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Aimee Mann Talks Embracing Her Acoustic Side on Mental Illness: 'It's a Person Talking to You in an Intimate Way'

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Richard Boeth/CBS via Getty

For good or ill, Aimee Mann has earned a stellar reputation as a purveyor of introspective, softly-strummed acoustic ballads that will make you reflect and possibly weep. That her two most recent albums—2012’s deliciously electro-poppy Charmer, and her seriously rocked-up 2014 partnership with Ted Leo for The Both—stray far from this territory apparently matters little. Her role as the tortured troubadour largely originated with her Academy Award-nominated work on the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia (hear the gorgeous “Save Me“), if not the pair of engaging, critically acclaimed solo albums that proceeded it. 1993’s Whatever and 1995’s I’m with Stupid allowed Mann to jettison her past as a big-haired New Waver in the synth-drenched ‘Til Tuesday, but this most recent stereotype as a bummed out fingerpicker is a little harder to shake.

On her latest offering, Mental Illness, she embraced it with good humor. The album is a self-described collection of deliberately downbeat, melancholic tracks that showcase her skill for finely honed character studies and delicate confessionals. On first blush you might think that Mann is merely playing to the crowd, but not so. There’s a relaxed air of self-acceptance that pervades the album, mixed with the thrill of rediscovery. The return to a familiar realm seems to have spurred Mann to new lyrical heights. More than a self-depreciating wink, the title reads as a challenge to listeners—and other performers—to go deeper, and discuss the supposedly taboo topics we’re conditioned to keep inside.

Mann spoke to PEOPLE about Mental Illness, making records for a digital culture, and how she finds compassion through her music—even for Donald Trump.

SuperEgo Records

In the press release, you’ve described your new album as the “saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it-record” that you could make. What led you down this path? And do you need a hug? [laughs]

[laughs] I think it’s always a little back and forth. You do one thing and then you’re kind of doing the opposite thing. [2012’s album] Charmer was pretty poppy and uptempo, and then immediately on the heels of touring for Charmer I wrote and recorded a record with my friend, Ted Leo and we stated touring as the band the Both. That was a real rock trio. So I think I just got my hard rock needs met by playing with Ted. And then I felt like that gave me permission to do really what was most fun for me: just writing very introspective, quiet songs on acoustic guitar.

What elements did you draw on for Mental Illness? I hear traces of ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriters. 

I went back and I listened to bits and pieces of older records just to see different kinds of guitar sounds and things like that. One of the songs we listened to was Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” That was constructive because I think that’s a nylon string that he’s plucking with his fingers, and the bass has this sinewy thing. We also looked at early Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. There were some easy listening records that I listened to for fun because I love those soft backing vocals. [Burt] Bacharach is always a go-to. Me and Ted listen to a lot of Bread. Those records are so great, because the sound of them is so great. It’s the kind of thing as a kid you think is really uncool, but I listen to it now and I think it’s so musically adept and the playing is so good.

I spoke to your friend Ben Folds recently and he talked about the power of using first-person in lyrics. Even if a song’s totally fictional, the first-person language somehow taps into the listener’s inner-voyeur and maybe they listen more intently. How often are your lyrics fictional and how often are they purely from you? 

It’s sometimes a blend, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just me trying to relate to another person. Sometimes it’s me, but more in a theoretically way. It depends song to song. There’s a song called “You Never Loved Me” which is about a friend of mine who was talking about getting married to this guy and moved across the country to move in with him. He checked into a hotel and never showed up. So it was my attempt to get inside that situation and think, “What would this feel like? And why?” It’s one thing to break up with someone, it’s another to make them go through the whole rigmarole of packing up and moving and putting down a deposit on an apartment and then never showing up. That’s some kind of next level pathological lying.

There’s a lot of empathy in your lyrics. Like in your Donald Trump protest song [“Can’t You Tell?”] from the fall. Not a lot of people take the time to do that. 

I think that’s also an example of how you can try to understand someone and have compassion, but at the same time realize that somebody’s gotta put a stop to you. I get how people get trapped with their own desire for power, or for attention. They want to feel good about themselves and the only way they know to do that is to constantly seek outside attention. But when you’re at the point where that’s harming other people, someone has to step in and put an end to you.

In the five years since your last solo record, we’ve drastically changed the way we listen to music, relying heavily on streaming services. Does that change how you approach making a record?

People don’t buy records anymore anyway, so it’s even more freedom to just do whatever you want to do within the realm of being able to afford it. A little bit of that starts to feel like a vanity project. I just tried not to think about it. When does the falling revenue stream start to translate to a vanity project rather than a job? I don’t know, it’s weird. But it definitely frees you up to do whatever you feel like doing. If nobody’s buying it, it doesn’t matter.

Do you feel like it’s a vanity project? I hope not!

As an artist you try not to, but at the end of the day I don’t make records for other people, I make records for myself. I make the kind of record that I want to hear and I don’t think, “What does an audience want?” and try to deliver that, because that’s a fool’s errand. But there is kind of a false destination that you need to keep you going. It’s encouraging to know that people are out there are willing to support you, and that will translate into making a living. It sort of does, but it doesn’t really [support you] in the same way. There’s so much competition for licensing songs on TV shows and movies, and people don’t really listen to the radio anymore, and people don’t buy records, and Spotify doesn’t really pay anything. It’s hard to stay away from the thought of, “Does anybody care? Why am I doing this?” or “Can I keep affording to do this?” I can’t have those thoughts, I try not to have them. But the idea that people would buy your record is definitely encouraging, it keeps you going and gives you a sense of purpose.

How about the touring? It must be great to get that instant emotional feedback.

Playing live is nice because it feels like a shared experience. You feel like on some deep level you’re communicating with people through songs. Between the musicians there’s a sort of unspoken communication, and between the musicians and the audience. And there’s always something magical about that. It’s nice to brush up against magic in any form.

How has your music evolved since your early songs in ‘Til Tuesday?

I think it’s a huge shift. I’m one of those people where practice and experience really yielded results. I was not one of those born-fully-formed, sprung-from-the-earth-as-some-kind-of-talent. I think for me, talent is a thing that only came out with learning a lot about structure of songs and chord structures and harmony and then practicing that over and over and writing a lot of songs. And the other factor that I think I don’t think about enough is having a certain taste level, which then translates into standards. If you have high standards and you’re constantly trying to push yourself to meet those standards, you will get better. If you don’t really care, if you’re like, “Ehh, it sort of rhymes, it’s good enough for me,” you’re not likely to improve as someone who can come up with interesting images or have your rhymes be exact and have your craft be refined. You have to care. If you don’t care, it’s rare that you can do it.

What do you think when you hear stuff from that part of your career? Are they good memories, or is it like looking at a funny throwback photo?

It seems pretty removed. I was really just starting out. “Voices Carry” was the first song I ever wrote by myself. When I was kid I put music to a poem, I guess. I was in a band before, but the songs we wrote were sort of crazy punky art rock. They were pretty wacky. But “Voices Carry” was the first song I sat down and wrote on my own. And it’s pretty early going! So I can sort of see the seeds in that, and where I was trying to go. I was listening to R&B, like Chic, and I was interested in having those types of rhythms, but none of us were really R&B players. It wasn’t our jam. I think it was fun for a while, but for me, stylistically, it was a phase I was passing through. I wrote “Voices Carry” on the bass, and once I started writing songs on acoustic guitar, that was much more my thing. I think the music I responded to the most was singer-songwriters. It’s a person talking to you in a more intimate and introspective way.