Music Interviews

Aimee Mann: “There’s something in the zeitgeist where people are ready to talk about mental illness” – Interview



The LA-based songwriter on the theatrical origins of her new album Queens Of The Summer Hotel, writing in character, and the changing nature of how women are seen

Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann (Photo: Sheryl Nields)

Aimee Mann has enjoyed a successful career that stretches all the way back to the early ‘80s and her time as the singer in ‘Til Tuesday. But new album Queens Of The Summer Hotel presented a new challenge and a change to her usual way of working.

Written for a stage adaptation of Girl, Interrupted, the memoir by American author Susanna Kaysen about her time at a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, in many ways it neatly follows on from and shares themes with Mann’s last album, 2017’s Mental Illness, and confirms her status as an artist capable of writing poignantly beautiful songs that leave lasting impressions. She has spoken about her previous struggles with her own mental health, and this personal experience adds further credibility and weight to an already powerful project. 

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Congratulations on the album. How does it feel now that it has been released?

“I’m really excited. It’s such a personal album it was hard to know how people were going to react but the responses have been really positive. I also feel like there’s something in the zeitgeist where people are ready to talk about mental illness and are interested in that topic and more open to it. I wonder if everyone having gone through this collective trauma of the pandemic has made people less reluctant about discussing their feelings.”

What was the background to the album? How were you first approached to write songs for stage production of Girl, Interrupted?

“I was approached by the production team run by Barbara Broccoli and her ex-husband Fred Zollo. Barbara is best known as the producer of the James Bond movies. They have worked on stage productions before and Fred has done a lot of theatre work and their daughter Angelica Zollo has a very close relationship with the book Girl, Interrupted. She started to talk to them, saying she thought they should really do some sort of stage production with this book so they brought her in as a producer, and Angelica had suggested me for the music.”

What was your relationship with the book?

“I read it a long time ago but it was really interesting to approach it as source material and to start to try to picture it on stage and try to picture music in it. There’s a lot of very distinct characters in the book, Susanna’s fellow inmates, and I felt it was obvious that most of them should have their own song. There were other monologues that felt like they would really work if they were turned into songs.”

You’ve said that on this occasion the songs arrived quite quickly compared to usual. Do you think that was just due to you relating to the subject strongly?

“I think I did relate to the material and was really excited about the project. I thought it would be really interesting for it to be brought to the stage and for music to tell these stories. I felt a real sense of urgency about it. I was super excited about it and wrote at a speed which was very unusual for me. I would read something in the book and then feel it really needed to be a song. Originally it was going to be an actual musical but now I think it might just now be a production with some music. The initial idea of how much music it would involve was quite daunting so I just got into high gear with the writing. With me it’s almost like the more I write, the more I write, the more those gears get up to speed. I was working on it all the time.”

Each song comes from the perspective of a different character in the book. How did you find writing in character?

“I think it was an extension of what I had already been doing. I like to write from the first person but I do also like to put myself in other people’s shoes and see if I can make sense of their behaviour and figure out what they’re thinking and feeling and write from their viewpoint. That’s really interesting to me, it’s always a fun puzzle. It’s a step further to read about characters and try to piece together what their backstory could be.”

There’s some really beautiful musical arrangements on the album. How did they develop? Did you have a sound in mind that you wanted the songs to fit?

“Yeah, sonically I wanted most of them to be piano based, I wrote most of them on piano. I wanted them to sound like they were written by someone who used to play classical music, which is difficult. I feel the most I can achieve is echoes, like ‘this is slightly Mozart flavoured’. I’m not really a piano player but I wanted these songs to have baroque echoes of Chopin or Debussy. I wanted them to sound theatrical, I didn’t want them to have rock drums, I wanted them to have stand-up bass. I wanted it to sound like 1968 but not ‘rock music 1968’, more like Bacharach and that era.”

You’ve obviously spoken in the past about your own personal experience with mental health challenges. Do you think that helped when working on this album in terms of having that familiarity/knowledge?

“Oh, absolutely. My experiences of being in a treatment centre and the people I came to know and knowing their backstory and their feelings helped. There’s a lot of unfinished characters in the book, you see some dialogue or hear of some events but you don’t really know what happened to them in their past. That helped me fill in some blanks.”

Suicide Is Murder is one of the more stark and direct songs on the album. Does writing about heavier subjects like that feel like a natural thing that you’re comfortable exploring or do you ever have reservations on how much you include in your music?

“It’s interesting, I don’t think I would have written this song for my own record necessarily, I think it came out of the general assignment of writing songs for this stage adaptation of the book. This song came from a monologue in the book where she is talking about her own suicide attempts and her feelings and thoughts about suicide and what she felt her mid-set had to be in order to attempt suicide. I felt like that was a pretty important part of the book and of her psyche. Inevitably, I put my own feelings in it after a while. My own feelings about suicide are as a person who has been affected by other people’s suicides and that feeling kept coming up, so I had to incorporate that into the song too. If this had been my own record separate from the project I probably wouldn’t have written about suicide. I wrote a song about Jeff Buckley’s death (Just Like Anyone on Bachelor No 2), which may or may not have been a suicide, which is similar but not as direct as Suicide Is Murder.”

A lot of your songs, certainly on this album but sometimes also in the past, seem to allude to people who are undergoing struggles of various sorts. Are you attracted to writing about those sorts of situations?

“I am, maybe it’s just as simple as conflict being more interesting than no conflict. A song is a way of understanding something so it always feels a very positive thing, even if the song itself comes across as being sad or hopeless. Just to be able to define your or the song’s character’s feeling of hopelessness feels like a very positive experience.”

Obviously most of the people that feature in Girl, Interrupted are women, enduring very difficult circumstances, and the world is still a place that in many ways is still positioned against women. Give Me Fifteen on the new album seems to address it. How do you view that situation? 

“It’s still frustrating enough for me that I end up writing a song like Give Me Fifteen out of my own experience and out of my own memories of what it was like, in particular the condescension you would get from men and male doctors. At least people can identify it now. Nobody acknowledged it in the era of the book, people would just say things like ‘why are you women always trying to be like men and do men’s jobs like doctors or lawyers or writers?’. And I’d think ‘I don’t understand why you need to be a man to do that’. It would make me crazy, I’d be told it was because women don’t want to do those things but I’d be like literally I do. Women were treated as if they were going against nature. It was understood that your nature was to just not want to be ambitious, not to have a career or get on in the world. You were looked at like you were crazy but that has changed enormously. Not many people think like that now, except maybe in the Republican Party.”

In the past, you had troubles with record companies which obviously led to you creating your own label, SuperEgo. How do you view the music industry these days? I guess you’re happy you’re on the periphery in some ways now?

“I’ve released my own records for so long now I just don’t think about it. When I go back in time and remember what that was like to be on a major label it can still freshly irritate me but I don’t think about it these days. I’m so relieved that when it is time to make a record, the only problem is what is it going to sound like, how am I going to pay for it and who is going to play on it. I don’t have to worry about what the A&R guy is going to say about it. I could never have made this record on a major label, not in a zillion years! It’s fantastic that I don’t have to worry about that.”

Finally, you recently recorded a version of Name Of The Game by Badfinger with The Bangles‘ Susanna Hoffs for her new album. Given what happened to that band (two members committed suicide and they were embroiled in various financial and legal issues over the course of their existence) their music is always tinged with sadness and you reflect that really well. Were they an important band for you?

“When I was a kid I loved Straight Up, the album that song appears on. I was crazy about it. Their story is the saddest in showbusiness. It’s really hard. The other thing about suicide is it makes it so painful to revisit certain music. I can’t really listen to Elliott Smith’s music these days for example, it’s too painful. Knowing Badfinger’s backstory really adds a lot of poignancy to that song.”

Queens Of The Summer Hotel by Aimee Mann is out now on SuperEgo. More information can be found at aimeemann.com.

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