Something changes when a musician moves from a group to solo. Creativity grows an extra-loud voice, becoming more experimental and honest to one’s own musical tastes and desires. Aimee Mann is inspired by the stories that surround her like air; listening to her songs becomes more than just an exploration of rhymes and repetition, rather an opportunity to become captured by creative non-fiction elements merged with her own imagination put to music. Her newest album, @#%&*! Smilers, definitely reflects this notion.

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Before we talk about music, I have to mention that I spell my name just like you–

I saw.

I always say that the spelling of our name would be extremely expensive on Wheel of Fortune if we were a puzzle because they charge for vowels. Is there any significance to the spelling of your name? Is there a story behind it?

I think my father came up with that spelling but I don’t know what he was influenced by. I know that there was this hot French actress called Anouk Aimee who spelled it like that and I’m guessing that he had a crush on [her].

Did you ever have any trouble as a kid finding items with your name on it?
I think I just totally gave up. My main thing was being irritated when people spelled it A-m-y.

I’m not sure how often score or soundtrack is discussed when talking about a movie, but your music in Magnolia became like another character in the film. How did you get the opportunity to get your music featured so heavily in the film?

A lot of that was kind of coincidence and accident. I was friends with the director (Paul Thomas Anderson) and I was making a record at the time when he started writing the screenplay and he had a tape of the songs I was working on and was just listening to them while he was writing. I guess he was incorporating things, like lines or whatever. I mean, you know how that is. You’re listening to something or you’re surrounded by something and then you just start absorbing it. He said that it was an inspiration of some kind so I just assumed that he felt like he wanted to keep going with that music because it was in his head when he was writing. So yeah, it was just a happy coincidence for me.

How did you feel when you watched the movie and listened to it? Do you feel like the music merged well?

Yeah, I think he uses music in a really terrific way and he’s really connected to music in a way that most directors aren’t. I like the idea that I’m part of something that’s really good and I like working with people who are great and know what they’re doing and care. If it would have been someone else’s music, I probably would have been about as happy because I like it when people do things that are–like especially in music and movies–most movies just throw it in and it’s nice to have it in an interesting way, a way that’s really integrated. So, I kind of just watched the movie like it was a movie and appreciated the way the music was used for the movie’s sake.

Are you a big movie watcher?

I don’t see a lot of movies mostly just because I travel all the time and by the time there’s something I want to see, by the time I’m home, it’s gone. Then, I don’t really feel like going out.

Your album, The Forgotten Arm was very cinematic in its storytelling, following a young couple that met at a state fair. What was your process when creating this album?

I just sort of had a picture in my mind. You know it was interesting because the experience with Magnolia, I didn’t really write much music for the movie. It was kind of like my music came first and the movie came second. But that sort of introduced me to the idea of writing to a movie. It was almost like I kind of had this fictional movie in my head [which] I was writing soundtrack music for.

Yeah, I read that you wrote it as though it were a soundtrack for an imaginary movie. That’s such an interesting thing to do.

You know, which is also like then you don’t have to come up with a whole evolved plot. Rather than telling an exact story, it’s more like it hits points, emotional points of the characters.

Would you say a concept album is harder to create and record than one with various themes or subjects?

At that point, that sort of topic was on my mind anyway.

The topic of boxing?

I had just started to get into boxing, but boxing doesn’t figure that heavily into it except that it’s sort of a character point. I had a good friend that was a drug addict and he relapsed and so I experienced that–the reality of drug addiction and relapse–more closely and began doing a lot of reading on it and talked to other people about it. It was just kind of like a topic that was really up in my life at that point. Talking to other people who had–you know, another friend of mine whose mother was an alcoholic, that kind of thing. It was very topical.

Do you do a lot of research when you’re writing?

It’s not research, it’s just stuff I’m interested in.

So, you feel like you’re influenced quite a bit by what’s around you?

Yeah, and it’s like what I sort of end up chasing down. I’m interested in psychology as a general topic and all the many subjects of that.

On the topic of psychology, I think that’s what sets your songs apart because there are many layers to your lyrics and to the songs itself, which I think for the listener it becomes much more enjoyable to listen to. There’s more to it, it’s thicker, it’s more like stew rather than broth.

Well, I hope that’s true. It’s not like I deliberately try to have lots of layers but I try to have an intelligent approach to whatever I’m writing about.

Your explanation for coming up with the title of your album–I know, you say that people can insert their own word for the symbols–I say, Fucking Smilers–

Yeah, you know, it doesn’t really matter because it’s supposed to be kind of cartoony-cursing. You know, frickin’ whatever.

Being around that mocking smiley face and that person that just comes up to you–you’re feeling moody or just not externally great–and someone just comes up and says–Smile!–as though that will make everything okay.

Exactly. It’s that smug person who–well, I think for me it’s about people who insist on the appearance of something rather than the reality of something. To make it resonate in a deeper way besides just being irritated by somebody telling you to smile.

I think people are uncomfortable by moody people or people that just choose to not say how they are feeling at a given moment.

Yeah.

Is there anything that’s funny to you that can take you out of a bad mood? Something you can think of that can take you out of how you’re feeling?

For me, it’s usually about talking through it. I don’t think I tend to get at it by thinking of something cheerful. For me, it helps to sort of know well, what–there was probably something that happened that I passed over, that annoyed me or whatever and try to figure out what it was. That’s usually helpful.

You prefer processing through it?

Yeah.

That’s good. Healthy, right?

Yeah, I mean I think it’s great if people can sort of snap themselves out of a bad mood too. That’s great, but it always helps for me because then it’s like you learn something about it. You go like, oh, that’s interesting, if I’m around that person they annoy me because they do this. Then you can figure out what do I do about this? Avoid the person or talk to them or you can come up with a solution.

On your song “31 Today”, you sing about the disappointment of life not exactly turning into what you thought it would. Is age significant to you? Or the progression of age?

No more than anybody else. I think that when I wrote that song, I had a couple of friends who just turned 31 and they were kind of having a reaction to it so I was just sort of thinking about that whole thing. It’s just the idea that hearing certain numbers you go like, whoa! When I was a kid, I thought that turning 31 would be like, total adulthood or even old. So that moment when you think with a kid’s mind and you go, man, I really thought that things would be totally different by the time I was this age. But it’s like, that’s a child’s thinking. It’s not particularly realistic. Life doesn’t work that way.

I love that it’s 31 and not 30.

Yeah, because 30, you think it’s gonna be a big deal and then it’s not. Then, you think you’re out of the woods. Then, you turn 31 and you’re like, oh right, this just keeps getting higher.

We can lie all we want but we can’t stop the progression. I’m going to be 31 next year and I think there is something about the numbers that come between the decade markers–30, 40, 50.

I think that you confront these thoughts in the back of your mind like, oh, I’ll hit 30 and then I’ll turn around. But yeah, age is a weird thing for everyone. I remember being 17 and going like, I’ve accomplished so little! Everybody just has that all the time.

Can you look at where you are now and feel like you are okay with where you are and that you’re moving in the direction you want to be?

Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, I was just talking to my manager who was out here–he just left actually–we’re the exact same age, saying like, yeah, we did pretty well.

Or, you’re doing pretty well.

But you know, in turns when you’re doing that thing where you sort of look at the age and you go, where did I think I would be by this time? It’s nice to feel like you’re not starting from the beginning. Well, I think in some ways you’re always starting at the beginning.

That’s an interesting way to put it. Did you imagine yourself somewhere else at this point in your life?

I think this is probably like vaguely what I hoped my life would be like with a nice place to live and a good relationship and a career that–well, the music business is always like one giant question mark.

You’re lucky to have been in the music industry for quite a number of years. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician and writer and performer?

First of all, it’s such a weird business to be in. I think it took me like, 10 years to figure out the ways in which it was so awful and how to negotiate them and the kinds of people you had to deal with. Then by that point, I was looking for ways to get out of it and be on my own. For me, there is a definite break when I was in my first band, ‘Til Tuesday, and the kind of–well, it’s like you’re in such unfamiliar territory so it’s kind of hard to figure out what’s really going on. But there is a definite break between when I was on major labels and then when I started putting out my own stuff. So, in a lot of ways I feel like my career and my creative life really only began since I’ve been able to go out on my own.

Well, you have so much more leeway.

Yeah, I really can do whatever I want to. But it takes awhile to stop thinking with the brain of the others. Before, I’d write a song and go, how is the A&R guy gonna react to this? What’s the President of Geffen gonna say about this record? In what ways are they gonna tell me to change it? So you try to anticipate that like, okay maybe this song will be the kind of song that will be commercial enough for them. It’s a drag to have to try to anticipate how other people are going to react and the fact that they are in charge of your life is a very uncomfortable situation.

Definitely. I read something about you that really inspired me as a writer. That you approach the making of your records the way a novelist or journalist might approach a story, finding characters, learning what makes them tick. What does that look like? How did you go about doing that?

I think it’s not even that contrived or evolved. You know, I have an idea and I’m interested in it and maybe it’s from a person I know. Maybe there is somebody I know who’s kind of a specific kind of character and I go, I wonder what that person is like? Or, maybe I’m sort of interested in writing something from their perspective or taking a characterization but twisting it in a certain way. Sometimes it’s just flat out an emotional tone that comes from a piece of music and then I try to come up with a story that seems to make sense.

Do you read many novels? Do you have time to read many?

I read a lot, yeah.

Any favorite writers?

I think the best book that I’ve read in the last couple years is Netherland by Joseph O’Neil. Fantastic. And Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson) was the other one. I read a lot when I’m on the road but it’s kind of a different thing. You have to pick stuff that you can read in five-minute chunks because it’s always when you’re waiting. Waiting for your luggage to come. Or, while on the airplane. I got a Kindle. Reading stuff on the road is a little more junky.

I was on the bus the other day sitting next to a woman who was reading from a Kindle. Before this interaction, I was very against it mainly because I love the feel of just holding a book or the way it smells.

If I could take 15 books on the road, you know, then I have to leave them in the hotel room. I can’t keep lugging them around.

Well, it does save paper, right? Good for the environment.

It’s not the same kind of thing. But that’s kind of like why, on the Kindle, I buy more stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily care about having a copy of.

Your song, “Stranger into Starman,” is probably my favorite because it’s a short song but it says so much. You mention that you were channeled by Anne Sexton, who is one of my favorite poets. Can you talk a little bit about this song?

I think I was literally doing a crossword puzzle and just thinking about that sort of wordplay, parsing of words and turning things around and making it fit. You know, like the aspect of songwriting that is like a puzzle.

Turning rats into star [like in Sexton’s poem].

Yeah. I just sort of remembered that poem. I thought, you’re a little too excited that rats backward is star. I don’t know if I’d be so excited about that discovery.

She definitely analyzed everything, which is an interesting way to take things apart. To turn something that might not be a beautiful animal into something we admire in the sky. Well, your songs really are poems just pushed against music. Are there any poets that you’re fond of?

I don’t read a lot of poetry. I feel like I should because I know there’s great stuff out there. It just doesn’t really occur to me. Also, it’s nice to have a narrative, you know. I do like a story.

Are you familiar with Raymond Carver?

Yeah, I know I’ve read Raymond Carver, but I’m not super familiar with him.

His short stories are great if you’re looking for something quick to read and he also writes poetry that is very prose-y.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Write that down. He’s a good one. Tell me about your fascination with “the freaks who could never love anyone.” Who are these people and are you one of them?

You know, a friend of mine said that to me. We were having a conversation and he said that he just had this fear about himself that he was unable to sustain love and I just remembered that. I think that was kind of like my thing when I was writing it. I felt that was very sad and I think I understand it. He had come from a situation where one of his parents would just periodically go away for months at a time. I think maybe his father traveled for work or something. So, much time had passed before he saw him again and he sort of felt like that little kid thing where you kind of bond to some other parent. If you are really little and you don’t see somebody for a long time, you kind of feel like you don’t love them when they come back because they are a stranger to you. So, I think he had that experience and I was just thinking about that like, what a sad situation that is.

And it’s also hard to be away for so long. You travel quite a bit and yet, love has been very consistent in your life. Do you find it hard to maintain?

I think you just have to work on what’s going on in your own head and be aware of it. I always say it’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s not there. So, if you’re gone for long periods of time–and it’s hard to have a relationship–it’s almost like the person becomes a symbol or a fantasy or a ghost. But, I can’t tour for more than three weeks at a time. I’m not one of those people that go out for nine months.

Are you a letter writer? With stamps and envelopes?

I like the ichat, stuff like that. It’s a nice way to stay in touch with people.

Definitely more immediate. I just want to mention your video for “31 Today,” which is extremely funny with the beautifully-haired person beside you, trying to distract you. Was it hard not to laugh?

Yes, Morgan (Murphy) she’s awesome. I think she’s hilarious. I mean, that was just a casual thing that I think that the fact that we’re laughing at what’s going on is just part of the fun.

Do you come up with the ideas for your videos?

That was her idea and her friend, Bobcat Goldthwait. They kind of concocted that up.

Do you enjoy making them?

I like fooling around with my comedienne friends. Back in the day, when I was on major labels and you had to do a “video” and they got video directors in and they wrote treatments and it was like, something you didn’t have any control over, you were someone they tried to keep out of the process. That was no fun at all.

Well, now you have so much room to explore and be creative and you’re definitely doing it.

It’s a lot more fun.

Good, you should be having fun, right?

by Aimee Herman

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