Aimee Mann has explored a lot of different sounds in her nearly 40 year career. The singer-songwriter played in new wave bands; made film soundtracks; collaborated with indie rockers; and even released a Christmas album.
But she says she had just one sound in mind as she got to work on her latest album.
"I thought, 'I’m just gonna do as many sad, melancholy, introspective, moody songs as I want,'" she says. "And I’m not gonna try to break it up with anything that's uptempo or more cheerful sounding."
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She also had one particular subject in mind. The album’s called “Mental Illness.” And the title says it all: Mann sings about sociopaths, adrenalin addicts and alcoholics.
Mann says the characters are fictional, but she drew on her own experiences with people afflicted by mental illness -- Including herself. She says that helped her come up with specific details about depression and manic episodes.
"Certainly from an emotional standpoint, this feels very accurate," she says. "I know people who are bipolar, I know people who've had electroshock therapy. I know the bewilderment of dealing with somebody who's on a manic high. They are sure people are hiding in the air ducts of their building. And they’re absolutely convinced that it's true."
These are tough stories to tell. But Mann says she never backs away from daunting subject material.
"I did not worry about it being too depressing at all," she says. "That’s partly because that's how I feel as a listener. If lyrically somebody's trying to work something out, that to me is intellectually exciting."
Mann wanted the musicians to sound moody and downtempo on the album. The inspiration for that tone came during a recent tour, when she passed the time with easy listening records from the 1970s.
"We started listening to Bread’s greatest hits," she says. "I liked that it was one soft, sad song after another. And every now and then there's obviously the guy in the band who tries to write rock songs. And one of those songs would come on. I just felt like, 'No! Keep it soft and sad!'"
Mann says soft and sad records like “Mental Illness” actually make her happy.
"There's a kind of joy in that. To see somebody take a complicated thing and take it apart. It's like a puzzle where all the pieces get fit together in a perfect way."
She hopes fans feel the same. She doesn't want to depress listeners or sensationalize mental illness. Instead she hopes people will think about how to help themselves and others who are afflicted.
"People are interesting and their problems are interesting," she says. "But for me, the solution is more interesting. Even if they're just small steps, what are the things you can do to make yourself better? What are the small things you can do to help other people?"
That’s a question she’s still exploring. The songs on “Mental Illness” could help some listeners find an answer.
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