eliza berkon is a features writer and jazz musician based in washington d.c. 

Aimee Mann takes her new album to the Birchmere

It’s been nearly two decades since Magnolia brought Aimee Mann both Grammy and Oscar nominations for the gently pleading “Save Me,” but Mann has continued to issue music that is frank and unflinching. In March, she released Mental Illness, her ninth solo album and first since performing in rock duo The Both with Ted Leo. We caught up with her before her Birchmere performance on June 23.

You’ve said people have characterized you as dark or depressed because of your music’s melancholy vibe. Would you say that’s unfair?

I think that’s a little in the eye of the beholder. Some topics are dark, but to me personally, listening to a song that’s about something dark—listening to Elliott Smith—never depressed me. There’s a kind of energizing quality that really good songwriting has. It’s hard to speak for how people see you and if they think that you have that same energizing quality.

Do you draw on a lot of personal experience for your songwriting or envision yourself as a documentarian of other people’s stories?

I think I always have to be fairly close to it; I don’t think I necessarily write about things that are completely out of my [personal] experience, although I probably have. But there’s always part of it I can relate to. I try to a lot of times write in first person but from somebody else’s viewpoint that I might know.

My favorite song on the Mental Illness album is “Rollercoasters.” It has a real soothing quality and an earwormy chorus. Tell me a bit more about the inspiration.

That’s a song that I co-wrote with Jonathan Coulton, and he usually writes funnier songs, but I felt like his lyric-writing was really incisive and that he would be a good person to co-write with. And I think what we were trying to get at was that state of mind or that person who is really always throwing themselves into kind of extreme situations that are mood-altering but not necessarily even positive—just whatever kind of dramatic or exciting situation—and also the kind of inevitable fall when you’re really trying to elevate yourself in some way or elevate your mood in some way in this almost manic quality.

What led you to release a solo record after performing with The Both for a few years?

I was actually ready to make another Both record because we had been touring and it was just really fun working with Ted, but Ted hasn’t made a solo record in a long time, and he really felt like it was time for him to get back to thinking about that. So then in thinking about doing my own solo record, it took a while to get back into that headspace. I think working with Ted, which was more of a rock band, it was  a real scrappy little outfit. I think that just in contrast I thought, “Well maybe I’ll do something really, really quiet.”

I’ve read that you want people to put this album on and be able to play it from start to finish and for it to be consistent.

I think I always worry that I can’t have too many slow or sad songs in a row but I have to break it up with something more up-tempo. And this time I just thought, “When I put on a record, if I’m in the mood for this kind of like sad or introspective quiet music, then I don’t really want it to suddenly burst into some dumb rock song.”

What are you listening to these days?

I’m actually listening to Billy Joel because my friend Jonathan Coulton is a big Billy Joel fan. He’s really interesting because he’s such a great songwriter, but then there’s stuff that really misses, and it’s interesting to kind of figure out why. I think the way he sings the song is very different from the song sometimes. His delivery is very muscular and tough, but if the song is not muscular and tough it’s a little like, “What’s going on?” But his ability to write a narrative is incredible.

You’ve had a lot of fun TV appearances, including a cameo in The Big Lebowski. What’s your favorite?

Portlandia was really fun because I’m friends with Fred Armisen, and anything involving Fred I would sign up for. I think he’s just unbelievably talented.

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