What Aimee Mann claims to lack in charm she makes up for in wit with her savvy observations of the human condition, finds Fiona Shepherd
GIVEN that her current album is called Charmer, it seems reasonable to ask if Aimee Mann considers herself to be charming. Given the content of said album, it’s not too surprising that her answer is no.
“I think in order to be charming you really have to be comfortable talking to people and making conversation and telling stories and jokes,” she says, “and I’m really bad at structuring stories and I can never remember the punchline of jokes, so I’m kind of out of the running.”
Actually, Mann is naturally witty (I won’t say charming). Ask anyone who has watched her videos, or heard her chat at a gig, or the folks at the Huffington Post who named her one of 13 Funny Musicians You Should Be Following On Twitter (along with Amanda Palmer, Kanye West, Kristin Hersh and Roseanne Cash). But charm is a loaded quality, as she discovered when writing a song about a friend she and others regarded as very charming.
“As I was thinking more about it, the idea of charm became a lot less cute and I started to think that there can be an underbelly to charm. When does charm start to be just pure manipulation? When people are flattering you in order to get something out of you. Sometimes it’s as innocent as flattery makes people feel good and you like people to feel good and everybody gets along better. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it crosses a line and becomes manipulative and controlling.”
I’m immediately reminded of Toto, the Haitian paramilitary featured in Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test, who believed that it was important to be liked by people – because that made it much easier to bend them to your will. Yes, says Mann, she’s read the book too. She has also watched a bunch of trashy reality TV shows which amplify folk’s foibles to hysterical proportions.
“I feel like it’s a very American thing or it’s worse over here because we have this mythology of The Individual, who should be allowed to do whatever they want and f*** the health of the community or how it might impact on other people. I think we love this idea of ‘give me a gun and a sack of potatoes and I can go in the wilderness and live on my own, I don’t need anybody’. I think it’s a very grandiose idea to think that that’s the case, because it’s not. We’re community animals. We’re very interdependent.”
From this human zoo came an album of material exploring the tragicomedy of human nature, including a hate duet with James Mercer of The Shins as well as songs about hoarding, interventions and “the crazy girlfriend” and her caretaker boyfriend, a subject Mann tackles with relish, all crafted into persuasively melodic, mid-paced and charming roots-infused New Wave nuggets.
“It’s not like it’s a concept album or any of that,” she says. “I’m always interested in people and how they behave and how they interact with each other. There are so many permutations, even if you just took the topic of love relationships. What are the two people trying to get out of the relationship, where did they meet up and where do they diverge? That’s already an entire record. If I thought about just one relationship, I could probably cheerfully write 12 songs about it.”
Mann proved herself a savvy chronicler of the human condition from the get-go, first in her band ’Til Tuesday and then, from the early 90s onwards, as a solo artist. She garnered wider recognition when a number of her songs were featured on the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and Save Me was nominated for an Academy Award. (Mann is proud to call herself an “Oscar loser”).
In the past year she became a member of another pretty exclusive club – that of musicians who have played at the White House – when she was invited to attend a poetry tribute and participate in an evening of music and readings. Among her fellow performers were Steve Martin, in his bluegrass aficionado capacity, and the rapper Common. “We were at the White House, hanging out for the whole day. There’s always somebody following you around which was quite bizarre but it was really fantastic and very, very inspiring.”
Mingling with such a mixed bag of musicians, her charm detector must have been on overdrive, surely? But on reflection, Mann is not so sure that music is such a breeding ground for your classic charmer. “Sometimes there are musicians who are more charming and more performer-oriented but there’s a whole class of nerdy musicians – I have a couple in my band, actually – who have this almost absent-minded professor approach to music rather than the rock star demeanour. I imagine that you’d probably find more of that in acting because narcissism is almost built into acting, to be more aware of how things appear more than how things really are.”
Mann can say this with some confidence. Her husband is the songwriter Michael Penn, brother to a certain A-list film actor named Sean. Mann has dabbled in a spot of thespian activity herself. You might have spotted her blink-or-miss-her cameo spot in The Big Lebowski (as the unfortunate “nihilist girlfriend” who sacrificed her toe for blackmailing purposes), while she has appeared as herself, or a version of herself, in episodes of The West Wing, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and indie comedy series Portlandia.
So how did the fictional White House of The West Wing compare with the real thing? “The West Wing experience was very deeply exciting – but the real White House experience was very deeply moving,” she says. “What I took away from the day was that art is the thing that makes us a civilisation and not just a herd of animals. It’s not a frill or a ruffle, like if you’re bored, stick a little art in there. I came away with the idea that it’s more essential and more spiritual than that.”
There’s fodder right there for another 12 Aimee Mann songs at least.
• Aimee Mann plays ABC, Glasgow, on Wednesday as part of Celtic Connections www.celticconnections.com