Over the summer you prompted a very interesting discussion about the difficulty of balancing the books as a touring and recording musician, and it all got kind of heated. Did some of the responses shock you or did it merely confirm that making music these days is becoming more and more of an uphill struggle?
It didn’t totally shock me. Most of the replies that I got on Twitter were super supportive, but I think that people are built in such a way that if everyone around them is doing something, it becomes incorporated into their moral structure. It’s very hard to think you’re doing anything wrong if everybody is doing it; you feel entitled to it. When people are able to do something, they feel entitled to do it, and when they have been doing something for a while they feel entitled to keep doing it. So I think, psychologically, that’s really the uphill battle. Obviously I have a lot of objections to that, but the main one is when people just don’t wanna look, when they don’t wanna hear the reality of it. Or they argue with you about what the reality of it is, and I find that kind of obnoxious.
Did it feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth that Charmer leaked then just a few weeks later, so early ahead of release?
Yeah, it’s horrible. It’s horrible because it’s like you just see your livelihood going down the drain.
Have you had to deal with such an early leak before or is this something new to you?
I think this is pretty new. I mean the last record was a while ago. Look, I don’t know who leaked it and I don’t why. Was it done to deliberately fuck with me? I don’t know what people’s motivations are, but of course it’s gonna interfere with my livelihood and my ability to finance the next record. That’s the effect that it has. That just stands to reason, and you would think these people might think twice about doing what they do, but they don’t. So, you know, I can’t spend any time thinking about it.
Of course. And with every leak, people download it and then react publicly to it long before the album is legally available. Did any of that feed back to you in this case?
Well, you know, it hurts my feelings to read things like, “I just downloaded your record for free, it’s great!” – that doesn’t make me feel good. I try not to put myself in a place where I see things like that, because it will hurt me. You know what I mean? Like, I have to prepare for tour, to go on tour and work, and I can’t do it if I feel like it’s for nothing. I can’t do it if I feel like there’s no reason. I have to believe in the fairytale of there being a reason, that at the end of the day I will be able to pay my mortgage and maybe have some left over enough to make another record someday. I have to believe that or I can’t do it. Sorry to get so irritated.
No, no, you’re perfectly entitled to be annoyed. Given the speed at which the music industry appears to be eroding, do you feel like, with every record release, you need to sort of relearn how the land lies in terms of the obstacles that you face?
Yeah. I think, at this point, every record is different. I think there will probably come a time when I can’t make a hard copy of the record anymore, or just a really limited special package. I mean, that time seems to be coming pretty quickly, so that seems to be the next move.
It’s a sad reality. Do you ever see yourself maybe exploring the option of crowdsourcing?
I don’t know. I think my manager is really against it but I’m not really sure why. I don’t think I have much against it personally, so I’m not really sure. But I do know other people who are really anti the idea so I’m thinking maybe there is something I’m missing. Like, is there a downside to it? So I’m not really sure what to think, but, well, if people wanna invest in a record then it makes sense to get funding that way. They’re paying for it in advance and that’s a good thing, as opposed to me paying for it and then people taking it for free [laughs]. So that seems like a good thing. So if there’s a downside I can’t really see it, but I’m also not super attuned to what’s going on.
Despite all the difficulties with releasing records, you recently talked about how your relationship to making music has changed over the years – that it’s only been in a positive way, which is really great to hear. Can it kind of be inferred from that that you consider every new album you make to be your best, even if it’s only in a technical way?
I don’t know. I guess I don’t really think of it in terms of ‘best’. Probably every time I write a song I think it’s my best because I’m the most excited about it, but that’s probably just what happens when you’re involved and working on it. So, yeah, I don’t know. It’s just that each album is a little different according to the kind of production I’ve been interested in.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that actually. I really liked what you said in that same interview about a large percentage of talent is being smart enough to choose the things that are appropriate for you. It made me wonder whether the approach to each album is something that you spend months mulling over before it finally clicks, or whether it’s more immediate for you.
It’s a bit of a mull, and it also has a lot to do with the musicians you’re playing with and what they’re bringing to the table. Sometimes the things they play are an interesting and happy accident that you want to follow up on and utilise. Charmer was more of a stylistic thing, more about the kind of production standard I was listening to. You know, that kind of post New Wave stuff, or post disco, pre New Wave records like Blondie’s Parallel Lines. I was listening to a lot of that kind of thing, where rock bands first met synthesisers. That was a big inspiration to me.
You’re someone who has consistently proved that changes in style don’t have to be these big, grand gestures to effectively distinguish one album from another. Music blogs seemed to have imposed more of a premium on innovation than on quality and experience; is that something that has troubled you, or something that you’ve given any thought to?
I’m just not one of those people who have such a wide and rapidly changing interest in form. I think that there’s a handful of styles that are kind of appropriate for me and that I’m interested in as a listener. I’m not that fascinated with the idea of complete reinvention every record, or even partial reinvention actually. I kind of like the idea of doing what I do and trying to do it better each time, just trying to write a better song each time. It’s mostly about the songwriting for me; it’s not really as much about the presentation and production or the style and instrumentation.
Speaking of production, you said that you had to choose between ‘hot’ and ‘dynamic’ versions of the masters for Charmer and I was wondering what the difference was and which one you went with?
[laughs] I honestly couldn’t tell the difference! Do you know what? I think we had somebody else master it – two different attempts with two different people – and I couldn’t really tell the difference. The thing was that I didn’t really have a player to listen to the record. We never listen to music in the house so I didn’t have a CD player. I like listening to music in the car, but at home I only had the computer, which just makes everything sound exactly the same. So I finally, just recently, got a player for my house and set up some speakers, but the car was the best I could do at the time.
I was really glad that you put this record out on vinyl. I love the artwork, though it kind of feels like I’m being glamoured if I look at it for too long.
Yeah, it’s very encouraging that there are people out there who are still listening to vinyl or just discovering vinyl. I think there’s a vinyl version of Lost In Space, but it was something that happened after the fact, that somebody else did. I honestly can’t remember! My art director Gail Marowitz, who I’ve worked with on every record, actually did all the artwork herself this time. We often have illustrators that we use, but she was really inspired to do this one on her own.
With The Forgotten Arm winning a Grammy for Best Package, and @#%&*! Smilers being nominated for the same award, do you feel like there’s an expectation on you now to keep making these elaborate packages?
To me that’s one of the fun parts of making a record, to try to come up with an artwork approach that reflects the vibe of the record. I actually tried some stuff myself for Charmer that didn’t quite work out. Then Gail came up with some things I thought were really perfect, because I knew I wanted it to be slightly creepy looking but have sort of bright, clashing colours. I think she did a really perfect job of reflecting the sound of the music.
You do a bit of painting yourself, don’t you? Is that something that’s for your own private enjoyment only, or do you see yourself maybe having an exhibition of your art at some point?
You know, I don’t do it enough to even get to that level. I mean, knowing a couple of ‘real’ artists, it’s a really different thing that they do. When you devote your life to something like that, it’s a different thing. You can really tell when somebody knows what they’re doing and when they’re really saying something through their art. For me, it’s like I’ll paint a picture of a friend and if it looks kind of like them I feel like the piece is a success, but then that’s a pretty low art standard [laughs].
You had a couple of collaborations come out recently. I was especially interested to hear the Steve Vai track – what an interesting pairing!
Yeah! I actually knew Steve when we were at Berklee, way back in the day. Not that well, but a little bit. He was going out with a friend of mine – actually, they’re married now. They’ve been married for ages. How that song happened was sort of an odd coincidence because I’d just been talking about Steve Vai with the band. People were talking about Frank Zappa and I was talking about Steve Vai and how he plays with Zappa and that I’d known him at school. Then the next day, just really out of the blue, I got an email from him asking if I would be interested in working on this song. I was like, “Yeah, why not I’ll give it a try.” And, you know, it turned out to be way harder than I thought because his music is so much more rhythmically complicated than mine. I really had to do a lot of work on it so it was very challenging, but really fun. Steve’s a great guy so that was a very nice experience. The Ben Gibbard duet was really nice to do too. I think he’s a great songwriter and I love his whole deal, but I really love that song. I think it’s beautiful and I’m really glad that he asked me to sing with him on it.
It’s great to hear that you’re already writing songs for the next record. I was intrigued by your claim on Twitter that you had a new song that’s the saddest you have ever written – that song has a lot of competition!
Yeah. On reflection, it’s probably not quite as sad as it’s sort of a sad love song. I think I’ve written sadder songs, because if you’re ranking sadness I think songs about the hopelessness of life are probably sadder than songs about a relationship that doesn’t work. So I think you have to rank that kind of existential angst above relationship angst.
For sure. Okay, last question. I was fascinated by an interview I read about your creative process in which you talked about how you like to attend twelve-step programme meetings, and I wanted to push you a little more on that. Like, what motivates you to go to those meetings and how it helps you as a songwriter?
I love the twelve-step thing because I think that trying to become more self-aware is sort of a duty that everybody has. I came across this idea somewhere – I can’t remember who said it – that if you’re not trying to be more self-aware, it’s like driving without having taken any driving lessons or having read the manual. You’re sort of out there endangering other people because you really just careen into everybody; you don’t know what you’re doing and you act out all your weird issues on people that think it’s their fault. So I really do place a premium on the idea of just trying to be aware of your own source of feelings and how they impact your actions.
With the twelve-step thing you can just sit in the meeting and listen to people talk, and there’s always something you can relate to. I don’t have a drug or an alcohol problem or anything like that, but I can relate to people talking about the idea of becoming fixated on something or valuing something. You know, making some other thing or person as if it’s a higher power in your life and all the craziness that can come from that. There’s always something interesting that you can hear in a meeting and relate to. Whatever kind of meeting it is. So I go often. And it’s not about it being for writing; it’s about trying to be a better person.
Tagged aimee mann