Aimee Mann talks Newbury Comics, comedy, and mental illness

Aimee Mann comes to the Performing Arts Center on June 28.—Sheryl Nields

Aimee Mann considers herself “part New Englander.” She lived in Boston for 15 years, where she worked at the original Newbury Comics store and took classes at Berklee School of Music before she dropped out to perform with her first band, the Young Snakes. Her second band, ‘Til Tuesday, skyrocketed to success with the 1985 hit “Voices Carry.”


After ‘Til Tuesday split in 1990, Mann went on to enjoy a successful career, releasing albums as a solo artist and with The Both, a collaboration with Ted Leo. She also dabbled in comedy — winning laughs with her “Acoustic Vaudeville” shows and cameos in “The Big Lebowski”
and “Portlandia.”


In March, Mann independently released her ninth solo album, “Mental Illness.” Last week, she took time from her supporting tour to discuss with The Times her early career, her love of comedy, and the process of writing “Mental Illness.”


Looking back from where your career is today, did you ever imagine this for yourself while you were working at Newbury Comics?

I was a musician, so I had some amount of fantasy about the idea of being a musician and making a living that way. I didn’t really know what that would look like, but I have to say it’s pretty close. If I could have shown my life now to my 19-year-old self, it’s pretty close to the dream life.


Can you tell me a little about your early days playing and touring around Boston?

I went to Berklee School of Music. I only went for like four semesters. I started a band called the Young Snakes, which was sort of like a punky, new age, very art rock — not very easy on the ears. I’d never been in a band before. Part of why I quit Berklee was I needed to learn what it was like to be a musician that rehearsed and played a lot. The music scene in Boston in the early 80s was so vibrant, there were so many clubs and so many bands. I was actually able to pay my rent. Granted, my rent wasn’t very much, but I was able to keep myself fed just playing around town. When I started ‘Til Tuesday, the radio scene was very supportive, I felt like everyone was very supportive. There was definitely a sense of people wanting bands that came out of Boston to nationally succeed, and it was very helpful to us.


Did you ever play on Martha’s Vineyard?

Not at that point. ‘Til Tuesday later on played there, but I don’t think I’ve played there more than once or twice. When I lived in Boston, I didn’t really have enough money to have a beach vacation. Martha’s Vineyard was always this thing that’s talked about like very ‘ooh-la-la.’


We’re excited you’re coming back. Is there anything you’re looking forward to about the trip or the show?

I just really want to get a sense of what it’s like so I can fix it in my mind as a place. When you’re young and you hear about a place a lot, it almost becomes legendary. I’m curious just to make it a real place for myself, and hopefully wander around a little bit.


In addition to music, you’ve done a lot of work with humor. What does humor mean to you, and why have you decided to make that part of yourself public?

Comedy is really interesting to me because when it’s really good — comedy that I enjoy — mostly depends on using language in a particular way. For me it’s fascinating to try to figure out why does this combination of words work, but if you put this word earlier in the sentence, it wouldn’t make it funny. It’s about how words are used. I have a lot of comedian friends, and to see how their minds work when we’re talking, whatever the topic is, you can see that there is a part of their brain that’s always engaged in the topic, looking at all different sides of it to see what’s funny about it, but also to see what’s different about it, what makes it similar to other things. It’s always examining.


It’s interesting to hear you say that as a songwriter, because that also has so much to do with how words work.

Exactly. Why does one thing work when another thing very similar doesn’t? The choice of one word over another, those nuances are very interesting to me.


Speaking of humor and songwriting, tell me about your new album “Mental Illness.” You said the title has a bit of “gallows humor” about it — can you tell me about the theme of mental illness and how you worked through the writing on the album?

There’s always a “funny because it’s true” element of certain things, and there are moments in my writing that make me laugh. Even though the topics are dark, for me it’s not a dark thing, it’s not a depressing enterprise to write. There’s a certain kind of joy in taking a situation and writing a story inspired by it, using elements that are true to kind of sum up a complicated, difficult situation — with compassion, but in a way that other people can understand. There’s something that’s very satisfying about that.


How is this album a diversion from your other work?

I just really allowed myself from beginning to end to write an album that was pretty dark and pretty introspective, and not really worry about having any elements to counteract that or differ from that or be in contrast to that.


How do you feel now when you hear ‘Voices Carry’ on the radio?

Mostly I think that I don’t sing that way anymore. I hadn’t really done a lot of singing and it was kind of a product of playing in clubs where they didn’t have monitors, so I ended up kind of half-shouting just to hear myself. After recording and being able to hear myself, I started to sing in a more conversational way. I like that style of singing in other people, so that’s how I try to approach it. I like a singer that stays out of the way of the song and just kind of tells the story.


If you could go back in time, what’s one thing you would tell you 19-year-old self working at Newbury Comics?

That’s interesting…I think I spent a lot of time doing things that were uncomfortable because I worried that people at the record company would think I was difficult to work with. So I’d do everything they told me to. In retrospect, I should have been like f@#* it, they are going to think you’re difficult anyway, so you might as well do what you want.’ Stop trying to please everybody.