"It's a tool, it's a Swiss Army knife": Aimee Mann on how individuals deal with trauma through art

The musician discusses her Audible Original, filling the interviewer's chair and ambitions for a graphic memoir

Published January 6, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

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

On Friday, Jan. 6, Aimee Mann kicks off the year by releasing an Audible Original, "Straw Into Gold." She dubs the audio project a "one-off longform podcast," which is an apt description.

"Art has a very specific function to me in that it is a language in which I can talk about things that I can't talk about — or don't have access to — in just normal language, in normal relationships."

With actor-comedian Connor Ratliff as a co-host, Mann has conversations with multiple people — including playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, comedian Maria Bamford, filmmaker Charlene deGuzman and musician and her bandmate Ted Leo — about the intersection of art and trauma. The interviews are often very moving and thought-provoking, as they delve into quite serious topics and illuminate the ways we cope with traumatic events.

Between these conversations, "Straw Into Gold" features songs from Mann's career, including tunes from Mann's latest studio album 2021's "Queens of the Summer Hotel," which double as music for an upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's novel "Girl, Interrupted."

Right before the holidays, Mann Zoomed with Salon about recording "Straw Into Gold" and what she has in store for 2023.

How did you end up getting involved in recording this Audible Original?

It's slightly convoluted. My last record, "Queens of the Summer Hotel," was music that I wrote for a stage adaptation of "Girl, Interrupted," which still has yet to be staged. That was commissioned by a team of producers. Somebody on that team was friendly with somebody at Audible and suggested it. 

Backing up a bit, how did you end up getting involved with "Girl, Interrupted"?

The team of producers is Barbara Broccoli and Fred Zollo and their daughter Angelica. Angelica was a big fan of mine and was very familiar with [my] album before ["Queens of the Summer Hotel"], which is called "Mental Illness." She felt like I would be really — which I can't disagree [Laughs] — a good fit for a stage adaptation of a memoir about being in a mental institution.

I read that book when I was younger and, in hindsight, it's unbelievable how groundbreaking it was. The book was on the forefront of talking about mental illness and things that we just weren't talking about then.

Yeah, exactly. In this very frank way, too. [Kaysen is] taking the stance almost as an anthropologist and reporting on bare facts — this conversation, and then this happened, and we did this. But you don't really know much about the writer herself, what's going on. There's not a lot of inner life. You have to sort of extrapolate. It was interesting writing music [for it].

When you were doing the Audible project, what did you want to do either differently from that — or the same? 

Well, I had a podcast with my friend Ted Leo, who's also on the Audible Original. It was called "The Art of Process," because I had started to really get very interested in people's artistic process and how that happens for them, and how an artistic endeavor becomes a language that you speak in. 

From there I started to get interested in how the fact that so often art has a really interesting role in [certain] people . . . I mean, that trope of, "Art has to come from the tortured artist," or "Genius and madness are so close," and that kind of thing.

"For some people, art was a way to process. For some people, it was a mask. For some people, it was humor."

And so I was interested in: What are the true parts of those tropes, and what are the untrue parts of those tropes? Art has a very specific function to me in that it is a language in which I can talk about things that I can't talk about — or don't have access to — in just normal language, in normal relationships. 

I was really interested to see if it had the same function for people I knew or if it functioned differently. And it does function differently, but it definitely has a very specific function for the people I've talked to who have been traumatized. It's definitely a part. Art and trauma have a relationship.

That's what I liked in listening to the Audible project: Everybody you interviewed brought a different perspective to trauma and how they went through it, how they responded to it, how they're going through it now, and how it affects their life. I really thought that that led to richer and deeper conversations. Because you're friends with them — and knew them going into it — did you anticipate it would happen like that? What did you expect — and how did it differ from how it turned out?

It only differed . . . I mean, I did know Charlene deGuzman beforehand, and I know Maria Bamford, but not super well. Jonathan Marc Sherman I know really well, and Ted Leo I'm very close friends with. 

What was interesting is nobody had the exact experience that I did. For some people, art was a way to process. For some people, it was a mask. For some people, it was humor — like a way to distance themselves from it, or process emotionally by distancing with humor, even the non-comedian. I don't know, it's really interesting to see how it functions. To me, it's like this really magical thing. 

And, strangely enough, I had never really talked to Ted about it, even though he's the person I'm closest to and had a podcast about artistic process with. I mean, I was really moved by hearing the almost life-saving function that it had in his life.

Aimee Mann's Straw Into GoldAimee Mann's "Straw Into Gold" (Audible)

Having the Audible project as mini podcasts lends itself to these conversations. You were able to get deep enough to get to that place, but each of their little vignettes felt very satisfying. And so I thought that format functioned especially well.

Doing a 90-minute podcast is very daunting, and so I was really glad to get Connor Ratliff to help me. Are you familiar with his podcast "Dead Eyes"?

I'm not, but I know his story about the concept of the word.

It's so great. And what's really interesting to me is within this story — which is professionally traumatic for an actor to have a job and then lose a job and then lose a job with this weird comment about, "You have dead eyes" . . .

. . . from Tom Hanks!

If somebody told me I had dead eyes when I was 20, that would probably haunt me for the rest of my life too.

I would always look in the mirror and think that. It would always be in the back of my mind. If I saw the person who said it to me, it would reopen that wound every time.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, you know how that is. Somebody makes some remark about your looks, and then that's all you can see for the rest of your life.


"His own relationship to the bad experiences that he's had make him feel invincible on stage."

I mean, it's interesting because it's not not traumatic, but it's not traumatic on the same scale. But there are experiences that he had that I know about that he didn't really want to talk about that I absolutely would qualify as traumatic. 

First of all, he has a great sense of narrative, so that's why I wanted him to help me with this, to corral all these interviews, and to help with the interviews too. He's very good at listening to people and then taking the conversation where it goes, where I'm very anxious about, "Are we staying on topic?"

He really added a lot. But his own relationship to the bad experiences that he's had make him feel invincible on stage. If somebody yells something or something goes wrong or something breaks, he does not care. [Laughs.] He does not care. He's like, "I'm going to go with it." It gives him a kind of courage, which is a really interesting take on what trauma in your past can do for you.

I admire that, because I am not there if I have to get on stage. I could not do that. That's such an admirable trait that he can do that.

Yeah. Same. Same. I feel confident on stage only in very controlled circumstances. [Laughs.] 

I'm a Virgo, so I need to know what's going on. If something messes up, we have problems. So yeah, I'm with you.

Exactly, same. [Laughs.]

The conversations were also so intense. Being the interviewer, what was that like for you then? Was that an intense process? I admire how vulnerable and honest people were being, but I know that from doing interviews that can be really draining and sometimes be a lot to take in.

It's very sad. I really feel for people. Jonathan Marc Sherman, the two of us are working on a couple of projects, so we work together. I really feel for him on a very deep level. I really feel for Ted on a very deep level. It's hard to not take it on and choke up, which I definitely did. Even though with Sherm you can tell that he has a way that he tells his story. He has a prepared paragraph and it's still . . . even with a prepared paragraph, it never won't be rough.

You really get a new respect for people who work as therapists, psychotherapists that deal with this. I have friends who are, and I admire them so greatly, because I would find that so difficult not to take that stuff home and internalize it when people are trying to work through things.

It's a difficult line to toe of empathizing with somebody and then feeling it yourself. I agree. I admire somebody with the kind of boundaries where they can empathize but not . . . some of it just takes over and it's like, if you're feeling it, I'm feeling it. I can't really differentiate.

"Everybody has their own individual relationship to art. It's a tool, it's a Swiss Army knife."

After doing all these conversations you had about trauma, what takeaways did you have? Did you glean any new insights?

I mean, this is really trite, but just a self-criticism — I wish that I had just been able to listen to people. This is because doing a podcast and interviewing people is very difficult and it's very difficult to . . . I want to make people feel at ease, but I'm also trying to think of the next question that I need to ask them. So it's very difficult to listen and let the conversation go where it wants to go and not feel nervous that it's getting off track. 

In listening back to some of these interviews, I realized at the time I didn't really hear what they were saying, to a certain extent. I don't think it really hit me, which each person was saying, "This is the way art works for me, and this is how art has blossomed out of trauma," or because of trauma or in spite of trauma.

So I wish I was more able to listen and ask more follow-up questions. But having Connor there I think made up for that because, once again, he's really good at listening. 

[And it was] realizing, OK, so the triteness is everybody reacts in their own way. Everybody has their own individual relationship to art. It's a tool, it's a Swiss Army knife. It's a tool that can be used in a lot of different ways that people use in a lot of different ways which is endlessly interesting.

There are also different songs of yours in the broadcast. Some of them are from the "Girl, Interrupted" rerecording. Did you have new insights after taking them on, after being immersed in this trauma? And why did you choose those particular ones to appear in the Audible broadcast?

I knew a lot of those songs [from "Queens of the Summer Hotel"] would be appropriate. But I actually had Connor choose them. When I first started listening to his podcast, I loved the way they used music in there and I loved the way they created narratives sometimes out of interviews where you're like, "This is just rambling." And then they bring it together, and I was like, "Man, that's an impressive feat." So I love the way they did narrative and then they would use music to illustrate, to highlight, to wrap things up. 

Very early on, I said, "Any music of mine you ever want to use, feel free." And they used a song for every episode. And so I would listen to the episode and get to the end of it and go, "Man, that's a great choice. I never would've . . ." [Laughs.] Because sometimes your own music, you remember why you wrote it or what was happening when you wrote it, and it's very hard to see how it can sound, or certain lines can fit in a different way, or it can sound different to other people. So I asked him to choose the songs that he thought, given the topics and what we were going to be talking about, that he thought would work.

It's so interesting to hear his perspective. I love that. It's like when you have a movie that has really good music placement, or they use just the right song in a scene. There's such an art to that and it's so difficult to do that.

Yeah, the right song at the right time. It's like placing songs in a musical. They have to work together as a string of beads, and they have to work with what's come before them, the topic that's come before them, or the dialogue that's come before them. 

You've also been doing a lot of really wonderful drawings and cartoons in the last few years. Did working in that medium influence the way you approached these interviews or the topic?

"Music immediately makes you feel something. There's no lag and there's not a lot of subtlety."

Not really. What's interesting to me is everything influences everything. The medium of doing cartoons, having a picture, figuring out what the picture should be, having the caption or having dialogue, having a short amount of time to make a point or to tell a little story, is very much like writing a song. You're very limited. It's by necessity very truncated. To me, there's an interesting parallel. It's harder for me to think in visual terms. So it's been kind of an interesting exercise for my brain to try to do that, to have the picture be evocative in the way that music is evocative. 

Music immediately makes you feel something. There's no lag and there's not a lot of subtlety. It's almost like it forces you to feel the thing. As soon as you hear it, you can feel the thing that the person who wrote it felt, to a certain extent. If you hear Chopin's funeral march [sings a bit of this], you're like, "I feel a sense of dread." [Laughs.] So music to me is a kind of sorcery because it's so immediate, and then the mixing of language together with [it]. But the visual thing — cartoon is much more subtle, you get a little of that flavor, but not much.

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I saw someone recently post some Charles Schulz "Peanuts" strips and talking about the subtlety, and how he used three versus four panels and how it worked. When they spelled it out, I was like, that's very true. I never even realized it. It is very, very subtle. The pacing is different, the beat's different. It's so interesting.

It's really interesting. And then getting into a deeper thing, like a graphic novel, the way things are paced on the page, what direction things are facing to go from one panel to another. 

At some point I'm going to write a graphic memoir, which is very daunting because it just isn't my medium. And also because it's so solitary. Once you've written music, you get to be in the studio with other people, you get to be on a stage with other people. I really like the community aspect of music. Cartooning is a weird, lonely, insular drive-yourself-crazy activity. [Laughs.] I've got to figure out a way to be able to continue to draw in Starbucks.

I was talking to the cartoonist Adrian Tomine, who's so great, just to ask his advice. And he was like, "Listen, if I could change one thing, it would be, 'Don't chain yourself to one place.'" He was like, "I was always so concerned about, 'I have to use this desk and this ink with this exact kind of lighting.' And the consequence was I never got out of the house, I never did anything, I didn't travel. He's like, "Pick a method to do it that enables you to be a little bit more mobile."

What do you have on deck for 2023? 

Well, it's funny because touring post-pandemic is really, really difficult. Every band and every act is trying to go out at the same time in the last year and a half. And so it is really hard to route a tour and get the venues you want and buses are twice as expensive. Financially, it's really hard to figure out how to do it. So I don't think I'll be able to tour until the summer — and so I probably will start the book. I'll start figuring out how to do my drawings at Starbucks. [Laughs.] Or just do a tour of all the coffee places in LA.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Aimee Mann Art Audible Interview Music Straw Into Gold Trauma