Songwriting Scene Q&A: Aimee Mann

When I first started Songwriting Scene back in June 2009, I immediately realized that I had a great platform to speak to songwriters I admired. That is, if I could get any of them to speak with me. But hey, why not aim high?

As you know, my early efforts to speak to Paul Simon stalled. I’ve tried to get one of my idols, Suzanne Vega, on the line, but no luck.

I did, after much effort, get Jonatha Brooke to chat, which was great, and I did speak to someone else who interviewed Paul Simon — Paul Zollo (only one degree of separation!)

One songwriter I had been trying to reach since the beginning was Aimee Mann — and after over a year of trying, I finally got the word from her publicist that I could have 15 minutes of Aimee’s time if I called a particular 323 phone number at 2:20 p.m. yesterday. Whoo hoo!

I’m a big Aimee Mann fan — of her clever, witty, literate lyrics of love and loss and life; her shimmering, delicate yet uber-cool voice; her catchy yet never run-of-the-mill melodies; her seemingly ever-independent spirit. After hitting it big in the early ’80s with ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” (oh, remember the hair?) Mann kept on keeping on after the band broke up, solo albums floundered and the major labels went packing (or she sent them packing?), only to come storming back with the self-released Bachelor No. 2 in 2000 and the highly-successful soundtrack to the movie Magnolia, which included eight of her songs — including the Academy Award and Grammy-nominated “Save Me.”

Her most recent 2008 CD, @#%&*! Smilers, was hailed by some critics as her best yet — and she’s continuing to tour for the record (I’m seeing her April 8 right in my New Jersey town!). Here’s what I managed to squeeze into our 15-minute phone conversation yesterday:

Sharon: How do you keep your songwriting process going while you’re also on tour and working on a musical and doing promotion, etc.? Isn’t it such a different part of your brain?

Aimee: The way it seems I write songs now is that when I’m warming up backstage before a show and playing guitar, to warm up my voice I just play random little melodies. Every now and then one of the melodies sounds like it might not be bad, so I record it on my iPhone. Then, months and months later when it’s time to focus on writing, I go back and listen to all those little things and if one jumps out at me I sit down and work on it and see what it turns into. I’ve never been one of those people who keeps a notebook and writes down lyrical ideas — though I always say I should do that. More often it’s the Paul McCartney “Scrambled Egg” situation. As a placeholder I’ll usually direct lyrics to my bass player — it’s a really tired joke that he drinks a glass of wine before the show so every melody has sample lyrics, as a joke, about how he’s an alcoholic. Totally stupid. [Laughs].

Sharon: The album that you’re still touring around, &$#@ Smiles, really seems to show that you just kind of do whatever you want as far as writing and you don’t need to answer to anyone commercially — and yet you did a funny skit recently with Sarah McLachlan on Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia where female singer-songwriters had menial day jobs and were made into pinatas…what does it all mean?

Aimee: Well, I don’t actually know what they were saying — people are sort of taking that as a commentary on the music business, like singer-songwriters can’t make money anymore — a lot of that is true [laughs] — and thus we’re forced to clean houses. But it really just came from an experience Carrie Brownstein had where she hired a cleaning lady who turned out to be someone in a band she knew. It was just an oddball thing. Of course, maybe the bright side of nobody buying records or paying money to hear your music is that you really can do whatever the fuck you want because nobody cares [Laughs].

Sharon: Yeah, we definitely need a bright side! When you first started out at the Berklee School of Music and in punk bands, who were your biggest influences? How has that changed now?

Aimee: Oh, when i first started…I mean, I was listening to so many bands like The Slits where they weren’t even songs…just very weird and angular and atonal and super irritating. Oh, but Nina Hagen was my big influence. I remember writing this tribute to her, that’s how awesome I thought she was, and I tried to emulate this faux operatic voice over these punk songs. These days, I’ve started to write songs for this musical [based on her album The Forgotten Arm] and I’m kind of listening to those kinds of songs. And that’s almost another outcropping of, if no one is paying for it than you can do whatever you want, because I really like musical songs but there is an aspect where they’re super-uncool in a way — and any singer/songwriter/musician on some level does consider, is this cool or not? [Laughs] But there is something nice about writing songs for musicals because you have to impart information in a different way and I really like that. And when I return to regular songwriting there’s a little bit of a feeling of “I can get away with murder” aspect.

Sharon: I read somewhere, I think it was in reference to writing songs that are used in movies, that you like the idea of not necessarily writing songs just about your own life, but from other perspectives. So that’s similar to what you’re doing with the musical, right?

Aimee: I love that, yeah — and in other songs there’s a lot of poetry, another term i hate to use because I don’t really think of it in terms of that, but more amorphous, illusionary images that allude to a certain thing but don’t really describe a thing. For a musical it has to be more specific but I like it because it’s an interesting puzzle and it works with language in a specific way. It’s harder in a way but it’s fun because it’s challenging.

Sharon: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Aimee: I do — I wrote music to a poem by Lewis Carroll. I still remember that melody and thinking, “That’s not too bad for a 12-year-old.”

Sharon: What advice would you give to an up and coming songwriter who you genuinely thought was talented, in terms of seeing success in the music business?

Aimee: I have no idea. I don’t know because everything is totally different. I think the things you would need to know now about…it’s interesting because since there’s not really record companies…before it was all about attracting the attention of a record company and how to negotiate being on a record label, which is mind-numbing, but now it’s all about how to do self-promotion that you pretend doesn’t generate from you, which is hard. Your skillset has to be in things like Web design and Tweeting, not…I don’t know, it’s just tough, you just feel like it would be nice if singer-songwriters were allowed to do their jobs and the other jobs of promoting could be done by someone else.

Sharon: Wouldn’t that be nice? Well, what’s it like to be married to another songwriter [Aimee is married to songwriter Michael Penn]? Are there pros and cons to that?

Aimee: I think there’s some pros, in that if I’m struggling with a song, like if I don’t know if it needs a bridge or another section, I’ll play it for him. Or I’ll say, does this sound too much like a Wings song? [Laughs] But that doesn’t happen that often — we keep our stuff pretty separate, I have to say.

Sharon: Okay, this is a weird question that doesn’t exactly come from me — but a few of my readers were curious about your ‘Til Tuesday days with the song “Voices Carry,” and, well, what it’s like to be called, well, kind of a sort of “one-hit wonder” by um, some…um…people.

Aimee: Well, tell your friends that most people aren’t so impolite to call someone a one-hit wonder [Laughs]. But it’s complicated…I mean, I don’t know if it’s a not great or great thing to say, but I feel successful. I feel successful because I make a living doing what I like, I get to do exactly what I want to do. When I was in ‘Til Tuesday, you had to dance to the jig of the record company. It was uncomfortable and I wasn’t good at that stuff — going from radio station to radio station and schmoozing and chit-chatting, I mean I was really not great at that, it was super-awkward. And, the fact that I had a hit and people would recognize me was really awkward. I don’t want to be one of those people who says fame is a drag, but it is a drag. I mean, people staring at you in a restaurant, we can all agree that’s a drag, right? If you’re famous because somebody has seen you on MTV, you don’t know whether they’re staring at you because they’re a creep and they’re going to murder you or because they think you’re wonderful. And you can’t go around thinking you’re wonderful because then you’re just a jackass.

Sharon: Is it better touring now where you know that the people in the audience are those who know who you are now, who love your current work?

Aimee: Yeah, I think it’s much better and it’s much more…you don’t have people coming up to you and saying, “I know you’re somebody,” which is just gross, or “You used to be somebody.” That’s not flattering!

Sharon: Are you planning on more recording even as you’re working on the musical?

Aimee: Yeah, the musical is going to take forever…I’m getting my songs together and we’re starting to talk about recording.

Sharon: How does that process work for you? Do you have to cull from a bunch of songs?

Aimee: I never have a lot of songs to choose from…honestly, I have seven songs, all of which are in some state of disrepair. I’m going through them now, figuring out a decent key to sing them in, writing down the chords and the lyrics and making a list of what I need to do. Sometimes it’s just that I need to play it for my producer, and see if it needs a bridge, or more writing, is it finished, do I just need an intro/outro.

Sharon: Have you thought about what direction the album will take?

Aimee: The only thing I’ve thought is that I am happy to have each of the songs stand on its own. I don’t think we’ll record everything at once and have a sound that is a through line for all the songs. Instead, we may just do them one at a time and allow them to do whatever the hell works for each — so they’ll be pretty different from each other.

Want to read more Songwriting Scene Q&A’s? Check out these other ones:

Jonatha Brooke

Ana Egge

Eric Hutchinson

Antje Duvekot


  • Wow, you interviewed Aimee Mann, well done! I really love her first two solo albums (superbly titled Whatever and I’m With Stupid), and her excellent cover of One was the reason I became a Nilsson fan. I think her husband Michael Penn is very underrated, I’ve got all his output, his MP4 album is in my all time top 10. It was very interesting to learn more about the way she writes songs!

  • Excellent interview! As a singer-songwriter, I loved reading about her process. Awesome, Sharon!

  • Great interview, and you asked some tough questions, which Aimee handled with total grace. I’m going to check out her solo work based on this.


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