Aimee Mann explores depression and suicide on new album


Aimee Mann has never felt more like a musical stranger.

Although the luminary of songwriting first emerged in cultural consciousness in the mid-1980s as a spiky-haired singer and guitarist in New Wave sensations until Tuesday, it is now. – as 61-year-old Angeleno peering through her chunky glasses in our Zoom call, donning a pale blue turtleneck and her hair neatly pinned back – that she feels most deeply out of step.

Mann tells me this on a Tuesday morning during an interview about her new album, “Queens of the Summer Hotel,” a collection of elegant baroque pop songs she completed before the pandemic for a planned theatrical adaptation of the 1993 memoir. , “Girl, Interrupted”. The best-selling book chronicles author Susanna Kaysen’s stay at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts in the late 1960s and spawned the 1999 film of the same name starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. One of Mann’s songs, A Waltz, is about former McLean patients, the poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, and the album’s title comes from the 1959 poem “You, Doctor Martin” by Anne Sexton – ” And I’m the queen of this summer hotel / or the laughing bee on a stalk of death ”- who also spent time in the hospital.

“I relate to some of her chaotic thoughts, how it fueled her writing, but also made it so difficult for her to find a place to land,” Mann said of Sexton. “There is a gallows humor in his discussion of his time at McLean that I appreciate.”

The room is currently in limbo due to the pandemic. But Mann – whose battles with the big labels in the 90s over the releases of his debut solo albums, “Whatever” from 1993 and “I’m With Stupid” from 1995, have been well documented – forged a career finding her own path when a door closed and she opened it another one.

Conceptual albums filled with classical music and explorations of depression and suicide may be rarities in mainstream music today. Mann is known, however, for creating low-key tunes that not only soundtrack to devastating stories, but propel them. In 1999, she wrote songs for “Magnolia” by Paul Thomas Anderson which, far from being a typical soundtrack, also functioned as musical theater, woven into the plot. It was also around this time that Mann formed her own label, SuperEgo, through which she continues to release collections of her subtle, Beatles-y Story songs, marked by her minimalist yet bold vocals at the center. from the scene. (As she told Nylon, “It’s a lot more fun having a lemonade stand than working for McDonald’s.”) She won the Grammy folk album for her latest solo LP, “Mental Illness.” from 2017.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel Aimee Mann’s integrity,” says recent collaborator and punk personality Ted Leo. “You don’t need to know her history with the big labels – and how she released music herself long before the rest of the pop world did – to feel the integrity of her writing. “

Aimee Mann performs at the New Yorker Festival 2021.

(Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Like Mann’s lyrics, the language of “Girl, Interrupted” is often sardonic and clear, both conversational and literary. And like the book, the stories in “Queens of the Summer Hotel” describe how life in the late 1960s could be dangerously oppressive for women. Collaborating with longtime producer Paul Bryan, Mann wrote these revealing songs in a feverish rush. The harmonics “You Fall”, “At the Frick Museum” and “Suicide Is Murder” evoke and prolong specific moments of the text.

“The book is episodic, with skits of events and characters – the story doesn’t make itself obvious – so I thought about what a certain character might sing, or what episodes might result in a song,” explains Mann, who was brought on the project from “Once” producers Barbara Broccoli and Frederick Zollo and their daughter, Angelica. “I found it very liberating,” Mann says of writing for the theater. “I felt like I could do anything.”

On the climax “Give Me Fifteen,” Mann describes a sexist doctor who concludes a diagnosis after only a brief observation – because “women are so simple after all,” Mann sings wryly, a clear political dimension resonating. This is how Kaysen is sent to McLean in “Girl, Interrupted”. But “Give Me Fifteen” is also an allegory of a world in which women’s health issues are too often overlooked or misunderstood by the medical establishment. “It’s infuriating, and every woman has absolutely lived it – not to be taken seriously,” Mann says.

She recently experienced this on her own as she battled vestibular migraine and a nervous system disorder that resulted in worsening tinnitus and distortion of her hearing. “I couldn’t listen to music,” she says. “There was a point where I was like, ‘I guess I’ll never work again.’ Mann improved many of his symptoms by using a daily expressive writing technique to relieve stress.

“One of the things that I encountered in dealing with these symptoms was that people who have historically had to suppress their feelings are more likely to experience neuroplastic symptoms,” she says. “The part of the population that most often has to suppress their feelings are marginalized people. Unfortunately, women are still in the marginalized category.

Mann’s best songs have been, in their own way, about life under the Patriarchy. ‘Til Tuesday 1985’s smash “Voices Carry” invoked emotional repression in the context of a toxic relationship – “When I tell him I’m falling in love / Why does he say / Hush hush / Keep him low now / Voices carry “- with a man who” only wants me / If he can keep me online. ” Fourteen years later, in his late 30s, Mann’s “Save Me”, which closes “Magnolia,” has become his masterpiece: a sober, carefully strummed ballad and perhaps the most modest song ever. written on the connection between the damaged people. It was nominated for the Original Song Oscar and solidified Mann’s stature as an esteemed songwriter.

This period of her career was not without its challenges, which, she notes, also imbued her with the experience she brought to the “Girl, Interrupted” material. In 2002, following her solo breakthrough, she entered a treatment center in Arizona. “I had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I wasn’t working.” Her diagnosis was PTSD due to unresolved childhood trauma, which caused “quite severe dissociation.” At the treatment center, she made friendships with other recovering people, some with addictions, and, before the pandemic, Mann continued to attend Al-Anon meetings. “I have a lot of compassion for people in difficulty,” she says.

woman with short blond hair plays guitar on stage

Aimee Mann and ‘Til Tuesday in 1987.

(CBS Photo Archive)

Mann was born in 1960 outside of Richmond, Virginia, where her father was an advertising manager. Part of the childhood trauma, Mann said, was “a lot of interrupted care.” Her parents divorced when she was 3, after which Mann’s mother and her new boyfriend kidnapped Mann. They took her to Europe and traveled. Mann’s father had been looking for her through a private investigator for almost a year when she was found in England and returned home.

“The moment I saw my father again, it was like he was a stranger, and then I didn’t see my mother again until I was 14,” she says. “I think having two parents that you spend so much time away from them, and then they don’t seem like parents anymore – that lays the foundation for later problems.”

Gravitating towards music, her idol was David Bowie. She started playing guitar at age 12 and moved to Boston after high school to attend Berklee College of Music, although she eventually dropped out to play in art-punk bands like the Young Snakes. But atonal dissonance wasn’t her calling, and she quickly started performing around Boston with ‘Til Tuesday instead. The group’s last touring crew included a young Jon Brion. Before making records with Fiona Apple and Kanye West, Brion’s first production credits were on Mann’s early solo albums.

As Mann turned to her methodically catchy solo work, she found she preferred structure over music. “Writing for me is an exercise in order, not chaos,” she says. “Trying to describe something – making connections, putting pieces together, trying to sum up complicated ideas in a three and a half minute song – is trying to bring some order to chaos for me. “

A woman in a dress, left, and a man in a suit, both holding glasses

Aimee Mann and husband Michael Penn at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar party.

(Kevin Mazur / VF14 / WireImage)

Mann’s songs continue to resonate. Sky Ferreira performed “Voices Carry” live several times before releasing a recording of his cover in 2018, calling it “deeply personal to me lyrically”. In January, New York singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins released her wise second album, “An Overview on Phenomenal Nature,” bearing the influence of Mann’s raw emotion, wise firmness and centrality. of his words.

“I’ve been really scared of the term ‘singer-songwriter’ for most of my life,” says Jenkins, who grew up with the archetypes of protest singers or cafe confessionalists. “I turned to Aimee Mann to find songwriting could be more sophisticated. She offers a broad definition of what a singer-songwriter can be, with the very self-possessed nature of a conductor.

Mann’s scope of work continues to expand with “Queens of the Summer Hotel”, as with another project she is currently pursuing: a musical based on her 2005 record “The Forgotten Arm”, also a concept album, about a young woman and a drug addict boxer who falls in love and runs away from home.

Mann’s personal cultural contribution is largely extra-musical these days: in her Los Angeles home, which she shares with her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, she recently re-read the novels. from the early 20th century by Theodore Dreiser. “I have strange tastes,” she says of her literary preferences. “1915 is sort of my favorite time. “

Reflecting on her trajectory, I ask Mann if there’s anything she sees more clearly now than she did in the music world decades ago. “Those were the days, God help you if you were labeled ‘the difficult female artist’ – that would be the end of the story,” she said. “But I was stubborn too. I always wanted to improve myself.

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