Aimee Mann Ditched Major-Label Polish for Elliot Smith-Style Sad, Soft Songs

Aimee Mann is at the Boulder Theater on Friday, May 5.EXPAND
Aimee Mann is at the Boulder Theater on Friday, May 5.
Sheryl Nields

Growing up as a musician in the major-label system, Aimee Mann says the thing she constantly heard was, “This doesn’t sound like a single. We need to have a single. It has to be more up-tempo. Radio won’t play a song that isn’t up-tempo.”

She guessed that nobody wanted to hear slow, sad or introspective songs, so she kept trying to write music that was faster and upbeat.

“And then I just had this kind of realization of, like, as a listener, I like slow and sad and soft music,” Mann says. “I like that sort of classic folk music or Elliott Smith.”

While touring with Ted Leo as The Both in 2015, Mann recalls driving around listening to some of the greatest hits of the ’70s soft-rock band Bread. “And we were like, ‘Oh my god, Bread is so great,'” she says. “Who knew that we would love Bread so much. And then one of the rock songs would come on, and we were both like, ‘I don’t want to hear a rock song. I want to hear the soft, sad songs of Bread.'"

So she traded in performing up-tempo pop songs for "sad, soft, slow, melancholy, introspective, moody songs.”

And that’s essentially what she’s delivered on her new album, Mental Illness. On the stunning, stripped-down album that’s steeped in melancholy, Mann draws from tales of her friends, including one who was bipolar and another who moved 3,000 miles across the country to marry someone, only to have the person not show up. Mann also sings about loneliness and homesickness on “Goose Snow Cone,” a song inspired by seeing a photo of her friend’s cat Goose (whose face looked “like a little snow cone”) on Instagram while she was touring in Ireland.

“Sometimes I put myself in [the songs] and sometimes it’s people I know, and I try to put myself in their shoes and sort of look at, you know, how would I feel if I were in this situation – what would my thinking be,” Mann says of songwriting. “Sometimes the story is similar to something that has happened to me or a situation I’ve been in, but you write a different story, you know — the story is different or the details are different, or you change it. Sometimes it’s a feeling, and you write a story that goes along with that feeling.”

Mann says she likes the sad songs because, well, they’re just more interesting.

“I’m a fairly cheerful person, but I do like to think about stuff,” Mann says with a laugh. “I think people are very complicated and sad. And it’s hard for people. I think it’s hard to be a person. It’s hard to negotiate relationships. It’s hard to know what you want. It’s hard to know what you feel. It’s hard to understand why you do what you do. You find yourself making decisions, and you’re like, ‘Why did I do that? Why did I think that?’

“You’re angry sometimes for no apparent good reason," she adds. "You say stuff you don’t mean. Being a person is very complicated and often ridiculous. And so, I don’t know, it just seems that’s interesting to write about.”

Mann’s songs on Mental Illness also fit perfectly in the acoustic setting, with some songs augmented by strings. She looked to Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen as kind of a reference point for acoustic guitar-based folk music with strings.

She says that over the past few years, she’s played a number of shows that were acoustic – some just with her bassist, some with bass and piano.

“There were a series of shows I did with the poet Billy Collins where I would play a song and he would read some poems,” Mann says. “He was a poet laurate. He’s very funny and erudite. Kind of a fantastic guy. And I really loved playing those shows. Talk about stripped-down."

That experience drew her into playing acoustic sets.

“I like playing in an acoustic or semi-acoustic manner the best," she says. "I mean, it really could just be that I sing very softly and it’s easier to hear myself. That’s very possible. As dumb of a reason as that. That’s how I feel the most comfortable — so I wanted to kind of continue that experience.”

Aimee Mann, with Jonathan Coulton, 8 p.m. Friday, May 5, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $25-$35, 303-786-7030.

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