The singer talks about the challenges of songwriting and storytelling.

Aimee Mann photo

Aimee Mann has been an independent artist since 1999. She walked away from a record deal with Geffen Records when the company told her they didn't hear a single in batch of songs she was working on for an upcoming album, this shortly after receiving Oscar and Grammy nominations for the song "Save Me" from the Magnolia soundtrack.

"Mann's history of being mishandled by three different labels over a full decade reads like a cautionary tale about the struggle to be a serious recording artist in the contemporary music market," Jonathan Van Meter wrote in The New York Times.

Being independent has made it possible to do her thing - writerly, lyric-driven songs about adults that are as precise in their emotional nuance as they are in their craft. Critic Ken Tucker described last year's Charmer as "a song cycle about getting rid of a cynical frame of mind," and even though she chose a more pop musical palate for the album, the stories she tells remain focused on the downside of love.

We spoke recently when she was getting ready for a rehearsal for the tour. She was in the process of selecting songs. "I want to have a set list that has a flow to it, that I know works, " Mann said. "By the time I get to rehearsal, I want to do set run-throughs and not be trying to figure out stuff. I've done shows where I've taken requests, but in general I like to be prepared. Not feel like I have to know 40 songs going out."

Aimee Mann will play Tipitina's Tuesday night

What do you think about when you're putting together a set list?

I want to make sure I play something from every record. Some songs are too hard to play for whatever reason. Maybe there's a key change and you end up playing a lot of bar chords, which isn't that easy to do on an acoustic guitar, or the bridge is way out of your range to sing, or something like that. So some songs get eliminated because they're going to be too annoying to do night after night. 

Some songs I'm completely sick of, so they go on the reject pile. [laughs] There are some songs that I feel like people expect to hear because they know them better than others like songs from Magnolia, so that goes in. 

A lot of the concerns are because I'm doing an acoustic trio with just acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and bass - what songs are going to sound good in that configuration, what songs might be interesting in that configuration even though they were originally recorded in an entirely different way. I also throw in a couple of songs I haven't done in a while.

What happens to the songs from Charmer when you move them to an acoustic format? Charmer is very electric, and the '80s synth textures seem important to the songs.

I write all of them on acoustic guitar, so to me it's just going back to the original song structure, which is pretty intact.

I never would have guessed that "Gumby" from Charmer started with Hoarders. Do you watch much reality television?

I don't. In fact, I don't watch much Hoarders because it's kind of tough to stick with it. It's not particularly redemptive, and the visuals are usually disgusting because they find some place that's completely out of control. By the time that show gets to those people, it's a pretty entrenched situation. There's not really hope of therapy or someone being in a frame of mind where they can make any decisions. 

I'm doing some construction in one of rooms and building bookcases, so I'm boxing up books, and even the idea of at my leisure deciding what books to throw away or keep I find kind of difficult. There's no camera on me and no one threatening to condemn my house. It's pretty tough to get people to the point where they can make a decision. Under panicky conditions, people tend to freeze. So that show is not super-satisfying. 

I enjoyed it for about a month before the sideshow quality stopped being fun and all I was left with were these sad lives. 

I'm not a fan of watching people in their misery. I like watching shows like Intervention because I feel like I learn a lot about addiction and family systems and codependency and enabling and recovery. I always get something out of Intervention, but Hoarders is not a condition that therapists really have a handle on. The people aren't going for therapy. They're not saying, "Please help me." They're always not on board. They always think they don't have a problem, god bless them. That's a tough place to be in.

One thing that interested me in "Gumby" and "Crazytown" was your use of "I" not as someone who's a part of the song's drama but as a witness to it. How do you decide when to use the first person?

I like to use the first or second person a lot because I feel it helps me connect more easily with the story, to try and put myself in someone else's shoes. In general, it helps to have a more compassionate view so you don't get into a thing where if you're writing about somebody you know, it feels blame-y. A lot of times I'll try to write from the other person's perspective. It just keeps it more interesting for me too.

Do you have to have an album in mind to write?

No, not really. Sometimes it can help focus things, but that's not usually how it starts.

Once you start writing songs, do the ones you've written help shape the ones that come next?

Maybe a little bit, yeah. Once I have a handful of songs and I have an idea of the direction I want the album to be in, that might steer the vehicle in a more particular direction. 

When you start a song, do you always finish it?

No. Sometimes I just don't think it's good enough. Sometimes it just doesn't happen. There are definitely songs I've gone to and reworked and reworked and reworked, and it really rarely goes well. 

It doesn't usually work out if you keep hammering away at something that's not working unless you really leave it alone for years. There have been songs that I've gone back to years later and it's been more obvious what needed to be done to them, but in general it's more fun to start from scratch.

How long does it take to realize a song's not working?

It's more a vibe. If I'm writing a song and I need a chorus or a bridge or a section and I try one thing and I'm going on that for a while, then change my mind and think "Oh, it's not working," it's probably already done. The first part you come up with for the next section - if you're not happy with it, it's probably not going to happen.

Have you become better about knowing when to bail on a song?

Yeah because I've become better at finishing things. Or coming up with the next right move. Whereas before, it was kind of trial and error, or you had to go on pure inspiration.The longer I do it, if I just sit and give it time and keep working at it, it responds to that kind of effort.

Have you had moments when you realized, "I can think of a better way to get to this thought?"

Yeah, that's part of it. You get better about knowing what the problem is. "Okay, this metaphor doesn't work" or "This rhyme isn't great, so this is a thing I have to come back to." But it's nice to know you have the skill to do it. That only comes from having done it for years and years and years. You've honed this tool that you can depend on later. 

I'm always surprised when I talk to songwriters who don't seem to think like this, who almost work to keep their songwriting process a mystery to themselves -

Well if that works, that's great. I don't have that many moments of pure, unadulterated inspiration. I've had moments of hearing something I wrote on a work tape and gone "Oh, I really like this," and that's a kind of inspiration. When people say, "The song wrote me! I didn't write the song." Well, nice work if you can get it. [laughs] That's not how it works for me. 

I hear something, I like it, and I do have to spend a minute, "Okay, this puts me in a certain kind of mood. What's the emotional tone? What kind of story does that emotional tone suggest? Then you have to get to work. I start singing something. Those words may take a shape and suggest an actual sentence of some kind. But because this is me and my standard, at some point I have to turn it into a cogent, articulate idea. It's not part of my aesthetic or interest to keep these sort of murmured, half-poetic fragments that even I'm not sure what they mean. I've had some of those moments because I felt like they were evocative and kept them in, but I don't want to coast on this idea that this was the first thing I happened to mumble. 

Is it hard for you to listen to songs like that?

Yeah. It's just not my taste. My taste is more the highly constructed and emotionally connected music of someone like Leonard Cohen, who has impeccable construction and perfect rhymes, but is also clearly talking about something that is really meaningful to him.

I periodically lose patience with writers whose lyrics are kept vague so that people can find their own meaning in them. If anyone can find their meaning the song, is there any meaning actually there? Or are they offering up a word salad and letting me pick out the parts I want?

From my experience as a listener, people's more specific stories are weirdly more relatable. Somebody says, "I'm having a conflict with somebody close to me," [laughs] you're like, "All right." But if they write, "I was talking to my father and once again he started criticizing me and he doesn't like my spouse" - that for me is easier to relate to.

Is there more humor in your songs than you get credit for?

Yeah. It's kind of a gallows humor. In a song like "Crazytown," that's a scenario that I think is funny, not that I'm laughing at anyone but because it's so common. I see so many people go through it. It's kind of a trope, the guy who's with the girl who seems brilliant and lively and hot and adorable and turns out to be a nightmare and he has to hold her hair when she throws up at the end of the night. 

Did you laugh at the squiggly synthesizer sounds on the record?

Oh yeah. They're so awesome. Jamie Edwards is such a great keyboard player. The sounds he gets are so perfect and evocative of a certain era - the heyday of the synthesizer when it first burst on the scene and everybody was so excited by it and they stuck it on everything. They stuck it on The Rockford Files theme, that kind of thing. You hear a certain sound and it reminds you of an era and it's hysterical.

Why include those sounds on these songs?

They seemed to be appropriate in my generalized vision of what this kind of pop music should sound like for the topics I was talking about. 

I read that you don't listen to music at home. Why not?

Mostly out of technological laziness, and also partly the way our house is configured. Michael [Penn, her husband] does a lot of writing and recording at home, so if he's working on something, I don't want to be the person blasting music in the next room, distracting him. 

We don't have a turntable set up, and part of that is pure laziness, part of it is "The house is chock full of junk. Where are we going to put it?" A lot of it is not even knowing what music is out there anymore. Where do you start?