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All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Aimee Mann

THE LOS ANGELES–BASED musician Aimee Mann has led a sort-of New Wave band (’Til Tuesday), sung her songs in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie (Magnolia), made a cameo in The Big Lebowski, won two Grammys, appeared as a cleaning woman on Portlandia, teamed up with indie-rock hero Ted Leo (in a group called The Both), and successfully run her own independent label (SuperEgo Records).

But she’s still best known for witty, literate, understated songs that make her one of the finest singer-songwriters now working. Mann’s last LP, the often-brooding chamber-pop album Mental Illness, came out in March of last year. She appears at the Greek Theatre, with alt-country hero Jason Isbell, today, August 31. 

We spoke to the Virginia-reared, Berklee College–educated Mann from her home in Los Angeles.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: Give us a sense, to start, of how important reading has been to you, starting with your childhood.

AIMEE MANN: As a kid, it was my favorite thing to do. There wasn’t a lot of great TV back then, in the ’60s and early ’70s, so I read a lot. And I was a kid who liked to learn stuff.

I was also, when I was 10 or 11, bussed to an inner-city school that was woefully underfunded. It was one of those moments were you realize, “Oh, education isn’t equal — I didn’t realize that. I thought we all got the same start.” The classes were really huge, so there was a lot of fighting. And I was one of the few kids who wasn’t a raucous trouble-maker, so I would ask for a pass to the library and stay there all day.

So reading was just an important thing to my life — as escape, as entertainment, as a learning tool. And I’m a kid, so I’m going though all the young adult fiction. When a book would mention another book, I would go, “I want to read that one.” So that could lead to some interesting places.

The ’60s and ’70s came before the YA explosion, before Harry Potter, though of course there were books aimed at kids and teenagers.

Yeah, Madeleine L’Engle and S. E. Hinton. There were also Scholastic books you could order. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was right in the pocket for me.

That one’s largely about alienation — was it the storytelling, or was it a spirit that drew you?

Young adult fiction is interesting, because it’s really about something — it’s often got something to say. One of my favorite things was [John Christopher’s] The Tripod trilogy — kids having to work together, to problem-solve, to try to escape, of course, the giant tripods that have taken over Earth. And it’s interesting because the science fiction part is just the way it is; it’s not presented as a remarkable thing. The focus is really on: How are we going to respond to this problem?

I find in a lot of young adult stuff the prose has a matter-of-fact tone I enjoyed, as opposed to the hysterical tone of a lot of adult fiction.

People would also give me books that weren’t super-appropriate for a 12-year-old kid. Like, someone gave me a whole bunch of Alistair MacLean — like junior le Carré, spy novels, a bit evil genius-y. But not really kids books.

And a friend of my stepmother gave me Hermann Hesse. But when you’re a kid you say, “I’m gonna read it, and now I’m in this world.”

Do you remember which one?

I think early stuff. And then I got really into him. I think it was Beneath the Wheel and Peter Camenzind. Kind of grim but matter-of-fact again.

I think I had Beneath the Wheel assigned in 10th or 11th grade; I was just the right age for that.

When you’re a kid, it’s a glimpse into an adult world. And Beneath the Wheel is about a kid who’s going to school whose options are so limited.

Some adults read young adult novels. Are you among them?

I guess I would be if I had someone push me in the right direction. I occasionally do like a book to be about something, with a meaning and moral purpose, even.

Yes, literature for grown-ups tends to be about characters and subtle themes rather than a hard message.

Or about the loose ends, the complexity and unresolved grimness of life.

Ha, yes, I just finished a novel of Rachel Cusk’s, which I enjoyed a great deal, but that sums it up pretty well. As you went through high school, college, your apprenticeship as a musician, did reading continue to matter to you?

I’ve always read. When I was in Boston in the late ’80s, there were book clubs, you’d get a newsletter — I’d take a chance with things and get a box of books in the mail. You’d read a description …

Do you remember any great discoveries from that period?

Every now and then there would be someone I’d read and then I’d buy every one, like if it was a series. Like [Egyptian Nobel Prize winner] Naguib Mahfouz — I’ve got a tone of those. And I’d get into weird stuff: I’m a big [F. Scott] Fitzgerald fan, so he gets reread a lot. And one time he mentioned Booth Tarkington. How many books did Tarkington write? I must have read all of them. I found this weird little place in Connecticut, called the Traveler Restaurant, and they had a bookstore in the basement. Somebody must have unloaded their library and had a ton of Booth Tarkington.

What drew you to Fitzgerald, and what kept you coming back?

I just reread Tender Is the Night. Obviously The Great Gatsby was my favorite. Tender is a difficult one — he has these poetic turns of phrase but a choppy, weird style. But in repeated rereadings, I see this is a really masterful description by someone of his own alcoholism, and also the mental illness of his wife. In a really realistic way. Knowing more now about mental illness, I thought, “This seems really accurate and considered and insightful.” And interesting to see him be so insightful about his alcoholism without being able to arrest it in any way.

I’ve not read Tender Is the Night since college, but I remember the first half as being quite beautiful and lyrical as they live the high life in the South of France, and then everything collapses by the second half. The Great Depression, I think? You get all these different tones.

Yeah — and it was his Great Depression. She gets better — recovers from her mental illness — and he gets worse. It feels real.

Part of me worries about this — because I think art is mysterious and complex — but I suspect we’ll increasingly see people with psychological training going back to the literature and perhaps art and music of the past to make sense of it. We know so much more about psychology now than people did then.

I couldn’t help doing it when I reread the book. Zelda was diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which I guess is sort of considered schizophrenia. But I think she had very serious PTSD, with a dissociative disorder. That’s my diagnosis!

Well, given that your last album was called Mental Illness, you have some credibility here.

I think Zelda was a bordering personality disorder. And maybe bipolar. There was always something that seemed like she was molested or something.

When I was a kid another of my favorite books was [Herman Wouk’s] Marjorie Morningstar, and one of the characters in it, a great romance, was a composer, very dashing and intelligent and witty. When you’re 12 you think, “Oh, what a romantic figure!” Now when I reread it I think, “This guy is 100 percent f-cking bipolar! And having a manic episode — thank God you did not marry him!”

Did you go through a period of studying this stuff really deeply, or was it a relative, or what?

My mother studied psychology and was a social worker; my father was one of the few people who actually went to see psychiatrists; I went to a psychiatrist when I was six. My father’s joke was, “Anybody who would go to a psychiatrist should have their head examined.” My mother left when I was three, so there was a lot of trauma.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that things that happened to you in the past could affect you in the future. And how does that work? In some ways, it’s hopeful: maybe the things I’m thinking and feeling have a reason, and it’s not just that I’m defective.

Right. So in the ’90s you moved into your own 30s, and moved out to California in the middle of the decade. Do you remember what was speaking to you at that point?

In your 30s, you solidify that oeuvre of what you like. That’s when I discovered Irwin Shaw, whose prose can be too dramatic, but I have a soft spot for him.

Kind of an unfashionable figure! Nice to hear someone picking more unusual names and not just saying how they read Catcher in the Rye a dozen times.

I totally went through a Salinger period, reading every story, trying to find the New Yorker stories.

And Raymond Chandler — his language is amazing even if you say, “Wait a minute? What happened to that guy?” The loose ends don’t always get resolved.

He’s one of the quintessential Los Angeles writers. Did coming here turn you toward L.A. writers at all?

Yes, a little bit. My husband, Michael Penn, is into John Fante; we have some of those books. It’s interesting to live in Los Angeles and read Raymond Chandler, to put places together. And I’m always amazed he got out to Malibu so fast.

I think of your music as being congruent with noir fiction. Have you read others besides Chandler?

Only recently. I read some John D. MacDonald, which I loved. Patton Oswalt was quoting him on Facebook, and I thought, “That’s really good prose.” So I went crazy and bought every one of the Travis McGee series. Then I read a bunch of Ross MacDonald.

Love him. What did you like about his novels?

I literally can’t remember which ones I want, and none of them are all that different from each other. It’s like a flatter prose; I like that not a lot happens. I like that earlier detective fiction where it’s not all goddamn serial killers. Maybe the son gets kidnapped. Maybe one guy dies.

A lot of MacDonald’s world is gone now, but I love reading about ’50s and ’60s California, the old derricks off the coast, the decadent rich people. And if you’re into psychology, there are few writers better than him. I think he was quite steeped in Freud and Jung.

Do you read any of those Scandinavian detective writers?

Yeah! About a decade or so ago I went though a phase where I read all of Henning Mankell — love that stuff.

Before my mother died, she started sending me those; it got me back into detective fiction. There are two people whose names I forget … Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall.

Yes — they’re credited with sort of starting the genre.

I like those books because it’s like, “I guess I’ll look in the phone book,” or, “I guess I’ll knock on some doors and see if anybody has heard anything.” Or, “Well, the coffee’s burned at the station again…” It’s very much not a fast-paced, internet-y, high-speed thing.

Yes, definitely a world before the internet. And I think half of Henning Mankell’s novels are about his detective drinking black coffee at the police station and listening to opera records alone at night. I think it helps to find a detective whose emotional temperature you respond to. And there’s something about the doggedness of Mankell’s Wallander — it’s not especially American.

I know, I love it. Sometimes it’s just about putting in the time.

Anything you’ve read lately that you’ve really enjoyed?

Just unbelievably great — A Little Life [by Hanya Yanagihara]. A friend was doing a book club. It’s about four dudes who meet in college, and it seems like it’s about friendship dynamics and guys moving through their lives. But as it goes on, you realize that one of them has had a rough past, and you start finding out just how rough. I mean: It is a fucking rough ride. I feel like I got PTSD from reading it; it’s really fantastic.

The question of influence is so hard to figure out. All of your songs involve language; some of them involve storytelling. Who taught you about those things; probably everybody we’ve been talking about, and nobody.

Yeah: reading and language are these things you soak in, and enough of it gets into your bloodstream so that by the time you need it, there are ideas and atmospheres and dynamics and words and phrases and chunks of things that can be recombined. I love language; I love words. It all goes into the hopper.

I wonder if the musical influences on your songwriting are easier to identify?

Yeah — those are more obvious. From Liz Phair permission to talk more frankly about relationships, from Elliott Smith permission to talk more openly about difficult feelings and situations.

And I would say probably, in a way that I didn’t realize until recently, Steely Dan. Because there’s something about Steely Dan — a combination of a lot of feeling and vulnerability in the music, with an almost sardonic approach in the lyrics. There’s something about that combination that’s kind of heart-breaking. This attempt to be detached, but you can hear the sadness in the music. It’s kind of a killer combination.

What’s next for you? Are you writing songs?

I’m writing songs for two different musicals. One is my own thing I’m doing with Jonathan Marc Sherman, a playwright in New York. And I was asked to write music for the stage adaptation of the book Girl, Interrupted.

So literally right up my alley — it’s about crazy ladies! So that’s very enjoyable. I don’t know when; plays always take forever.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.

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