Music Interviews
1:03 am
Mon September 17, 2012

Aimee Mann: 'Charmer Is Just Another Word For Narcissist'

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 8:52 am

Fans of Portlandia may recall a recent episode in which its main characters (played by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen) get a good look at their new cleaning lady. They think the cleaning lady might be — and realize that it actually is — the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann.

Mann has been making music since the 1980s; first, with the group 'Til Tuesday, and since then as an accomplished solo artist. Her latest album, Charmer, contains a series of character sketches — including the title track, about that person who draws you in and may even exploit you.

"I'm fascinated by charming people," Mann says. "They're fun to be around, they're entertaining, they pay attention to you. They're a glorious addition to any group, until you spend a certain amount of time with them and start to realize that it's essentially a construction. But I totally buy into it. I think 'charmer' is just another word for 'narcissist.'

"My husband is a really great narcissist spotter," Mann adds. "He can tell in an instant. It's part of my exploration, like, 'Why am I so susceptible to this? Is it that they're flattering? Do they tell the story so well that I want to believe it?' I don't know. It's interesting."

One-Way Ticket To 'Crazytown'

Mann says she's fascinated the "guy who's with the crazy girl." That's the topic of "Crazytown."

"The crazy girl, upon first glance, looks superfun, sexy, spontaneous, full of life — you know, vivacious," Mann says. "But then there's the corner that's turned, and by the end of the night, you're holding her hair while she vomits, and she's falling off her high heels, and that kind of thing.

"It's based on a friend of mine who had a friend who was starting to talk about — you know, in their communication, was like, 'I've just had it! I should just end it all! Nobody would care.' So it was a lot of these kind of suicidal semi-threats. It got so prevalent that finally he became really worried and called the police. And then, of course, she got furious at him, like, 'Why did you do that? I was just kidding. I didn't mean it.' I took that and made it into more of a semi-romantic thing, where this guy is just completely in over his head with this girl and the constant dramas and craziness that go with her."

Still, Mann says, it's not a one-sided situation. These people enable each other.

"You're coming to her; she's not coming to you," Mann says. "If you go to Crazytown, don't think you can just visit and come out and be unchanged. You're both going there, and that's where you're going to live."

A Moment In Time

Among the many themes on Charmer, Mann touches on loyalty — both in "Crazytown" and in the warm, Hammond B3-laden song "Labrador."

"You want to hang in there and make it work, so this song is about the moment where this guy realizes, 'I've got to get out of this, man,' " Mann says. "At the same time, [he] realizes his part in it — he kept coming back."

These songs capture a moment in time; a moment in someone's life. For Mann, the moment a song begins is often just before a performance.

"I start with music, where I'm just kind of playing chords on a guitar and just mumbling to myself," Mann says. "But I try to just think, 'What's the mood? What's the emotional tone? And what kind of story goes with that?' I mean, honestly, there's a song I just finished, and it's too depressing. You know, I'm in a pretty good mood. I can't play this thing today, because it's really bringing me down."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fans of the television show "Portlandia" may recall a recent episode in which a man and woman get a good look at their new cleaning lady. First, they think the cleaning lady might be - and then realize it actually is - the singer Aimee Mann. She's been well-known since the 1980s, when she was in the group 'Til Tuesday; had the hit "Voices Carry." Since then, she's been acclaimed for more solo work, for the soundtrack to the movie "Magnolia," and more. But there she is - in the comedy program anyway, playing herself as the cleaning lady for characters Fred and Carrie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: (as character) Why is she cleaning our house?

FRED ARMISEN: (as character) I think it's the music industry must be some - really suffering, or something. I don't know.

BROWNSTEIN: (as character) God, it's like you always read articles about it, and it's totally true.

ARMISEN: (as character) I don't read the whole articles, though. Parts of them...

BROWNSTEIN: (as character) I know. But the headlines are always like, the music industry is in the toilet.

ARMISEN: (as character) Right. I mean, that's as much as I read. But...

BROWNSTEIN: (as character) I feel like we should talk to her.

INSKEEP: Good advice. So let's talk with Aimee Mann. We tracked her down to talk about her new album, "Charmer." Many songs amount to character sketches - including the title track about that charismatic person who enchants you, draws you in, and may even exploit you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHARMER")

AIMEE MANN: (Singing) When you're a charmer, the world applauds. They don't know that secretly, charmers feel like they're frauds...

INSKEEP: Talking about someone who's a charmer, and the darker side of that personality - what got you thinking about that?

MANN: Well, I'm fascinated by charming people. I mean, you know, they're fun to be around; they're entertaining; they pay attention to you. They're a glorious addition to any group - until you spend a certain amount of time with them and start to realize that it's essentially, a construction. But I totally buy into it and - because I think that...

INSKEEP: Meaning when someone's charming, that you buy the act. Is that what you're saying?

MANN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I can't, you know - also, like, charmer, I think, is just another word for narcissist. And my husband is really great - like, narcissist spotter. He can tell in an instant. So this is - it's part of my, you know, exploration. Like, why am I so susceptible to this? Is it - is it that they're flattering? Is it, they're - they tell the story so well that I want to believe it? I don't know. It's interesting.

INSKEEP: Do you hold your husband in front of you, like a metal detector, when you meet people; to just kind of see what his response is, and whether the alarm goes off?

MANN: Honestly, sometimes I do. Like, now I sort of know - like, if there's a too-good-to-be-true quality about somebody. I'll say, like, "I really want you to meet this guy" - because I think he's probably a narcissist, but I can't tell.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of another song from this album. It's called "Crazytown."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZYTOWN")

MANN: (Singing) And you thought oh, it's so fun when you're writing songs for her. But now, son, you'll be posting bond, and for who? A girl who lives in Crazytown, where craziness gets handed down...

INSKEEP: What is the character you're trying to illuminate here?

MANN: Well, there's like, a dynamic that I'm always fascinated by - which is the guy who's with the crazy girl. Because the crazy girl, I think - upon first glance - looks super-fun, sexy, spontaneous, full of life, you know - like, vivacious. But then there's the corner that's turned. And by the end of the night, you're holding her hair while she vomits and - you know, like, she's falling off her high heels, and that kind of thing.

It's based on a friend of mine, who had a friend who was starting to sort of talk about - you know, in their communication - was like, you know, I've just had it; you know; I should just end it all; nobody would care. So there was a lot of these - kind of suicidal semi-threats. And it got so prevalent that finally, he - you know, became really worried and called the police. And then, of course, she got furious at him - like, why did you do that? I was just kidding; or, I didn't mean it.

So I sort of - I kind of took that, and made it into more of a semi-romantic thing; where this guy is just completely in over his head with this girl and - you know, and the constant dramas and craziness that go with her.

INSKEEP: And the way you describe it reminds me that in a relationship like that - that seems troubled - there are two people who are doing something that doesn't seem very healthy.

MANN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: They enable each other, in a way.

MANN: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. And the thing about Crazytown is like - you know, you're coming to her; she's not coming to you. (LAUGHTER) If you go to Crazytown, don't think you can just like, visit; and come out and be unchanged. Like, you're both going there, and then that's where you're going to live.

INSKEEP: You have another song here, called "Labrador."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LABRADOR")

MANN: (Singing) When we first met, I was glad to be your pet; like a Lab I once had, that we called Maisie. But fetching sticks was the best I had for tricks. You got bored, you got mad, then you got crazy. I came back for more...

You know, in relationships - like, you want to be loyal, you know. I mean, you want to hang in there and make it work. So this song is about the moment where this guy realizes, I got to get out of this, man - but like, at the same time, realizes his part in it; that, you know, he kept coming back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LABRADOR")

MANN: (Singing) 'Cause I'm a Labrador. And I run when the gun drops the dove again...

INSKEEP: These songs by Aimee Mann capture a moment in time, a moment in someone's life. And for her, the moment a song begins is often, just before a performance.

MANN: I start with music, where I'm just kind of playing chords on a guitar, you know; and just mumbling to myself. But I - trying to just feel like, you know - to think, what's the mood? What's the emotional tone? And what kind of story goes with that? I mean, honestly - like, there's like, a song that I just finished; and it's too depressing. Like, I sort of like, you know what? I'm in a pretty good mood. I can't play this thing today because it's really bringing me down.

INSKEEP: Could you sing a line or two for us?

MANN: Um - I don't think I can, not without a guitar.

INSKEEP: Could you say a line or two for us?

MANN: Um - we're just campaigning for the win, the prizes of adrenaline. We act it out, so it stays in.

INSKEEP: Just campaigning for the win.

MANN: Yeah. This is two people just going round and round on their thing; you know, like that - sort of jockeying for position that you do in relationships, sometimes.

INSKEEP: And you just happened to write about that during this political season.

MANN: It's got a flavor.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Taking in the atmosphere a little bit.

MANN: Yeah, we're babies passing for adults, who've loaded up their catapults and can't believe the end results.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

MANN: Yeah, I guess it sounds a little more political than I intended.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Aimee Mann's new album, "Charmer," is out tomorrow, and you can hear it now at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAMMA RAY")

MANN: (Singing) You build bombs, you're familiar with explosions. The flat palms of the holiday... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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