So Addictive 

Aimee Mann on obsession, empathy and a broken world

Aimee Mann on obsession, empathy and a broken world

From the purely plaintive mid-'80s MTV hit "Voices Carry" through the mid-tempo minor chords highlighted in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, Aimee Mann's music has ministered to more than one midnight self-pity party. And such improbable sing-alongs as "Deathly," "You Could Make a Killing," "Nothing Is Good Enough," "Calling It Quits," "I've Had It" and "Save Me" certify that the former 'Til Tuesday frontwoman long ago found her niche, and yet over time has managed enough melodic maneuverability to maintain a primarily pristine poignancy. The Scene caught up with Mann while she was at home between tour stops.

Scene: Smilers begins with a song about addiction, and that subject's come up in your songwriting several times before. I'm not looking for any kind of "stick a needle in your arm and hope to die" thing, but are you empathetic to these kinds of obsessive desires or is the interest purely clinical?

AM: I know what it's like to be obsessive about things. You know, something to get into a state where you are thinking about something so much that it almost becomes involuntary. I have never had addiction to any kind of substance, but...I mean, I think I could just relate to it, and I think the reason I write about it is because it's close to the feelings I've had, but not the same feelings.... It's easier to write about it objectively because it doesn't really have anything to do with me, you know, except I know drug addicts and as I've gotten older...I am also clinically interested in all this stuff.... I do a lot of reading about it, but kind of along the way I have met a handful of people who are hardcore drug addicts, still unrecovered drug addicts, and then that's like a whole education in and of itself.

Scene: You said, "It's easier to write about it objectively." Is it easier to write a song when you have distance from the subject, such as someone else's addiction? Or is it easier when it's more autobiographical and you're kind of working through your own emotions?

AM: I think it doesn't really matter. I think I always try to relate it to myself anyway, and it's certainly less uncomfortable to write it when it's a little bit objective and a little bit outside of yourself. Writing's something that's like really autobiographical. It's sort of like you don't necessarily want to go there. You don't really want to feel like you're totally alone in your own mess, you know, so it's easier to write about somebody else and be able relate to them. And also you don't really want to think about people going, "Oh, I know what that's about."

Scene: Speaking of being "totally alone in your own mess," we've got the Anne Sexton reference in "Stranger Into Starman." What's the particular draw for you there? ...I mean, Anne Sexton comes with a whole lot of connotations.

AM: Yeah, none of which I really thought about before I put it in there. But maybe that's another word association. I don't know. Like the explanation of why you write a song is always like so much more prosaic than other explanations that people come up with for you. You know, I really was doing a crossword puzzle, and there was a clue and I started writing "starman," because it really did fit. And then I realized like, 'Oh, I'm like a letter short".... And then when I realized what it really was I found a certain significance. And that did start me just thinking about writing songs and puzzles and word puzzles and that kind of thing, and I was just reminded of Anne Sexton, you know, and how she kind of really.... You know, there was like a paragraph where she was talking about realizing that "star" backwards was "rats." Like when I first read that I was like, [sarcastic tone] "Really, that's pretty exciting." But it made sense to include with the song because the song was about sort of words and finding significance in words....

But it's funny because thinking about Anne Sexton, my introduction to Anne Sexton was from a roadie that we used to work with. A really interesting character. He had spent a little time in jail. His name was Spider because he was a second-story man. He was from Worcester, Mass.

Spider, you know, he was one of those strange guys who seemed very, very working class. He would call me "Mom," and he was always trying to like better himself. Like, I mean, he was obviously not that well-educated, but he was always trying to better himself. And for my birthday he gave me an Anne Sexton book.... I didn't know who she was. And it was perfect and it was great, obviously. But anyway, Spider, later on when he was on tour with the Eels, died of an overdose. So it's sort of like, everything, in some way, ties back to this. I don't know...maybe it's the music business or maybe it's just there's a lot of broken people in the world.

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