Acclaimed singer-songwriter Aimee Mann creates the prettiest pop-rock melodies, only to wrap them around desperate, dark or heart-wrenching lyrics. That delicious conflict has been at the heart of Mann's material throughout a solo career of more than 20 years.
When asked about this during a recent interview, she admits she's always had a weakness for dramatic contrast.
"I think some of us just like that experience when you're listening to a song that really makes you happy, because it has a good melody or great catchy hooks, and then you realize (there's) something very dark in there," she says. "It's kind of subversive in a way, and I think pleasant melodies can coexist with dark subject matter."
Mann is on the road for a tour that will bring her and her band to Tucson for a gig Friday, Oct. 12, at the Rialto Theatre.
Mann continues discussing sunny tunes and dark lyrics: "When I was a kid starting to pay attention to music, I heard a song by Gilbert O'Sullivan; it was 'Alone Again (Naturally).' It was quite lovely and sort of a bouncy, nice-sounding pop song, and I really liked it. Then a friend of mine told me it's about a guy who's about to commit suicide. This kind of blew my mind, because it had never occurred to me that you could have these moments of doubt or darkness in a pop song, and it was an intense sort of awakening for me."
Mann's eighth solo album, Charmer, recently released by her SuperEgo label, is packed with tunes so carefully crafted and richly produced that they sound like art songs hiding in a batch of infectious pop-rock recalling the Top 40 of the 1970s and '80s. In fact, many of them are cushioned in undeniably catchy '80s-style synth hooks and chiming guitars, while the subject matter addresses mental health, estrangement, emotional dislocation, trying life episodes and dark clouds in the heart.
It makes sense that her new music would remind of decades past, since we first heard from Mann when she was the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday. Maybe you recall their big hit, "Voices Carry."
She says she doesn't listen to a lot of her stuff from back then. "But when I do, I think it showed a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes, though, I'll find maybe one line in each song that's not too bad."
She picked up a guitar at about 12 and could play a Neil Young song or two, but she never understood the craft of music-making until she attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, she says. "I started to learn about harmony and structure and theory, and things started to fall into place for me. I felt I was learning the basic tools for songwriting. And I started to learn the concepts of drama and the way pieces of storytelling come together."
Mann is gracious and patient as her interviewer gushes that her music education paid off in the depth and sophistication of her signature art-pop. She appreciates those traits in music, too, but demurs when such a description is applied to her work.
"There are some artists who marry pop sensibility with good melodies and lyrics that try to go a little deeper. Those have always been the ones I pay attention to. I would never say my lyrics are deep, but I think I care about lyrics. It matters to me that they be as good as I can make them."
Because writing songs has never been especially easy for her, Mann is a devoted advocate of hard work. "There's nothing that can beat the discipline of just sitting down and trying things out. You play through this song and that one, and you learn what works, what makes sense and what doesn't. Not every song just springs out just fully grown and says what I want it to say right away."
She appreciates those who make music without seeming to try, such as her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn. "I mean, he apparently used to sit down and learn Beatles songs by ear. I couldn't ever do that. I could listen to it and maybe figure out a couple of chords, but some people have this natural ability.
"Then there are some people, like Fiona Apple, who, at 15, was unbelievably polished and insightful, and it makes you wonder where that came from. Not everyone's born that way, and some of us have to work at it."
Mann's music often has been used in movies and TV shows, giving her dozens of credits on IMDb and gathering her nominations for Grammys, Golden Globes and even an Oscar.
Those who've seen director Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia know why. Anderson integrated Mann's songs into the plot in inventive ways, allowing her work to represent emotional signposts throughout the movie. When members of the cast sing along to her "Wise Up," it's beautiful and chilling.
"I love when movies use music creatively," Mann says. "I think (Anderson) uses music as well as anyone does."
Mann recently sang the theme song, a cover of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes," over the opening credits in the penultimate episode of the TV show Weeds.
She's also appeared onscreen here and there. Although Mann has only a handful of acting credits, they are memorable. Perhaps most memorable were her great cameo in The Big Lebowski ("I was in that for about three seconds") and brilliantly playing herself in the sketch-comedy show Portlandia.
She recently wrapped the forthcoming indie feature Pleased to Meet Me, in which she stars as a music producer with fellow musicians-turned-actors John Doe, Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Henry.
Mann was pleased to invite the up-and-coming folk-rock band Field Report, which last month saw the release of its debut album, to be her opening act on the current tour. Chris Porterfield, leader of that group, will join Mann onstage for a duet of her tune "Living a Lie," she says.
That's convenient, seeing as The Shins' singer, James Mercer, who sang the song with her on Charmer, is on tour with his own band, which played Tucson last week.