Music

One More Drifter in the Snow: An Interview with Aimee Mann

Greg M. Schwartz

The songwriter looks at the ghost of Christmas past while moving forward.

Renowned singer/songwriter Aimee Mann is in between albums right now, having toured extensively to support 2005's The Forgotten Arm. But fans looking for gift ideas in the Christmas season might have learned that Mann recorded a Christmas album last spring as sort of an interlude project. One More Drifter in the Snow was released on Mann's own SuperEgo Records label on Halloween and features a number of Christmas classics, along with two original songs.

"I'm not really fond of a modern, modern approach, you know, the rocking-up Christmas or the electronica Christmas. That sort of drives me crazy", says the 45-year old Mann. "I like [Christmas] records that remind me of records I used to hear when I was a kid. That kind of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee kind of thing".

Standards covered include "I'll Be Home for Christmas", " Winter Wonderland", "White Christmas", "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" (which features a guest appearance from Grant Lee Phillips), and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".

"I really just thought about the kind of Christmas records I like, and they are the more old-fashioned stuff that I used to hear, that my parents would play", says Mann. "So it's more just that, probably with Christmas, people remain perpetually children and they want to hear the stuff they heard when they were kids. So I just took all those elements -- the Vince Guaraldi Trio from the Peanuts cartoon, and the Grinch, and Johnny Mathis, and just kind of put it all together".

"Christmastime", written by Mann's husband Michael Penn, is the first of the album's original numbers and features some shimmery guitar that conjures a gentle snowfall. "Calling on Mary", co-written by Mann and producer Paul Bryan, closes the album with some of Mann's trademark melancholy vibe that seems as if it could have fit right in on 2002's Lost in Space album. Mann is hitting the road for some December dates, but only in select locations.

"I wanted to do some Christmas shows, but I didn't want to do a long tour because I'd just come off a long tour", says Mann. "What we're hoping we can do is get some comedians and maybe have a special guest or two come and play some songs, and have a bit of a variety show".

As to her next original album, Mann is still pondering a particular creative direction, but finds herself leaning away from the conceptual themes that Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm were based around.

"I don't really know what I want to do (for the next album). I think I'm going to let the songs dictate what the record sounds like", says Mann. "I'm kind of leaning toward a record more like (1995's) I'm With Stupid, where every song sort of has its own vibe and it's on a song-by-song basis".

Mann came out of the Boston music scene when she first drew the public's interest as a member of Til Tuesday in the mid-'80s, but has been comfortably living in Los Angeles for some time now. Moving to Southern California after becoming a successful musician allowed her to take a different perspective than many of those who move to Los Angeles with stars in their eyes.

"I don't think I came here to make it big. I moved here because a lot of my friends had moved here and I met my future husband, and I didn't have any friends in Boston anymore and was kind of ready for a change", says Mann. "But it wasn't like I'm going to L.A. to be a big star. I think when you come here with that hope then it's a whole different place…"

Mann has come to believe that some people who grow up in Southern California seem to be hurt by becoming a little too industry-savvy.

"The music business is so weird to begin with and the music scene in Los Angeles is kind of weird because people are -- and this is just from casual observation because I didn't live here and was never part of the music scene here -- but it seems like people, if they grow up here, they're sort of too savvy about the business and too targeted in their interest in getting signed, and kind of know the marketplace a little too well", observes Mann. "I think it's like, you know in other towns, when you're just doing your own thing, you get more happy accidents that turn out to be more interesting, rather than people really targeting for the marketplace and trying to be stars".

Mann helped pioneer the do-it-yourself independent label ethic that many musicians are turning to these days when she bought back her Bachelor No. 2 album and released it herself in 1999 after her label refused to, saying it wasn't commercial enough. The album's "Red Vines" became one of Mann's biggest hits.

"What I like about that (label independence) is it lets you be realistic in what you can achieve. It's nice to be able to make your own decisions … and I'm pretty modest about it. You know, you can't spend half a million dollars making a record".

Mann does go the extra mile when it comes to album presentation, though. Both Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm feature eco-friendly packaging and booklets with original artwork based around the songs.

"I grew up with the old school gatefold sleeves and booklets", says Mann. "When you kind of grow up with that thing, with an album that is so substantial and you realize how much enjoyment you can get out of having a more full experience, adjunct to the music … it's like you want to have something nice for people to buy. You want to give people value for their money".

Mann has become known as a savvy songwriter, penning tunes that often have a literary flavor and defy pop music conventions, yet which still hold a compelling appeal.

"I think at this point you just have to go with it", says Mann of her approach to songwriting. "Like I don't really write a lot of rock songs, I don't write a lot of up-tempo songs, I don't write songs that are in real major keys because I just don't find that interesting. It's not like I can't; I just get bored really easy. I think 'uh, if I have to sing this 50 million times it'll drive me crazy.' I think that for me, the songs that are moodier and more intricate, and have an internal intensity are just more interesting. So, those are the ones I tend to finish … I guess that's just my taste. You know, I like Elliott Smith and I like songs where people are really talking about stuff that's really important to them, instead of just the good time party vibe".

Mann's relatively unique approach to songwriting and emotionally gripping voice make her influences hard to peg, but she cites several classic artists from the '60s and '70s.

"I think I really liked Bowie as a singer, and Colin Blunstone from the Zombies. I think he's got the best voice I've ever heard in rock music", says Mann. "Grant Lee Phillips, I think is a great singer. Elvis Costello obviously is a big hero".

Mann plans to start recording her next album after the first of the year and to release it sometime in 2007. Until then, One More Drifter in the Snow should help fans through the holiday season.

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