Legendary songwriter Aimee Mann remembers putting in the extra work for her acting role in the 1998 comedy, The Big Lebowski. She’d been cast in the film after a successful, though light-hearted audition, and she was set to play a German nihilist. Mann says that because the character was a nihilist, she didn’t expect much acting or dialogue. Yet, she pulled one of her scene stars aside and put forth the idea of practicing a little something. So, they got together and worked up a short conversation about the whereabouts of a hotel key, in German. It was a good thing, too. For when it came time to shoot, the director said, “We’re going to zoom in and you guys just talk in German.”
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They say the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. In this case, that’s especially true. Mann is always detail-minded; she loves intricacies. It’s the superpower she brings to her songwriting and the music she makes, which is especially so on Mann’s latest LP, Queens of The Summer Hotel, which is out officially on November 5 via Mann’s label, SuperEgo Records.
“We ended up having to do this little dialogue,” Mann says. “Thank god we’d practiced it!”
For Mann, the magic is in the detail. In the small things that resonate and impact almost without prelude. Even before she was a professional musician, she adored the keen-eyed songs of Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Neil Young. From these masters, Mann began to learn about her own creative voice.
“I think that pretty early on,” Mann says, “I realized in other people’s music I enjoyed detail. Honestly, I would just throw in details to enrich the lyric and express myself. There’s a real nuance in lyric writing.”
Songs specifically are amazing creatures for Mann. They blend two things: words, which she loves, and the invisibility and tones of music that almost demand feelings from you immediately upon hearing them. Mann gets a kick out of this juxtaposition, how the lyrics can conjure one thing in the listener’s mind while the music does another in the listener’s body.
“I love the contrast,” she says.
Mann wrote her newest album “in a fever.” She’d been approached by a team of producers to write the music for a stage production of Susannah Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted. After a few meetings and agreeing to the assignment, Mann went to the source material.
“I just went to the book,” she says, “and marked out sections that I felt would make sense to have the emotional climax be a song.”
She found that there were many characters and felt each should have a song. There was a lot of writing. In the end, she created a 15-track masterpiece, saturated with emotion, insight, sorrow, and jaunt. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed pause on the show’s production timetable, Mann was left with a glorious LP’s worth of tracks.
“So,” she says, “I went ahead and recorded the record.”
Featuring swelling strings and nimble piano bounce, along with Mann’s almost operatic voice, the album is heart-wrenching at times. Unlike The Big Lebowski, Girl, Interrupted is no comedy. In the book, while there were many characters, there were not many backstories. So, she was able to bring her own life to much of their contexts while writing. Mann, who has experienced emotional, physical, and mental abuses in her life, said she wanted to be the musical voice of this work.
“I related to it,” Mann shares. “I felt like it was a really important project to me. I really wanted to be the person to write the music for it.”
The LP concludes with the song “I See You,” which is meant to be the time at the end of the show when the women, who are very much at the center of the performance and living in an institution, turn to the onlooking crowd, breaking the fourth wall. For this, Mann had a plan.
“‘I See You,’” she says, “that’s the last song where the inmates turn to the audience. The idea is that the women and girls kind of end up being therapy for each other and help and support each other. That’s what I wanted to get across.”
Now that the new record is done and out for the world to engage with, the 61-year-old Mann says she’s grateful for the job and the inevitable discoveries it provided her. Now, as far as what’s next? It’s onward toward more work, more life, and more heart-aching surprise via songwriting.
“I love the subterranean nature of it,” Mann says. “I love that it can make you feel things almost automatically, and sometimes things that you didn’t even know you felt. That goes for me writing a song. I’ve definitely written something and then looked back on it later and realized it means something different than I thought it did at the time.”
Photo by Sheryl Nields.