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Interview by Matthew Weiner
Photo by James Elliot Bailey
Matthew Weiner, creator of the prolific series Mad Men, has been friends with Aimee Mann for what feels like a lifetime. So it’s no surprise he happily agreed to sit down with her to discuss Mental Illness, her ninth studio album. Spoiler alert: There will be Trump.
Aimee Mann’s music has been in my life for a long time. I’ll place myself somewhere in high school when I first heard her voice, and over the years as I got older, I discovered that we were emotionally and maybe even artistically on the same path. When I was lucky enough to eventually meet her, I found that not only was she as deep as I’d hoped but funny, too. I guess you should be able to tell from her music that she’s witty, but I’m always surprised by how wry and quick she can be, especially when talking about work. When MAGNET asked me to interview her, I jumped at the opportunity because it meant both a chance to hear her brilliant new album Mental Illness before anyone else but also to ask all the dumb questions about her artistic process. And she couldn’t laugh it off this time. —Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner: We were talking about Marvin Hamlisch. You said you went to see him, and I’m always fascinated by, you in particular, but I think most musicians don’t have a kind of caste system. If someone can do it …
Aimee Mann: I think when you’re younger, you have that caste system. When you become a professional, you sort of realize the work that goes into it, and into writing a song and the craftsmanship, and you start to appreciate other things. I’ve gone back and listened to stuff that I kind of rejected as a younger person as not being cool.
Weiner: Is Broadway part of that? Most of us, our parents were into that at some point. I have two older sisters, so there was a lot of Funny Girl in our house, and I know a lot of Broadway stuff.
Mann: My parents every now and then would take a trip up to the big city from Richmond, Va., and go see some plays and bring back soundtracks, which I loved. I loved it, and so I didn’t have any feeling that that was uncool at all. And me and my brother were both in plays in high school and in musicals. That never seemed … I never got the idea that was uncool.
Weiner: Let’s talk about the album. I actually fell like having this conversation about the past or influences and so forth, this seems very backward-looking. Not musically in any way, though there’s a lot of folk in it—
Mann: It’s pretty folky.
Weiner: I’m gonna do the two stupidest things: generalize too much and assume you’re the subject of every song. Both of which aren’t fair. I know it’s hard, but you’re singing in the first person and I know you a little bit. But there is … It’s not nostalgic, but there’s a lot of it as a topic. The subject of it feels like it’s a lot “You never loved me,” and there’s a few of them that seem related to the past.
Mann: There’s definitely a couple of them that are, like, “Yeah, there’s literally a song called ‘Stuck In The Past,” so the idea of, like, “Here I am doing this thing, continually.” Actually, there’s a song that’s a co-write with this guy named John Roderick, and that was a song that he kinda half-finished and gave it to me to finish, but that was kinda the topic of his song, doing the same thing over again, so that kind of resonated perfectly.
Weiner: You say it in more than one song, some grammatical construction that’s kind of like, “I’m going to my default position,” which is really, and it’s always so self-critical because you’re you, self-deprecating. It’s always like, “I’m going to go back to being an idiot,” which you’re not, but we do feel like fools when we think about how we naturally behave.
Weiner: I just thought that there was … I would say it feels like a processing experience, the album. It feels like there’s processing going on.
Mann: Well, writing’s always like that, right? You have an idea. There’s something that resonates emotionally, you’re not really sure why; you come up with a plot and a story and images that speak to that, and suddenly you have this thing in front of you. It’s like telling somebody your dream.
Weiner: Don’t pretend like it’s not influenced by your experiences.
Mann: That moment where you suddenly realize, “Oh, this is what I’m talking about,” you know?
Weiner: Is the album still the form in which you create? You’ve had lots of hits, but you’ve been doing albums, and I always wondered if technology was gonna destroy that at some point. I loved it. I love sitting down with the album, and you, as always, have ordered everything exquisitely. I’ve actually felt like there was this ramp up to “Rollercoasters,” and then “Patient Zero” is kind of near the climax of it, and it has a sort of retrospective feeling toward the last two songs. And even musically, there’s just so much simplicity early on. I wouldn’t call it production, but other voices come in more and more and more toward the end of the album. And then, of course, you’re by yourself there.
Mann: I think I wanted to establish it as being an acoustic record, like really stripped down, so I wanted to start off with the most stripped-down sound. It is really hard to resist the temptation to load up instruments and keep painting and decorating and putting stuff on.
Weiner: Now, when you do that, are you fixing something or are you just saying, “I want it to be fuller”?
Mann: No, it’s just fun.
Weiner: It’s gotta make it better somewhere, right? Better’s the enemy of good. I don’t mean that.
Mann: Sometimes I think it takes a certain leap of faith to say, “This song is going to be good as it is without a bunch of background vocals, without a bunch of guitar, without drums, without bass, without a big string section.” Just like, “Here it is; here’s the song,” and folk music of my era had such an impact because—
Weiner: It’s really before your era.
Mann: Yeah, a little before my era. Because it’s like a guy talking to you and there’s something very powerful about that. You do start to distance yourself from the listener when you have a lot of padding and sonic candy on top.
Weiner: It feels very confident to me, and what I was saying about, it’s almost like a taking stock, but I feel like you could only … like, who does that? Teenagers and wise people. Teenagers are talking about, “I remember last summer, and this is the last summer we’ll ever have,” and then all of a sudden you get to a certain point. A friend of mine wrote a movie about this great painter who was being sought by the Pope, and the Pope would basically make you paint an audition painting. And this guy was such a master that all he did with one hand was he painted a perfect circle in one motion, with one brush stroke, and he handed this circle and said, “Take that to the Pope,” and he got the job. I don’t know if that’s true or if my friend invented it, but in my mind it’s always been, “That’s what you’re looking for.”
Mann: Put that in your Pope and smoke it!
Weiner: I also feel like as an artist, a little bit of it is like, “Hey, guess what? I don’t work for free.” There’s something about the simplicity, the confidence of … you want it, because, and I assume that you write this way, you’ve gotta be starting with the simplest part. I always imagined you, because I have this romantic vision anyway of you alone with your guitar, or you humming something in your head or you writing stuff in your phone, and it’s a solidarity sort of beginning expression, then you start elaborating on it. And you always jokingly said to me, “It’s a trick. I could teach you how to write a song.”
Mann: I feel like I could.
Weiner: A lot of people can’t do it, so whatever the trick is, don’t share it!
Mann: For me, the trick to writing a song is if I … If you can randomly fool around with chords, and eventually the chords will feel like a piece of music that makes you feel something, and then what does that feeling feel like? What are some words that come with that feeling? I guess it’s more like a word association, but you start with music.
Weiner: You’re completely diminishing the muscle memory of knowing what things go together, what chords go together, what feels like anything. And also, I remember we ended up doing 92 hours of Mad Men, and after the first season, everything sort of worked out as much as it did, especially considering we didn’t think we’d make it beyond the pilot. There was this really underdog feeling that never went away. I don’t think I knew people liked the show until it was over. I believed it, in some way. I remember writing this down: that I keep going places and ending up someplace I’ve already been. I had Don say that in the start of the second season, ’cause I’d used everything. I had nothing. I used to always laugh at the studios asking for a Bible. I didn’t know one thing that was in the second season, you know? But anyway. There’s something about listening to … This is probably the third album that’s come out since I’ve known you that I’ve gotten to hear early, and I’m just kind of marveling at the consistency of the expression and the fact that it changes as well as what you have to say. Honestly, we can’t have this conversation, but I wanna know, “How can you work?” We’re both political people, but it’s usually just for bitching. This is in the forefront of my existence right now. Was the album done before all this shit happened?
Mann: Yeah, it was done a little while ago, and I just delayed putting it out because I needed a break because I’d put out my last solo record and that record with Ted (Leo) for the Both.
Weiner: So, it’s four actually.
Mann: Yeah. God. I feel like we’ve just met.
Weiner: I know, but it’s been like … Mad Men went on the air, like, 10 years ago.
Mann: I think if this record wasn’t so … A lot of it is about mental illness, which I do think fits in with the tenor of the times. I feel like our present administration is in the grip of a serious mental illness that is almost like a folie a deux except there’s more the deux. I think people—there’s kind of a mob mentality, like a looter mentality, where you feel people setting aside their principles in the excitement of looting.
Weiner: I read this great article that was talking about how capitalism’s saving grace is apparently that people will always act in their own self-interest. But what we’re discovering is what we already knew: that people are animals and would love to have their dominance and passions ignited, even at the expenses of food and shelter, if they’re angry enough.
Mann: It’s amazing. I do actually really think Donald Trump is mentally ill. I think he’s mentally ill and/or also has some kind of dementia situation.