Charming people fascinate Aimee Mann. So much so that she wrote an upcoming album about them called, descriptively enough, Charmer.
Much of Mann's eighth solo LP explores the ulterior motives that she's sure lurk below the surface of those glib glad-handers. "Nobody puts that much effort into appearing charming and adorable unless they have some goal they're trying to reach," Mann says. "That's what charm is all about – it's like having a candy coating, and then the inside is totally different."
Mann acknowledges that part of her interest stems from the fact that she's susceptible to such charmers. "When people have a version of themselves that they present, I totally buy it. You're the smartest guy in the world? I'm on board," she says.
Inspired in part by situations involving people Mann knows, and also by trainwreck reality TV shows like Intervention, many of the characters in these 11 new songs are manipulative, aggressive or hot crazy messes – or the people entangled with them and wishing they weren't. They're not all charming, either: "Living a Lie," a duet with the Shins' James Mercer, is essentially a dialogue between a couple ready to call it quits.
Mann had Mercer in mind for the song early on. "It's two characters who are singing to each other, not really harmonizing a lot, and we wanted to find a really strong singer," she says. "You always are kind of surprised that people are up for collaborations, but he was totally game. It can't be easy to come in and sing on somebody else's song in that way, but he's a really strong singer with an interesting voice."
Mann has always had a knack for elegant pop arrangements, dating back to her Eighties band 'Til Tuesday, but she had more specific intentions for Charmer, which was produced by Paul Bryan, a member of her band. "I did have a sound in mind that I felt went along with the charmer theme, of being a little more produced and a little poppier, almost in a Seventies, post-disco, pre-new wave way," Mann says. "We listened to the Cars and Split Enz and Blondie, and some earlier stuff like ABBA. It was right in that wheelhouse when synthesizers were just starting to be used in rock bands."
The new album is just one project Mann's been working on. Prompted in part by her 2005 concept album The Forgotten Arm, the singer has been tinkering with ideas for a musical, teaming with David Henry Hwang, an award-winning New York playwright. "He's working on a draft," Mann says. "We've met and talked about what we want the basic story to be, but we've got to get together."
She's also heading out this fall on a tour that starts September 27th. Part of the road trip will include solo opening sets from punk-rocker Ted Leo, who frequently trades quips with Mann on Twitter. They got to know each other through Tom Scharpling, the radio host, comic and video director, though this is the first time they will have teamed up on the road.
"I'm hoping we can do a couple of things together," Mann says. "We do know each other, and we're friends, and I'm really looking forward to it."
Charmer is due September 18th on Mann's SuperEgo Records.