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Interview With Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann talks about her new album '@#$%*! Smilers' and going indie

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Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann

courtesy Girlie Action PR
Aimee Mann started out in a punk-rock band in the early 1980s, then rose to stardom as part of the pop group 'Til Tuesday. After that group broke up, she went solo and released a string of critically acclaimed, poorly selling albums on major labels before tackling the entire soundtrack to the film Magnolia in 1999. She earned Oscar and Grammy nominations for the song "Save Me," from that film. Always more of a songwriter's songwriter, Mann’s involvement in Magnolia introduced the general public to her mastery of the narrative approach to songwriting.

Soon after, she split with the major labels entirely and started her own SuperEgo Records. Since SuperEgo’s first release in 2000, Mann's music has taken a more acoustic indie approach, granting her more artistic freedom to marry her roots and Americana influences with her highly literary songwriting. Now, on her first album in three years, @#$%*! Smilers (due out June 3, 2008), her music is a little more rootsy, driven by acoustic guitar and keyboards. I caught up with Mann for a quick chat about the upcoming record, and how going indie has changed her approach to making music.

Kim Ruehl: Maybe we should just start with the new record...it's been a few years since The Forgotten Arm, what moved you to make this one?
Aimee Mann: Well, it's not so much that it takes a long time to make a record. It just takes a long time to put a record out. You know, you do a year of touring...you tour for a year off and on. Then you start writing and recording, and that takes about a year, and then it's done. And then it takes about a year to get it out. So, everything just takes forever.

How would you describe your music at this point? I know you've been through a lot of different styles over the years...
I don't think of style so much as, you know, the song to me is always king. And whatever arrangement or instrumentation fits the song the best dictates how the song is going to sound. That dictated how this record would sound. Partly, I did want to do something differently. For instance, the last record was very electric guitar heavy and there are no electric guitars anywhere [on this one]. It's sonically covered by a keyboard approach where clavinets and distorted wurlitzers take the place of electric guitars. There's a lot of analog synthesizers and stuff like that, so...it's more of a layered keyboard sound.

How do you decide on that? Is that just where the song is coming from for you, or does it come from what you’re listening to at the time?
It partially is that I want it to be different from the last one. But a large part was dictated by the musicians because it's me playing acoustic guitar, which kind of blended into the drums in an interesting way, and the bass player. And then the keyboard player really plays in such a way and the sounds are such that we just didn't need anything else. It made sense with just the four of us.

Do you feel like there's a running theme on this record?
I don't. I think the theme is more that there is no theme, unlike the last one, which had a narrative that ran through the whole album. This is more like a series of short stories that don't really have anything to do with one another.

Did you go into the studio with more songs than you wound up with? Did you wind up cutting anything?
I think I cut out one of them that didn’t really work.

You've been around in the industry for quite a while...a lot of people that have been around in the industry are saying it's the best of times and the worst of times. Do you think that's a fair assessment? What have you seen change?
Well, in terms of making a living, it's the worst of times, because you just are counting on record sales. For me, I have my own label so I put my own records out. There’s no advance, you do have to sell enough records to make the money to make the next record. That gets harder because people burn CDs for each other and download songs, and sometimes they pay for it, sometimes they don't. They're definitely not paying money for it in the way that they used to.

In terms of being creative, not being on a major label, I can do whatever I want. But you do have to pay for it. I have to pay for musicians and renting the studio…mastery, and packaging. I like to have a nice package—that's one thing that drove me crazy about being on a major label was that they were very cheap, and had the shittiest packages. Why would anyone even want to buy the big plastic [cases]? You know what I mean? You gotta give people something nice, but it's very expensive. There has to be a [reason for] people to buy the record to finance the cost of the next one.

Do you find you think about that when you're writing and getting ready to make a new record? Do you think that holds back the production at all?
I think you have to be prudent and careful and plan more than in past years. You can't just waltz into the studio and work stuff out there. We plan a little better and spend less time in the studio. It's how I like to work now, to rehearse the band so everybody knows the song. The old way was to have band members come in and you pitch them the song in the studio and you get a bunch of takes where people are still learning the stuff. I'm not really fond of that approach, anyway, so it works for me so far.

It's also nice to have extras like a string section or a horn section. And I think, probably in the future, that'll be prohibitively expensive. I think a lot of people are going to be in the same boat as me. You're going to have a lot of either acoustic records or records that are obviously done with Garage Band on the computer. We'll see. I can't really think about it that much.

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