Aimee Mann on Fiona Apple, Portlandia, and performing with Common at the White House

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Three decades into her career, Aimee Mann remains as consistently fresh and challenging a singer/songwriter as in her days fronting the mid '80s new wave band, 'Til Tuesday. Since then, Mann has had a strong solo career, delivering one of the greatest film soundtracks in recent memory with P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, and with her recent release, Charmer, Mann continues to introduce herself to a new generation of music fans who are hungry for her uniquely dark and stirring brand of songwriting. We recently chatted with Mann about pop music, Magnolia and why charming people hate themselves.

See also: Aimee Mann at the Ogden Theatre, 10/9/12

Westword: In your recent single, "Charmer," you've written: "When you're a charmer/The world applauds/They don't know that secretly charmers/Feel like they're frauds/When you're a charmer/You hate yourself." This seems like a pretty venomous accusation, is this directed at anyone in particular, or just an observation?

Aimee Mann: I don't think that's venomous at all -- that's just the way it is. And that's the sad part of it. In no way do I want that to sound mean. I think everyone relates to that, you know? If you're at a dinner party and you're telling a story and all of the sudden you think, "Oh my god, listen to me. I'm such a numbskull. No one wants to hear about this."

Everybody has those moments when you think, "listen to what a phony I am." But it's the people who are afraid of being phony who are a lot less phony than the people who aren't. It depends on how much people want to bring those things up to the surface and examine them. There are people who don't want to do that at all, and those people remain more ignorant -- or even dangerous.

And yet those dangerous people can, at times, remain charming. 

Yeah. But it's a continuum that makes it interesting, going from sweet and delightful to fascinating to "what do they want from me?" 

You seem to have reached a threshold in your career where you no longer have to sell yourself as much as an artist. While you're not at Lady Gaga status, it seems that you can live comfortably as a musician, and I'm wondering if that can be a trap creatively, or if you still challenge yourself to grow as an artist. 

Well I don't think that I'm at any kind of level where that would be a problem. It's not like I'm a Top 40 artist that's dependent on a certain kind of fame. I think, as a singer/songwriter, people like what I do, and it's not like I'm ever going to go off and make some crazy electronica/polka record. I'm not that interested in changing genres or shaking it up for any reason. But I certainly don't feel like a slave to a style, either. 

Many musicians who've had success in the decades that you have are no longer relevant today. And yet you've remained relevant for younger generations; are there things you've avoided that have trapped other musicians?

I do think that something like having a bunch of songs in an interesting, hit movie [P.T. Anderson's Magnolia] certainly helps introduce you to a new audience and refreshes you to your old audience. It's very easy to think of someone as, "Oh, they've been around for a while; they're kind of a has-been." But it really helps to have new eyes to introduce you to a new audience.

But I was really never interested in chasing success, making singles according to what the record company is saying is hip. And also I couldn't do it. Some people can and are good at it, but I'm just not that person. But at the same time, I feel like my music is pretty accessible. I don't feel like it's too left of center. And yet, record companies have treated it as if it's this crazy, experimental stuff. There's that shrug of "this just isn't a single; I don't know what we're going to do with it."

I would assume that it's not so much the musical aesthetic that is challenging, but the emotional depth of your songs that can be unsettling. You go into some complex, and, at times, uncomfortable, regions of the human experience. A song like "Charmer" has some unsettling sociological implications.

Maybe that was also a part of it. I don't know. I always thought I was always writing pop music.

But that's something you share with other pop artists, like Morrissey or Fiona Apple -- you guys shake up a world of surface emotion.

Yeah, the pop world is good at a certain kind of like relationship, broken-hearted thing, and anything deeper than that can make people uncomfortable. Fiona has had a fucking tough history, and lyrically she's unbelievably brilliant and decisive. She's not fucking around. She goes into areas that are pretty real and dark. Yet she's certainly sold a lot of records.

Do you still occasionally play the Largo with Jon Brion and Fiona Apple and that whole L.A. crew?

Largo is kind of a different place than it used to be -- it's more of a little theater since they changed locations. I don't see those guys very much; every once in a while I'll see Fiona or Jon, but we're not really a part of any scene.

Last year you made a guest appearance on the hipster satire sketch comedy, Portlandia. Do you think this exposed you to a new audience or just reinforced the one you already had?

A lot of people recognize me from Portlandia; and I don't know if that translates into them listening to my music or not. But I do think that's interesting.

So people come up to you saying they saw you on Portlandia but hadn't heard of you as a musician?

Well they don't mention that part. My guess is that I wasn't really on their radar, and after seeing the show they see me and say "oh yeah, her."

What was the process of working with them on that bit like?

I was already a friend of Fred [Armisen] and had made little comedy videos with him before. I was happy to do whatever he wanted to do, because I had confidence that whatever he wanted to do was going to be funny. The bit was based on a real thing that had happened to Carrie [Brownstein] where she hired a cleaning service and someone showed up that was in a band that she knew.

Portlandia has such a specific audience. What was it like playing for a much more mainstream audience when you performed at the White House last year? How did that situation even come about?

One of the people on the social secretaries staff was a fan of mine and put my name in the hat. I have a couple of friends who work in the White House, if you can believe it. My friend Eli Attie -- who wrote on the West Wing -- he's friends with Tony Blinken, who is Biden's National Security Advisor, and I'd become good friends with him and his wife. And they were in the audience, sitting up front, which was great moral support. So I could look at them instead of freaking out about the fact that the president was right there.

This was the same event that Common gave his poetry reading, which was a big hoopla over at Fox News. What was your reaction to all that?

The people who made a hoopla out of that are happy to say anything, because they have a cynical attitude and are too dumb to know what's going on, or care enough to do the research to find out. It was the most ridiculous thing. Common's poetry was very sweet, very heartwarming; it was about feeding the fucking poor. Yes, storm the stage! It was really unbelievable. One must accept that there are assholes in the world and move on.

Aimee Mann, with Field Report, 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 9, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Avenue, $28.75, 303-832-1874

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