In difficult times, Aimee Mann's music still resonates
GREAT BARRINGTON — Sadness doesn't guide Aimee Mann's songwriting; emotional transparency does. While the two-time Grammy award-winner knows that many of her lyrical observations are melancholic, she doesn't necessarily view them as downers.
"I'm a big fan of Elliott Smith; the depressing nature of his songs was never a deterrent," Mann told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "In fact, I always felt like there was something exhilarating in how honest he was. I have to assume that there are people out there that feel the same way about my stuff."
She doesn't need to assume. Widely considered one of the best living songwriters, the 57-year-old Mann has earned plenty of fans since her 'Til Tuesday years in the 1980s. Some of those supporters will occupy the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Friday night, where Mann will play a selection of songs that includes tracks off of her latest album, "Mental Illness." The 2017 record won best folk album at the last Grammy Awards, which offered a reminder that her music still resonates.
"I take it as a nice feeling that there's an amount of people who think that what I do is good," Mann said.
With many contemporary listeners streaming music instead of purchasing it, that sense of validation is increasingly difficult to find.
"I think it's harder in an era where people don't buy records anymore," Mann said. "People buying records definitely gave you a feeling of feedback, like, 'Oh, good, people like what I do, and it means something to them.' Sometimes, it's hard to feel that [today]."
Mann has had a long, sometimes contentious history with the music industry. In the 1980s, she dropped out of Berklee College of Music, joining punk band the Young Snakes before helping start 'Til Tuesday. She fronted the new wave group that became known for "Voices Carry," a song that received some substantial MTV airtime and, relatedly, peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985.
After attracting her own subset of fans (Elvis Costello among them) with 'Til Tuesday, Mann embarked on a solo career in the early 1990s. She released "Whatever" in 1993 and "I'm with Stupid" in 1995, but her voice didn't reach a broader audience until 1999. That year, her song, "Save Me," on the "Magnolia" soundtrack picked up Grammy and Academy Award nominations. The track was also featured on 2000's "Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo," the first album she released on her independent label, SuperEgo Records.
It wasn't a surprise Mann went indie. In 1996, Rolling Stone's Jancee Dunn had asked: "What's the most surprising thing about the music business?" Mann replied, "That most people in the business end know neither how to sell records nor how to make them."
She produced five more studio albums, the last of which was 2012's "Charmer," on SuperEgo before "Mental Illness" came out in March of 2017. The record represents a return to Mann's acoustic pieces for "Magnolia." "Charmer" and her recent duo work with Ted Leo were louder and more rock-oriented.
"I just gave myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they're-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could," Mann said of "Mental Illness" on her website.
Genre-wise, the album is difficult to categorize.
"It was interesting that I was in the folk music category [for the Grammys], but the pop music category is so — pop music is so produced. It's not really like singer-songwriter-y stuff anymore," she said.
While her writing has long received critical praise, she feels far more adept now composing than when she was just beginning her solo career.
"I just think any of those ['Mental Illness' songs] were better songs than any song on my first record," she said.
She cited a weakness in "4th of July" as an example.
"[It's] a song I like a lot, but it doesn't have a bridge and, you know, maybe it didn't necessarily need a bridge. It was fine for it to stay a short song. But, also, it was because I just couldn't come up with one," she said.
The songs on "Mental Illness" represent a variety of different perspectives.
"There's usually somebody I know that is kind of a starter for [each song], and I take that and elaborate on it and make it more fictional," Mann said.
The record opens with "Goose Snow Cone," a song inspired by a cat's appearance that ruminates on loneliness. ("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," Mann told NPR.) "Knock It Off" draws from a human acquaintance.
"There was this guy I know who turned out to be sort of a con man and ended up actually serving some time in jail. [He] didn't understand why his girlfriend wanted to break up with him," Mann said.
She depicts the man's clingy behavior early on.
"You can't just stand there on her front lawn," Mann sings over some heavy strumming.
The tune is among those Mann has been performing live. Concerts offer regular solace for her.
"When you play a live show, you kind of feel an immediate sense that what you do is meaningful to people," she said.
She understands that many musicians don't receive that kind of appreciation enough.
"I definitely know a lot of people," she said, "who struggle with that feeling of, 'Why should I go on?'"
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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