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.
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.
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.
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...
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