Over the course of a music career that has spanned a quarter of a century, Aimee Mann has conquered MTV as a member of 'Til Tuesday, sung backup for prog legends Rush, seen four consecutive albums released on four different labels, lost an Oscar to Phil Collins and developed a reputation as one of the sharpest songwriters in the business.
What she hasn’t done since 2002’s “Lost In Space,” however, is record a collection of songs that aren’t bound to a story (2005’s “The Forgotten Arm”) or a common theme (2006’s Christmas album “One More Drifter In The Snow”).
Tuesday’s release of “@#%&*! Smilers” changes that. With songs serving only themselves, rather than a larger concept, Mann’s seventh solo album (and 10th altogether since “Voices Carry” hit the top 20 in 1985) finds the singer ruminating on such topics as life on the West Coast (“Our friends are either comedians or magicians,” says Mann), the soul-rattling effect of birthdays and the actual, literal wordplay of crosswords. She spoke to msnbc.com about the album, her non-musical artistic pursuits and why she loves Boston but will never move back.
Marc Hirsh: Your press kit refers to “@#%&*! Smilers” as “a return to form after the artistic detours” of “The Forgotten Arm” and “One More Drifter in the Snow.” Do you think that’s true?
Aimee Mann: That actually came from my producer, because I said, “Dude, I’ve gotta describe this to somebody. What do I say?” He’s like, “Well, I think this is a real return to form for you.” But see, from my perspective, I write all the songs and then generate each project, so to me, it doesn’t sound that different. That’s why I never trust myself to describe it, because the things that are different, that stand out for me, I don’t think would necessarily stand out for anybody. The things sonically that make this record interesting for me are that it was recorded live, it was recorded with the musicians it was recorded with, we did the songs in one or two takes, the keyboards are more analog-synthy and on top of a rhythm section that’s very organic-sounding.
Hirsh: It seems like the first time probably since your 'Til Tuesday days that you’ve used synths in that fashion. What made you add that particular sound to what you were doing?
Mann: It’s just because it’s funny and because it did provide a contrast for the underpinnings. Our drummer, Jay Bellrose, is a super-organic drummer. He really is more of a feel guy than any other drummer I’ve ever met, because he extends that kind of feel and that sort of emotional connection to the music to the actual drums that he chooses and the parts that he plays. He’s unbelievably intuitive. So I just felt like on top of that, it was a fun contrast to have all these synths. It’s also generated by the keyboard player. My keyboard player had that stuff, so if he accidentally hit something or was trying something out, we all jumped on it, like, “Yeah, that’s the thing that sounds great.”
Hirsh: A couple of songs, such as “Freeway,” express ambivalence about living in California. As a Bostonite, I have to ask, are you happy you moved out there?
Mann: Well, I was just in Boston, and it’s gotten so much cuter. (laughs) It just seems like such a cool place. Boston is so fantastic. But all my friends moved out here. I go where the friends are. And my husband lives out here. Also, there is the added benefit of (the fact that) because the business is out here, you sort of stumble into other opportunities. There really isn’t anywhere to go as a singer/songwriter in Boston after a certain point. So I’m glad I moved out here, but I think the biggest reason I’m glad is because I never wanted to chip a car out of a block of ice again.
Hirsh: And yet, the last time you came (to Boston) was Christmas.
Mann: I know. It’s nice to pop in and get a snowfall and then pop out. But when we came, there was a lot of snow, then it got a little warmer and then the foot of snow got all slushy. And then it was like, “Yeah, this is why I don’t live here.” (laughs)
Hirsh: On the film you were showing at your Christmas shows, you were holding your own, comedy-wise, with big guns like Will Ferrell and John Krasinski. Are you personally looking to get more…
Mann: More acty? I will hopefully do more of those little films for the next Christmas show. But aside from that, I’m kind of up for whatever comes along. Every now and then, I get asked to audition for something. And I go just for the experience, because first of all, auditioning is completely uncomfortable and hair-raising, and I feel like that’s reason enough to do it. I don’t know, it’s good to challenge yourself and do stuff that you don’t find comfortable. Because, why not? I think I’m just willing to try whatever comes along.
Hirsh: How often do you get recognized for your role in “The Big Lebowski”?
Mann: It’s mostly for music, and every now and then somebody will realize that I’m in “The Big Lebowski” and they’ll flip their lid, because people who know “The Big Lebowski” enough to recognize me are… I mean, there is a weird cult following of “The Big Lebowski,” so if they can recognize me, it means that they’re really into that movie. I’ve only seen “The Big Lebowski” once, so I’m not hooked into it in that way. (laughs)
Hirsh: About 10 years ago, your label didn’t know what to do with “Bachelor No. 2” and you had to fight to get it released the way you wanted, as Wilco did with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Do you and Jeff Tweedy ever meet to just high-five each other?
Mann: No, I’m pretty sure we’ve met before, but we don’t really know each other. I’m very envious of their situation. A bunch of VW commercials? I mean, come on, that’s fantastic. That’s retirement money, God bless ’em.