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'I Think It's Hard To Be A Person': Aimee Mann On Compassionate Songwriting

Apr 4, 2017
Originally published on June 29, 2017 1:47 pm

Aimee Mann's music has always been characterized as melancholy. So on her new album, Mental Illness, she decided to lean into the stereotype.

"A friend of mine was asking me what the record was about," Mann says, "And I said, 'Oh, you know, my usual songs about mental illness,' kind of being glib about it. And then my other friend said, 'Maybe you should call it Mental Illness,' also being glib. It's so bald, but also accurate and funny, so it really made me laugh. And I felt like if it's making you laugh, there must be something accurate about it."

Mann spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the inspirations for some of the songs on Mental Illness. Read interview highlights below, and listen to the full conversation at the audio link.


Interview Highlights

On the encounter that inspired "Patient Zero"

I met the actor Andrew Garfield at a party. I was a big fan of him, and he had just come to LA, I think to be in Spider-Man. I think he's a real artist, I think he's a very sensitive person and I worry about people like that sometimes in Los Angeles. When you're dealing with big movies and big famous people and huge studios and large sums of money — sensitive, talented people tend to get caught beneath the wheel.

And so I sort of wrote this story based on the idea of somebody coming to Hollywood and getting ground down by it, which I did feel like, captured a certain Los Angeles despair. ... The image I had was that narcissism is an infectious agent — and here comes this guy, steps off the plane, and his immune system is nonexistent to fight against that type of psychic germ.

On "Goose Snow Cone"

"Goose Snow Cone" is based on an image of a cat friend of mine named Goose. ... I saw a picture of her, and her face looked like a little snow cone, and I started writing the song with the idea that I would replace that phrase with something else. But the song sort of became a rumination on loneliness and isolation and homesickness.

On empathy and the human condition

I think it is hard to be a person. It is really hard to negotiate relationships, it's hard to negotiate loss, it's hard to have perspective on your own problems, it's hard to break out of the habits and dynamics of your childhood. ... And people aren't really naturally born with the skills to negotiate it. So I have a lot of compassion for people. Everyone's struggling in some way.

Radio editor Monika Evstatieva contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The first time I ever heard Aimee Mann was in the '80s. She was part of this band 'Til Tuesday, and they had this MTV hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES CARRY")

AIMEE MANN: (Singing) Hush, hush, keep it down now. Voices carry.

MCEVERS: Then in 2001, Aimee Mann won a Grammy for her solo work on the soundtrack for the film "Magnolia."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME")

MANN: (Singing) But can you save me?

MCEVERS: I talked to Aimee Mann the other day, and she told me her music has always been characterized as melancholy.

MANN: A friend of mine was asking me what the record was about. And I said, oh, you know, my usual songs about mental illness, kind of being glib about it. And then my other friend said, oh, maybe you should call it mental illness - also being glib. But it's so bald and - but also accurate and funny. So it really made me laugh. And I felt like, if it's making you laugh, there must be something accurate about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIMEE MANN SONG, "ROLLERCOASTERS")

MCEVERS: I mean it is something to joke about in some ways, but I mean why do you think you're drawn to things that would lead people to characterize them as mental illness?

MANN: Like, why do I like crazy people?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MANN: (Laughter) I don't know. I think it's hard to be a person. And people are mostly struggling with one thing or the other. And I feel like, you know, that people's internal struggles are just very interesting in how their thinking impacts their behavior and their beliefs impact their behavior. It's all very interesting. And I have a lot of compassion for how difficult it can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLERCOASTERS")

MANN: (Singing) So high as you fell looking down on the tops of the trees. And all you can do is say, please, please, baby, please.

MCEVERS: It seems like a lot of the songs are stories about different people going through different things. Are they all taken from life, or are some of them fiction?

MANN: They're all parts taken from life. I don't - you know, I mean some of them are fictional. Like, I met the actor Andrew Garfield at a party, and I was a big fan of him. And he had just come to LA I think to be in "Spider-Man." You know, and I think he's a real artist. I think he's a very sensitive person.

And I worry about people like that sometimes in Los Angeles. You know, like, when you're dealing with big movies and big famous people and huge studios and large sums of money, sensitive, talented people tend to get caught beneath the wheel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATIENT ZERO")

MANN: (Singing) They served you champagne like a hero. When you landed, someone carried your bag. From here on out, you're patient zero, smelling ether as they hand you the rag.

And so I sort of wrote this story based on the idea of somebody coming to Hollywood and getting ground down by it, which I, you know, did feel like captured a certain, like, Los Angeles despair.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATIENT ZERO")

MANN: (Singing) Hip, hip, hooray, hocus pocus. With some magic, you can fly through the air. But when you're the guy pulling focus, there are people who will wish you weren't there.

MCEVERS: Why is it called "Patient Zero?"

MANN: I think there was a - the image I had was that narcissism is an infectious agent. And, you know, here comes this guy. He steps off the plane, and he's - his immune system is nonexistent to fight against that type of psychic germ.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) The psychic germ of narcissism in Hollywood.

MANN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATIENT ZERO")

MANN: (Singing) The lights of the canyon, the lights of the canyon, the lights of the canyon, the lights of the canyon...

MCEVERS: It seems like with this album, you're really kind of leaning into the melancholy, into the darker side of things in a way that you haven't done. Do you feel like there's a reason for that?

MANN: I think reason one is that I really just allowed myself to write music that was either slow or sad or bittersweet without, you know, thinking that I had to leaven it somehow with stuff that was more cheerful or up-tempo. And I think the other reason is I happened to go through a period of time where I met or rubbed elbows with people who were probably crazier.

MCEVERS: There's one song where you're singing almost from the first person. And I wonder if that one's more about you than it is about another person? It's called "Goose Snow Cone."

MANN: Yeah, "Goose Snow Cone" is based on an image of a cat friend of mine named Goose.

MCEVERS: Are you talking about an actual cat named Goose?

MANN: An actual cat named Goose.

MCEVERS: OK, just checking. OK (laughter).

MANN: And I saw a picture of her, and her face looked like a little snow cone.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

MANN: And I started writing the song and - you know, with the idea that I would replace that phrase with something else.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOSE SNOW CONE")

MANN: (Singing) Looking into the face of a goose snow cone.

But even the song sort of became a rumination on, you know, loneliness and isolation and homesickness.

MCEVERS: Yeah. There's this line, got to keep it together when your friends come by.

MANN: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Like, you've got to put on a face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOSE SNOW CONE")

MANN: (Singing) Got to keep it together when you're friends come by - always checking the weather, but they want to know why.

You know, I mean I think that's a really human situation where you're having feelings that aren't really appropriate to the social context and you can't really talk about it. And you've got to, like - you've just got to keep it together.

MCEVERS: Yeah. I read that you were inspired for this record by groups like Bread and Dan Fogelberg.

MANN: You know, to a certain extent. I have a band with Ted Leo. And Ted and I were - when we were on tour, we started listening to Bread all the time in the car on long drives.

MCEVERS: Nice.

MANN: And we just both got into this real soft rock jag.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Nice.

MANN: And I kind of couldn't get out of it.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

MANN: Like, it's - all I wanted to listen to was, like, the super sad soft songs of the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT WITH YOU")

BREAD: (Singing) Hey, have you ever tried really reaching out for the other side?

MANN: You know, then you'd hear, like, the Bread rock song. And you'd go, oh, don't try to rock.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

MANN: Just keep it soft, man.

MCEVERS: But I read somewhere that you said it takes chutzpah to, like, write, like, soft rock songs, too.

MANN: Well, you know, you're always in danger of being sort of dismissed as, like, the weepy lady singer.

MCEVERS: Right.

MANN: So, you know, you take a chance.

MCEVERS: You talked about how you're - you know, you might be drawn to people who are going through stuff. That's obviously who inspired you for this record. Do you ever think, you know, like, what's wrong with us? Like, why is everybody going through so much stuff?

MANN: I just think...

MCEVERS: Do you think it's more just like a natural condition of the way we are?

MANN: I - yeah, I think it's the human condition. I think it is hard to be a person. It is really hard to negotiate relationships. It's hard to negotiate loss. It's hard to have perspective on your own problems. It's hard to break out of the habits and dynamics of your childhood. It's just hard. And people aren't really naturally born with the skills to negotiate it. So I have a lot of compassion for people. You know, everyone's struggling in some way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLE FIX")

MANN: (Singing) Here we go again around and round.

MCEVERS: Aimee Mann's new album is called "Mental Illness." Thank you so much for talking to us.

MANN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLE FIX")

MANN: (Singing) We're babies passing for adults who've loaded up the catapults. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.