Aimee Man: Pop music is empires of people selling clothes or perfume

Commercial pop music is so tied up in what I call the ‘empires’ where, along with the music, people are also selling clothing lines or perfumes. “Precisely. All of which is very discouraging, especially when that’s the only feedback you get about your music. Songwriting, she says, very quickly turned into the way she chose to speak. The only people commenting on it are record company employees, which means the feedback is, more or less, always going to be negative. No middle ground
“It’s so easy for an A&R person to tell you they don’t hear a hit song – they were always after the ‘single’, and, you know, what’s a single these days, anyway? It’s interesting now – music is either very successful or very idiosyncratic, and there doesn’t seem as if there’s a middle ground. “I’ve definitely had times where I had writers’ block, and it was really hard to get things out. The time when I was on Geffen Records in the early-mid 1990s was when I felt like that. Engagement with what ails you is crucial, she believes. “Oh, yes, everyone’s a mess. It depends where your mess is, and whether that mess is compatible with the mess of other people.”

Has there ever been a time when she was disconnected? She admits she finds it much more interesting to write about people “who aren’t functioning perfectly”, and her key creative trait of describing such states is more often than not balanced between keen observation and full disclosure. While she emphasises that the album title shouldn’t be taken as a pointer for anything remotely self-confessional, she says many walk a line of varying width in relation to mental health. Such belief, she argues, isn’t always genuine. From then to now she has delivered seven albums of original material that have been praised to the hilt while – her early 2000s Oscar/Golden Globe/Grammy-nominated song Save Me notwithstanding – still stopping short of making her a mainstream figure. Where are the rhymes, images, turns of phrases, metaphors? What it’s all about for me is having the ability, the freedom to do exactly – and I really do mean exactly – what I want. Definitively, that’s my goal.”

Mental Illness is now on release through Super Ego Records 

Aimee Mann on pop music songwriting-by-committee:

“They give songwriting credits to so many people in a way that I never would. I’m happy to have that, to sell enough records, to play to enough people, to be able to keep doing it. It’s almost like the music becomes the jingle to sell the other stuff. I suppose they’re crafting a song for mass consumption in a way that is just not my thing – it isn’t personal enough. Long regarded as a songwriter’s songwriter, Aimee Mann takes such admiration in her stride. “It means if you find an audience, then they can tell your writing, or your art, is more authentic, and that you’re not trying too hard to please or deliver. Not that she cares – her latest album Mental Illness is her first since 2012’s Charmer, and is arguably her best work in more than 15 years. “When they listen to your music, their first comments and concerns are whether the music will sell, how it will sell, and how they can get the artist to do what they think will sell. There’s also a layer of negative thinking to how you feel people might evaluate you; if you’ll be ostracised, or if something else is handed to you that you won’t be able to cope with.”

Signature themes
Emotional disconnections, distractions and dysfunctions are Mann’s signature themes. “I love filtering ideas, problems and puzzles through the medium of songwriting. One of the problems of being on a label like that – back then, anyway – was that our respective goals were not equivalent.”

Major record company aims are, says Mann, to push products through the filter of what they believe will sell records. When people have a problem with depression or anxiety, their instinct is to keep it to themselves, because there’s a fear that they may be judged. In truth, being “normal” is a balancing act, isn’t it? People are just coming up with a topic that might sell, or what approach might sell. There is craft, but not the way I like. As the years have passed, I’ve developed more of a strict policy of not worrying about what people are going to think of my music. It’s all very meat and potatoes, and of not much interest to me.” Who is doing the feeling? Mann thinks about this for a few seconds before revealing that the few years she was on a major record label weren’t exactly pleasant. Obviously, I’m not writing Beyoncé music – which is something that can easily be quantified as commercial – so if you’re out of that game, then you can do whatever you want. I feel more articulate when I’m writing a song, because the music allows me to think in ways that I can’t really do when I’m not writing.”

Mann first came to notice with her 1980s rock band Til Tuesday but she really snagged attention from 1993 onwards with the release of her debut solo album, Whatever. There is attention to detail, but not the way that I like. If you have a problem, then it’s good to name it; it’s good to ask people for perspective and advice that a less insular approach would give you. I write songs because I like to know what people are feeling, and with, for example, a 15-person songwriting team I’d like to know, who is doing the thinking? The 56-year-old Los Angeles resident has been writing songs for more than 40 years. “I don’t think denial is a very effective treatment for mental illness or even something less than that. Which is exactly what I do.”

This suits her perfectly. That mindset is far less artistically inhibiting, and was one of the aspects of coming to terms with the commercial appeal – or not – of my music.”

Which is one of the reasons why she can call her albums anything she damn well wants.