Q&A: Aimee Mann

The personal singer-songerwriter survives the music industry and the '80s

Aimee Mann. Circa 1996. Credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

As the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann made her mark in 1985 with the million-selling single "Voices Carry," a diatribe against an asshole boyfriend. Mann also had the dubious honor of single-handedly leading the tiny-braid trend. Since 'Til Tuesday disbanded in 1989, this has been Mann's life: squabble with her record company for three years, get released from her label and put out a critically hailed solo effort, Whatever. Squabble with a new record company for three years until it folds. Record a fine new album, I'm With Stupid, which alludes to record-company woes. Get signed to a new label. Heave a sigh of relief.

The title I'm With Stupid is very bold.
I'm With Stupid was just the tip of the iceberg. Now it would be I Have Pummeled Stupid to Death in the Parking Lot.

What's the most surprising thing about the music business?
That most people in the business end know neither how to sell records nor how to make them. The stories are legion about various record-company people telling the band that they're going to skip the mastering or mixing because they've gone over budget. How about the biggest cliché that's actually true about the music business? [A] All rock stars are spoiled. That's absolutely true.

How did Liz Phair and Beck inspire you for this album?
They made two great albums that I listened to over and over. It made me feel that the era of having records be really important to you was indeed still with us.

Have you ever met Liz Phair?
I have. She knelt at my feet. It was very surprising. She played a show at the Wiltern, in Los Angeles. I was backstage, and for some reason she knelt at my feet.

What was the best album of '95?
You know, I didn't listen to anything. I was staying with a friend in Los Angeles a lot. I like to listen to music in the morning, but if somebody else is there, you're afraid they're going to be irritated. You know how it is.

You live in Boston, right? What's a perfect day in Boston?
I hated to go out in Boston. It's all colleges, and there are a lot of people who are just a little too excited about drinking.

Your song "That's Just What You Are" is on the Melrose Place soundtrack. Do you watch the show?
No. When I'm channel-surfing, occasionally I'll spend 10 minutes on one of those shows, but I never know if it's Beverly Hills, 90210 or Melrose Place.

Now, Aimee, are you being honest with me here?
Yes. I'd been living in England, so during its big surge of popularity I wasn't around. Although I like soap operas as a concept, because they give people something to gossip about besides their own friends.

Name a song lyric that you've completely misinterpreted.
Let me think for two minutes. Go make yourself a cup of coffee.

All right.
[Two minutes later] Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." I thought the line "I can't light no more of your darkness" was "no more of your dog mess." I was probably 10. And the Beatles' "Help!" – when he says, "I do appreciate you being 'round" – I thought he meant, literally, round, like the opposite of square. Like "You're not a square, you're round, baby!" The most recent was Paul Young's "Everytime You Go Away." It always sounded like "You take a piece of meat with you," which I think is by far the better image.

What's the worst gig you ever had?
There was a 'Til Tuesday show out in the middle of lower-class suburbia nowhere that was a little rough. And the band that opened was called Power Glide; they were gliding, all right. We were doing this kind of atmospheric sequence, very low-key, and there was zero applause after every song. People were actually saying, "Go away! Get off!" And I tell you, I just thought that was so great. Once I realize nobody cares, it's like "Great, we can just play for ourselves." [Laughs] I always do really good shows when there's zero support.

At what moment did you know you were successful in 'Til Tuesday?
Well, our first tour was opening for Hall and Oates before 10,000 people. But we were driving around in a van and staying at Motel 8's. So we'd made it, but what does that mean? I'm recognizable, but people are following me back to the Motel 8. I'd made some money, but not nearly what you'd think. Basically I paid for the band to go on tour. I put $50,000 back into that band, and that was pretty much the money I made.

Your lyrics are really personal and are often targeted at a specific person. Did you ever have anyone call you and say, "I know that song was about me?"
If it's mean, it's usually justified, which means they haven't picked up on any hint, so they don't want a confrontation. It's always those people who say, "What? There's no problem. What do you mean, I don't talk to you? We talk." And you're like "You're so fuckin' clueless."

So, you first became a success in the '80s. What singular image sums up the '80s best?
Shoulder pads. We thought they were the shits.

Speaking of '80s trends, what happened to your long blond braid?
[Laughs] I think it may be in a cigar box somewhere. What drove me to cut it off was that backstage at a show, some fan wanted to get a picture taken with me, and they said, "Hold up the braid!" I said, "That's the last fuckin' straw."