Many of us remember first seeing Aimee Mann in the video for “Voices Carry,” an iconic clip that won her band, 'Til Tuesday, the 1985 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist and her a place in the '80s hair hall of fame. After enduring the breakup of the band and major issues with her record label, Mann emerged in the '90s as a singer songwriter and the muse for P.T. Anderson’s 1999 opus, Magnolia, which earned her both Grammy and Academy Award nominations. She has recorded eight solo albums, the latest of which, Smilers (it was previously called @#%&*! Smilers, but she truncated the name because "it would be nearly impossible to talk about or market the album with the profanity out in front," she said), is set to be released on June 3 via SuperEgo Records.
What’s exciting to you about this album? That’s hard to say. What’s exciting to me about doing an album isn’t going to be exciting to the people listening to it. It’s hard to justify something you’ve created in that way. People will have to listen to this record and find out for themselves.
You're calling your album Smilers. Do you find yourself to be exasperated with happiness? I don’t think that I’m exasperated. I thought the [original] title was funny. It refers to a newsgroup that my friend and I used to read when we first got the Internet. It was called alt.bitter. It was basically a place where people would go to air their grievances about the world at large. One of the threads was about how much these people hated smilers, the type of people who are always smiling and telling other people to smile when they pass them in the hall. I can identify with that. You said Forgotten Arm was a narrative collection about a relationship in trouble. Does Smilers have a similar connecting thread? Smilers is more a collection of short stories. After the concept album, I was happy to let each song have its own voice and style. There are a lot of different sounds on this record. It’s interesting to have all those different ideas collected together. The first single from the album is “Freeway,” and it seems to have a broader scope than some of your other songs. What’s happening? That’s really not the case. It’s about a specific person, a friend of mine who is dealing with drug addiction. He moved out to L.A., and that’s just not the place to get sober. The song is about him, and how easy it is to get sucked into the whole drugs, money, and status thing. That said, there’s an overarching theme there. The best songs are the ones that are personal to the performer, but that you can relate to your own life. You can see yourself or one of your friends in the song.
Do you think that your writing has been affected by Magnolia, where P.T. Anderson basically created a story around your songs? I definitely think so. That experience helped me to focus my writing in an entirely different way. I see things from a more narrative standpoint now. Forgotten Arm is essentially the soundtrack for a nonexistent movie. A lot of Smilers was written like that, but each song has its own story. What is the short version of your writing process? I always start with a piece of music. That dictates the story. Every piece of music has its own mood and flavor. You try to find the right words to go with it, the event that the music is describing. When you do that, everything comes together.
You’ve done the popular-video-on-MTV thing and have been the well-reviewed, beloved, under-the-radar artist. Given that perspective, do you hope your new album sells five million copies? I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to sell five million albums anymore. The recording industry has changed so much that there aren’t going to be many artists capable of selling that many units. I think those days are over. I don’t have the marketing resources to promote myself to that degree. I’m on an indie label, so it’s my manager and his modest staff who are in charge of promoting my music. But I don’t miss being involved with a big label; the recording industry is a huge racket. Returning to indies has been better for me as an artist. I’m making my songs and without having to worry about all the baggage at a label.
How hard is it to bring new material out to fans? I think it’s hard to tell how people react to the new songs. I’m at the point where people aren’t going to boo me or shout requests. I do think that my audience is very loyal. They’re good about listening to the new stuff. They’re into it. What new stuff are you listening to right now? Not so much, really. I really like the National. Their album came out last year and was excellent. I’ve also been listening to M. Craft lately. He’s just a phenomenal singer and songwriter.
Now that you’ve made a soundtrack, a concept album, and the rest of your catalog, what’s next? Are there any projects left that you want to tackle? There are two projects on the horizon, but they’re both very long term. I’m learning to draw cartoons, because I want to produce a graphic novel. I love the idea, but that’s years away right now. The amount of skill involved in drawing is just outrageous. The other project involves turning Forgotten Arm into a musical. I’ve been in contact with someone who works on Broadway, but that’s really in the early planning stages. There’s no telling what will happen. Can you give us an update about Alvin the cat from your “31 Today” video? He got adopted. He was really a great cat and a consummate professional. I would have adopted him myself, but I already have two cats at home.
I’m sure you get asked this question all the time. Any chance of you bringing back the rattail? [Laughs] There’s a short and definite answer for that: No.