.
Virgos are obviously better because we have standards.
I've gotten into trouble because I'm not afraid of telling people that.
But it makes us more stubborn, in my case at least.
I just think that you gotta make an effort to be better. You really do. If you're writing something, and you know it's not great — or could be better — then keep working.
If I can tell that my brain just is not going to come up with the answer or an alternative that's better, then I have to let it go. What am I going to do? You can't work on it forever. But you do have to push yourself a little bit.
When I'm writing, I take a lot of pride in my work. You want to push yourself, but you want to put something out that's quality. People are going to read it. You know there's expectations attached to it.
I think also there's a bigger thing that happens. There's something that happens when you encounter something that was created by somebody — whether it's a piece of art, a piece of writing or a well-cooked meal, whatever it is. When you encounter something that was done by someone who cares, it imparts the value of caring to the person encountering it.
If I'm working on this rhyme and this song and this verse to make it perfect, to make it as good as it can be, to make the rhymes perfect, to make the ideas cogent, to put interesting images in it, why? Is it going to sell more records? That's not the goal. The goal is to let you know that I care, and that it's important to care. And that it's important to care even when you're not going to get anything from it because that's how things change and become better in general, in the world. It is important because when I see somebody do something that they didn't have to do — but they did because they cared about it being good — it's exciting and inspiring.