Aimee Mann talks about @#%&*! Smilers, upcoming projects and Katy Perry

Jennifer Grassman interviews artist Aimee Mann who is touring in support of her Billboard charting album, @#%&*! Smilers

HOUSTON, Texas, March 26, 2011 – Writer and singer Aimee Mann creates timeless melodies that strike a chord in the modern heart.  Her songs are the songs that, since the dawn of humanity, have been the sounds of music that have been a comfort, a herald of change, a brokenhearted cry, or a lullaby.

Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann

Mann’s are the dark songs, the sad songs, the ballads of regret and the airs of practicality that usually stand the test of time.

We can relate to the sorrow, the wistfulness, the stark realness of the subject matter, and so, her poignant rock ballads speak to us in a way that no commercial pop song ever could.

Mann is an independent artist with a quirky, folk-rock-lullaby musical style and a sardonic lyrical wit. Despite her non-conformist artistry, Mann’s latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, charted #32 in the Billboard Top 200 Chart, #11 in the Independent Chart and #2 in the Rock Chart in 2008.

Mann’s uncanny ability to capture complex emotions in a quaint lyric and perfectly simple melody make her songs memorable, moving and meaningful. She has an unpretentious charm, a quiet beauty and the voice of an intimate friend.

In her rock-ballad, 31 Today, Mann reminisces about the misguided assumptions of her youth:

“I thought my life would be different somehow,

I thought my life would be better by now,

But it’s not, and I don’t know where to turn.”

@#%&! Smilers

@#%&! Smilers

When asked why she thinks so many people crave the more melancholy, thought-provoking ballads of the sing-songwriter, Mann replied, “Probably because they really strike a chord with people that’s more real. Art really serves a function for people. It makes them feel connected, not only to their deeper feelings, but to others.”

In an exclusive phone interview, Mann spoke about her upcoming plans for an acoustic tour this April, revealing that she is writing songs for a new album, but also she and her producer, Paul Bryan, are composing pieces for two musicals.

One such musical is based on her 2005 release, The Forgotten Arm.

“Writing songs for a musical is so hilariously fun,” laughed Mann, “because … you don’t have to worry about being cool, quite frankly.”

In the absence of her longtime drummer and friend, John Sands, who is still recovering after suffering a major heart attack late last year, Mann will be touring this April with producer and bassist Paul Bryan and keyboardist Jamie Edwards.

Despite Mann’s palpable concern for Sands, she is optimistic about her tour and believes concert attendees are in for a real treat.

John Sands

John Sands

“There’s something about playing with just a couple of people,” Mann explained, “where [there’s] … an almost extra-sensory, unspoken flow between the musicians. It’s got a really nice thing to it that you don’t get when … you’re just playing the arrangements on the record.”

Mann’s tour is slated to begin on Friday, April 8 at The Forum Theater in New Jersey, and wind its way through Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Stops along the way include a performance at WXPN’s World Café Live, The Birchmere Music Hall and Carrabo Arts Center.

For a full transcript of Aimee Mann and Jennifer Grassman’s phone conversation, please see below.

 Aimee Mann’s April Tour Dates:

04/08 – Metuchen, NJ – The Forum Theatre

04/09 – Wilmington, DE – World Café Live 

04/10 – Towson, MD – Recher Theater 

04/12 – Alexandria, VA – Birchmere 

04/13 – Alexandria, VA – Birchmere 

04/15 – Charlottesville, VA – Paramount Theatre

04/16 – Charlotte, NC – McGlohan Theatre 

04/17 – Carrboro, NC – Carrboro Arts Center 

For updated listings and information, please reference Aimee Mann’s official website. You can purchase concert tickets on her tour page.

Aimee Mann’s Links:

The following You Tube is the recording of Aimee Mann and Jennifer Grassman’s Phone Conversation.  The text of that recording also follows.

ATTENTION: Please be aware that brief explicit language is used in this recording at 5:57.

Aimee Mann & Jennifer Grassman’s phone conversation transcript:

MANN: Hi Jennifer! This is Aimee Mann.

GRASSMAN: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! … I understand that on January 21 that you and Lori Mckenna  and Ron Sexsmith performed a benefit concert for your drummer John Sands who had a heart attack. How’s he doing?

MANN: He is pretty good. He’s been in the hospital for four months and it was a very severe heart attack. They did CPR for almost two hours. They didn’t think he’d live, and then when he did live, they thought he would be brain-dead, and they didn’t think his heart would be viable but his heart started beating on its own. He’s conscious and he’s cogent and he’s himself. But he’s just been suffering a series of complications. Because, when you’re out that long and your organs aren’t getting oxygen, they start to fail in various ways. I guess you sort of think with a heart attack you die or you live, and if you live, it’s great, [but] it doesn’t work that way.

GRASSMAN: Yeah, well the stress on your body has to be incredible.

MANN: Yeah, but he’s hanging in there.

GRASSMAN: Thank God! That’s wonderful. Well, I’ll continue to keep him in my thoughts.

Now, I know you’re going on tour this April to support your 2008 album @#%&*! Smilers. How would you say the songs have evolved over the past couple years since you recorded them? Have they grown musically or developed deeper meaning for you in any way?

MANN: I think that it’s more musical changes that happen, depending on the musicians you’re playing with, and this tour is kind of a semi-acoustic tour. I’m playing with two musicians, Paul Bryan who’s the bass player and producer on the record, and Jamie Edwards who’s the keyboard player. There’s something about playing with just a couple of people where it’s … I want to use the term musical but that doesn’t describe it … when you can really hear what other people are doing and there’s kind of a flow. Like, an almost extra-sensory, unspoken flow between the musicians. It’s got a really nice thing to it that you don’t get when you have a full band and you’re just playing the arrangements on the record.

GRASSMAN: Sure! Well, it’s more intimate.

MANN: Yeah. So, it’s very nice to kind of breathe new life into the songs to present them that way.

GRASSMAN: I’m sure! Well, very cool. OK, now … Smilers is titled after a joke name you dubbed those kind of superficially happy people who are always grinning and pretending life is just all fine and dandy. Just, you know, based on what I know about you – you’re persona – you seem to me to be a realist. And, you know, I think your lyrics reflect that. How do you see … I guess, you know because so much mainstream pop music is, you know, it’s really happy. So how do you see your music – the purpose that you have artistically or your mission in modern culture?

MANN: I can’t sort of see it as something that has a purpose, or a message, or a mission. When you write a song you just do it because it’s fun or it’s something that’s on your mind … As far as when I’m playing music, I come up with a melody and that just reminds me of a certain scenario or … it’s kind of a feeling or an atmosphere, and I want to put words to it.

So, you know, there isn’t anything about … I can’t even really think about other people hearing it, because as soon as you think of, “What do I want to say to other people?” or “How are other people going to react?” then you kind of loose it.  And, also, I think that any time where you go, “I’m gonna come up with a message and this is gonna influence people,” … then you’re trying to influence and control and that never goes well either. It’s like, someone comes to you and they have a problem and you’re like, “Well here’s what you ought to do!”

GRASSMAN: Right! You become more of a therapist.

MANN: So, that never goes … it never goes well! So, I think you can only just say, “Well, in my experience, this is what I’ve done or this is how I’ve felt or this is what happened.” It’s always kind of like that, you know? In my experience that’s kind of how it’s gone down.

GRASSMAN: Well, (I’m an independent artist myself) and I think like you, I tend to write more melancholy and thoughtful songs. And I’ve had so many producers and A&R trying to tell me, “You need to write happy songs, all in major keys,” and, “Here! Map out this Katy Perry song and make your songs fit this template.”  I mean, what’s your response to that kind of, I guess you’d call it, like, a commercial music philosophy?

MANN: Well, it’s … it’s like writing jingles. I mean … Also, Katy Perry songs (who, by the way, some of those songs I think are fantastically constructed).

GRASSMAN: Oh yeah!

MANN: And they have bits of melody that … I actually like that … what is it called … like, Teenage Dream or something?

GRASSMAN: Yes! Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.

MANN: The melody and the chord progressions and the harmony in that are so terrific, that I actually was like “I gotta know who wrote that!”  It’s like this guy [Max Martin] and he writes for like Avril Lavigne and all those people. And … it’s like … he’s like … his melodic sense is f******* fantastic! But he is like a professional pop hit maker. That is a different kind of thing.

You know, that kind of is jingle writing. Now I’m not saying it’s bad or not art or anything (I really love his melodies) but he’s also a professional guy that other people get in to make those super-pop moments happen. And so, I don’t know, for people like us to sort of follow that template, it’s just … it’s kind of like wearing somebody else’s clothes! You know? … Those people are a creation of a team of professionals; stylists and costume designers and choreographers … I mean it just doesn’t make sense, and it really doesn’t make sense if you’re not even into that kind of music. Then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

GRASSMAN: Right! I think the way people really react to your music, and the fact that it is more singer-songwriter, it’s more creative and … Just the fact that, I mean, Smilers hit #32 on The Billboard Top 200 List! I mean, think it’s a tribute to the fact that people do crave the real down-to-earth, genuine music that you write. So, congratulations on that by the way! But, obviously, I mean, you’ve charted before but that still so exciting! So, I’m wondering, how do you celebrate something like that? I mean, do you all break out the champagne, or …?

MANN: Um … you know what? I did not know that until you told me.

GRASSMAN: Oh really?!

MANN: No, I had no idea.

GRASSMAN: Oh! Oh, well congratulations!

MANN: I’m just … I’m really happy to hear that!


MANN: But I think you’re right. I think, you know, I mean of course there are people who want … Art really serves a function for people. It makes them feel connected not only to their deeper feelings but also to other people. And, you know, I think the Katy Perry thing is more in a class of entertainment and theater. You know?

GRASSMAN: That’s true. Yeah.

MANN: And so it’s kind of a different thing. But, it just is – in record company terms – it’s all about how much money they think they can reap on an investment and stuff. They think they can get a bigger return on that kind of thing.

GRASSMAN: Right! Well and then, while a pop song might have a big bang right now, many traditional songs – songs that have been passed down generation to generation – like Scarborough Fair or Loch Lomond – (and I think your music is of that caliber) … Why do you think it is that the more sad, maybe melancholy, thought-provoking songs stand the test of time?

MANN: Because … probably because they really strike a chord in people that’s more real.

GRASSMAN: I agree with you there … Well, onto the business side of music. What would you say (because you’ve been on both sides of the table) … What are the benefits but also potential downsides and difficulties of being an independent artist?

MANN: Well … I honestly don’t even know what the [corporate] music business could conceivably even be like now. You know? What would it even be like to be on a major label now? I don’t even know. I mean, I’m sort of assuming that a major label is really reserved only for very, very commercial artists at this point. You know, there’s almost no point for anyone (artist and label together) to, you know, to have that kind of relationship. You know, if I was just starting out I wouldn’t even know what to do. It seems like a very difficult situation because you don’t have a record company that had some amount of force and marketing. I mean it’s sort of like every artist now is forced to self-promote and spend an enormous amount of time on this kind of self-promotion, you know, internet promotion. It’s just like a very, very different thing. I mean, when I started out in Boston there was this huge music scene in Boston. And, you know, I could actually make a living-playing clubs in the Boston area.

GRASSMAN: Right! And now that’s unheard of.

MANN: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t much of a living but it paid the rent. And that’s crazy! Boston had its own music paper and people were really into going out and seeing bands, and that’s kind of how you got attention nationally is – you know – kind of getting attention within a scene.

GRASSMAN: Sure, creating a local buzz and everything.

MANN: I mean, I guess that still exists but I don’t know.

GRASSMAN: Yeah, I think it does, but now with the Internet everything has changed.

MANN: It’s really different.

GRASSMAN: Yeah. Well and then … I think you mentioned this actually in one of your vlogs on your website and on YouTube, that CDs are not selling anymore. So, where do you see independent artists (or really any artist) making money today? Is it in licensing?

MANN: Yeah, I guess. But those areas are paying less, and less and less too, because there’s so much music out there and are people are giving [it away]. Once … you have an experience where music is for free, then you expect that it should be for free and you demand it to be for free.

People always assume you can make money on tour (and you probably know this) but, good luck! Good luck with that! I never did more than break even when I went on tour – if I had a band with me. I can make a little bit of money if I’m on my own, but you know, it’s not … Unless you’re really a very large artist then that’s not really possible.

Then the next thing people say is like, “Well, just sell these T-shirts!” As if your audience is suddenly going to start buying a bunch of T-shirts just because you don’t have any money.

GRASSMAN: Right! Exactly! If they’re not buying CDs they’re probably not going to buy T-shirts.

MANN: Yeah, and it really depends … you know, different [genres] … I think like, rock or heavy metal fans are more into merchandise buying … and pop fans are more merchandise buying …

GRASSMAN: That’s true. It is really dependent on the genre I think.

MANN: So yeah, it’s crazy! I don’t know how people make money.

GRASSMAN: Well … Obviously you’re independent, but you are very well known and very popular. So, how do you manage your business? Do you outsource management and booking and all that sort of thing?

MANN: I have a manager who’s been with me for a long time. He was actually the drummer in my first band and he has a couple employees. They basically do all the work of being a label, so if there’s a movie deals or all that kind of stuff … they negotiate that. But, you know, once again it’s like, getting a manager as a young artist? I mean, that’s impossible now too.

GRASSMAN: I know! Well, and one of the things I was really curious about is – I guess you could call it an alliance – but United Musicians. Can you tell me a little more about that?

MANN: That doesn’t really exist anymore … About ten years ago when I first was able to leave the major label system and start my own label and put my own records out, I wanted to kind of extend that help to other people and other artists. We had a distribution deal and … We had resources that we could share with other people. But, I think the system just changed so rapidly that, you know … record stores closed and so having distribution didn’t really matter. So it kind of just fell of its own weight.

GRASSMAN: So, regarding the April tour … you’re going to be on World Café. That’s really exciting!

MANN: Yeah! It’s a good show.

GRASSMAN: But beyond the April tour, what are some of your aspirations and goals for the rest of 2011?

MANN: You know, somebody suggested a long time ago that as far as the idea of turning one of my records, The Forgotten Arm, into a musical. So, I’ve been writing with my producer Paul [Bryan] … writing new songs with the idea of turning that into a musical. And, it’s a very long process. We have to find a writer to write the dialogue.

I’m doing that and then somebody else asked the two of us to write music for another musical. So … and we haven’t started that but, that’s something that’s kind of in the future and I’m writing songs for new records. So, I got a bunch of stuff to do.


MANN: But it is good to do the next thing in front of you.

Story Continues →

View Entire Story

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

More from The Business of Being Diva
blog comments powered by Disqus
Jennifer Grassman

Jennifer Grassman is a singer, songstress and pianist who inadvertently became a music industry trailblazer in the wake of the digital revolution. In addition to penning her quirky music industry column, "The Business of Being Diva," Jennifer writes songs and performs concert tours. Jennifer’s accomplishments include being nominated Houston’s best female vocalist and best songwriter and was named best keyboardist in the 2010 Houston Press Music Awards. She assisted in a campaign that raised more than $100,000 for CrimeStoppers and was commended by musician Tori Amos for her charitable efforts on behalf of domestic-abuse victims.  Jennifer has released three CDs, the most recent of which, "Serpent Tales & Nightingales," received accolades from Christianity Today, the Houston Chronicle and Brian Ray and the guitarist of Paul McCartney's band. You can check out Jennifer’s music at, like her on Facebook and tweet her at

Contact Jennifer Grassman


Please enable pop-ups to use this feature, don't worry you can always turn them off later.

Question of the Day
Photo Galleries
Popular Threads
Powered by Disqus