Aimee Mann: Pop music is empires of people selling perfume

Her music focuses on people “who aren’t functioning perfectly”. Her latest album Mental Illness is no exception

Long regarded as a songwriter's songwriter, Aimee Mann takes such admiration in her stride. The 56-year-old Los Angeles resident has been writing songs for more than 40 years. Songwriting, she says, very quickly turned into the way she chose to speak.

“I love filtering ideas, problems and puzzles through the medium of songwriting. I feel more articulate when I’m writing a song, because the music allows me to think in ways that I can’t really do when I’m not writing.”

Mann first came to notice with her 1980s rock band Til Tuesday but she really snagged attention from 1993 onwards with the release of her debut solo album, Whatever. From then to now she has delivered seven albums of original material that have been praised to the hilt while – her early 2000s Oscar/Golden Globe/Grammy-nominated song Save Me notwithstanding – still stopping short of making her a mainstream figure.

Not that she cares – her latest album Mental Illness is her first since 2012's Charmer, and is arguably her best work in more than 15 years. While she emphasises that the album title shouldn't be taken as a pointer for anything remotely self-confessional, she says many walk a line of varying width in relation to mental health. Engagement with what ails you is crucial, she believes.

“I don’t think denial is a very effective treatment for mental illness or even something less than that. If you have a problem, then it’s good to name it; it’s good to ask people for perspective and advice that a less insular approach would give you. When people have a problem with depression or anxiety, their instinct is to keep it to themselves, because there’s a fear that they may be judged. There’s also a layer of negative thinking to how you feel people might evaluate you; if you’ll be ostracised, or if something else is handed to you that you won’t be able to cope with.”

Signature themes

Emotional disconnections, distractions and dysfunctions are Mann’s signature themes. She admits she finds it much more interesting to write about people “who aren’t functioning perfectly”, and her key creative trait of describing such states is more often than not balanced between keen observation and full disclosure. In truth, being “normal” is a balancing act, isn’t it? “Oh, yes, everyone’s a mess. It depends where your mess is, and whether that mess is compatible with the mess of other people.”

Has there ever been a time when she was disconnected? Mann thinks about this for a few seconds before revealing that the few years she was on a major record label weren’t exactly pleasant.

“I’ve definitely had times where I had writers’ block, and it was really hard to get things out. The time when I was on Geffen Records in the early-mid 1990s was when I felt like that. One of the problems of being on a label like that – back then, anyway – was that our respective goals were not equivalent.”

Major record company aims are, says Mann, to push products through the filter of what they believe will sell records. Such belief, she argues, isn’t always genuine. “When they listen to your music, their first comments and concerns are whether the music will sell, how it will sell, and how they can get the artist to do what they think will sell. All of which is very discouraging, especially when that’s the only feedback you get about your music. The only people commenting on it are record company employees, which means the feedback is, more or less, always going to be negative.

No middle ground

“It’s so easy for an A&R person to tell you they don’t hear a hit song – they were always after the ‘single’, and, you know, what’s a single these days, anyway? It’s interesting now – music is either very successful or very idiosyncratic, and there doesn’t seem as if there’s a middle ground. Commercial pop music is so tied up in what I call the ‘empires’ where, along with the music, people are also selling clothing lines or perfumes. It’s almost like the music becomes the jingle to sell the other stuff. Obviously, I’m not writing Beyoncé music – which is something that can easily be quantified as commercial – so if you’re out of that game, then you can do whatever you want. Which is exactly what I do.”

This suits her perfectly. “It means if you find an audience, then they can tell your writing, or your art, is more authentic, and that you’re not trying too hard to please or deliver. As the years have passed, I’ve developed more of a strict policy of not worrying about what people are going to think of my music. That mindset is far less artistically inhibiting, and was one of the aspects of coming to terms with the commercial appeal – or not – of my music.”

Which is one of the reasons why she can call her albums anything she damn well wants. “Precisely. What it’s all about for me is having the ability, the freedom to do exactly – and I really do mean exactly – what I want. I’m happy to have that, to sell enough records, to play to enough people, to be able to keep doing it. Definitively, that’s my goal.”

Mental Illness is now on release through Super Ego Records

Aimee Mann on pop music songwriting-by-committee:

“They give songwriting credits to so many people in a way that I never would. I suppose they’re crafting a song for mass consumption in a way that is just not my thing – it isn’t personal enough. I write songs because I like to know what people are feeling, and with, for example, a 15-person songwriting team I’d like to know, who is doing the thinking? Who is doing the feeling? People are just coming up with a topic that might sell, or what approach might sell. There is craft, but not the way I like. There is attention to detail, but not the way that I like. Where are the rhymes, images, turns of phrases, metaphors? It’s all very meat and potatoes, and of not much interest to me.”