Aimee Mann stopped by Ted Leo’s hotel room one day during their tour together last fall. Coming out of the New York City punk’s iPod was the voice of Phil Lynott singing “Yeuh yeuh yeuh yeuh yeuh,” as the rest of Thin Lizzy waltzed around him. Mann became fixated on the track, “Honesty Is No Excuse” – the way it moved in 3/4 time but still rocked, Lynott’s peculiar pronunciation of “yeah.” Not only did she and Leo end up covering it – the song would become a crucial touchstone for their collaborative project, Both.
While the duo’s debut still needs to be mastered, Both have three shows set for next week and will likely embark on a tour as a power trio (just add one drummer) when the LP sees release, potentially in February 2014. But those who plan to catch Mann on her upcoming fall tour will be treated to a few songs with Leo, who will join her again as an opening act.
Building on a friendship forged in part over Twitter (hence the hashtag, since ditched, that used to accompany the name Both), it was Leo’s solo sets, particularly a new cut of his called “Gambler,” that piqued Mann’s interest in getting on stage with him and writing music together.
“When we got off the road, as a fun exercise I came up with the beginning chunk of a song and sent it to him to see if he had any ideas on it,” Mann recalls. With only a little time off between tours, the two set a quick pace, tossing song parts back and forth and throwing songwriting caution to the wind.
“We were just like ‘Fuck it, let’s just really push and make it happen,'” says Mann. “Part of doing that was you have to throw away the thing that probably most songwriters have, which is a sense of preciousness, like ‘Let me take this home alone and do it myself, make it over and rethink it and try one thing and try a different thing.’ You really just have to go, ‘You know what, I have to trust that this other person’s instincts are good.'”
With their differing musical vocabularies, Mann found working with Leo to be a boon, especially when she caught herself staring at wall. She began one track, “No Sir,” with minor chords in 3/4 time, and when Leo got his hands on it he crafted a peculiar modulating part that Mann says functions kind of like a bridge and a chorus.
“I probably would’ve kept slogging on that same chord change,” she says with a laugh, “because there’s a tendency to have that happen. You get into the cadence in your mind, and it’s hard to make the kind of left turn that you probably need to keep it really interesting.”
While Mann says she’s got a handful of songs completed for her next solo project, the follow-up to last year’s Charmer, she jokes that building these tracks with Leo has spoiled her as a songwriter. She’s worked with other musicians in the past – famed producer Jon Brion in particular – but Both has been a uniquely rewarding experience, an exercise in setting egos aside and creating with a close friend.
As much as Both is born out of Mann and Leo’s friendship and their desire to play together, Mann says the project also offered her the chance to carve a new path in the record industry’s current landscape. “I think I’m trying to look on the bright side of the music business being so weird in that, why not do a totally different project?” she says. “If nobody’s buying records, then let nobody buy one that’s new and fun and interesting.”