Aimee Mann & Ted Leo :: Making New Music as ’The Both’
Separately, they are Aimee Mann (of the MTV-iconic "Til Tuesday" and the Oscar and Grammy award-nominated "Magnolia" soundtrack), and Ted Leo (punk-indie musician with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Chisel, Hell No and other bands), but together, they are The Both.
Talking in a conference call via their homes in Los Angeles (Mann) and New York City (Leo), the duo shared how their collaborative efforts also take on a cross-country nature.
Working together for less than two years, the two musicians have co-composed online by sending each other music segments and playing together long-distance.
Said Mann, "We've been on the road for a lot of that time, both with me opening for and performing with our bands. While we don't necessarily write on the road, we get a lot of our ideas going while traveling, and then start mapping out how we're gonna approach things together."
Of the variety of media they use to communicate, Mann said, "It's definitely a different world. It makes it a little more immediate. In the old days, we'd be mailing each other cassettes."
Although the tone of the new songs ranges from familiar energetic indie folk to harder rock, a few more serious themes pop out between the jaunty hooks of songs like "The Inevitable Shove." With lyrics that even call out evil agrigultural conglomorate Monsanto, The Both captures a contemporary air.
"For some reason, we were in this kind of mind space of the dystopian future where nature rises up," said Mann. "There were all sorts of murky images for me; half-Tolkein kinds of images."
"With a bit of 'THX-1138,' " added Leo. "Lyrically, neither of us are known for being particularly dreary, but this goes there a bit."
Mann said the intent wasn't to latch on to any cultural trends, however. "We didn't want it to be like some kind of musical 'click bait,' " Mann said of annoying online content where, she mocked, "The answer will shock and surprise you!"
Leo further explained. "We tried to write about some things separately, and then together. A lot of my albums address outwardly political things, rather than human issues and relationship issues. This album tends more toward an internal dialogue. But there are points where something more politicial creeps in."
Fans of a certain age will recall Mann's initial fame as the lead singer of Til Tuesday, particularly the 1985 hit single "Voices Carry," whose music video featured the singer suffering through a controlling relationship (based on her break-up with then-boyfriend and producer Michael Hausman).
Three albums later, Til Tuesday broke up, and Mann began working as a solo artist.
"When I was in Til Tuesday, I was in my 20s and into that post-New Wave dance stuff," said Mann, now 53. "I liked that kind of semi-dance music melodic style. But then I got tired of that and realized my roots and influences are much more from '70s acoustic music, early Elton John and Badfinger. So it was a more organized switchover, to write songs on acoustic guitar and have that be the basis for my stuff."
In the 1990s, Mann married singer Michael Penn (known for his song, "No Myth," he's the brother of actors Chris and Sean Penn), and released her first solo album, "Whatever."
But it was the set of songs for the esoteric Los Angeles-based Paul Thomas Anderson film "Magnolia" that brought Mann back into the spotlight. Featuring the hit single "Save Me," the album garnered nominations for an Academy Award and a Grammy.
As independent artists, Mann and Leo have the advantage of creating at their own pace.
"I've been putting out my own records for twelve years," said Mann. "At this point, I'm luxuriating in not having to ask peoples' opinions, enduring a group of executives who'll pick over my songs and nod sagely in a board room to decide whether I can be produced."
Mann admits that owning her own label leads to budgetary concerns. Their current shows are as a three-piece band. And yet, the clarity and simplicity of Mann's music, combined with Leo's feisty rock edge, have found a good balance and maturity.
Along the way, Mann has not only forged her own independent process, but has become a stalwart in the fight for musicians' and composers' copyright defense, particularly with illegal downloads, and corporate profit margins that slight artists. After being freed from her contract with David Geffen Records, she founded SuperEgo Records, and through it released several albums, including the boxing-themed concept album "The Forgotten Arm," which won a Grammy for Best Recording Package.
In addition to her own work, Mann has collaborated on songs with Rush, Matthew Sweet and on several tribute albums.
In working with Ted Leo, she noted some varying inspirations.
"For the ideas that I sent Ted," Mann explained, "I made an effort to send things I thought he would be into. Some of them, like "Milwaukee" have a nod to Thin Lizzy; "Hummingbird" has a nod to Renaissance or Tolkein-ish sounds. What's really interesting for me with Ted, when we were playing together, he can be doing an electric guitar solo, and I hear how virtuosic just one guitar can be. That really made me want to envision this as a three-piece band that could make a very full sound. I like the idea of a bigger rock song, slightly with a progressive edge, but this time we're working with a very stripped down line-up."
For Leo, the combination of working separately and together has brought new inspiration.
"There are times where I feel that our normal go-tos where we might be writing in isolation for a solo projects changes," said Leo. "We each have interests musically that go beyond the borders that people think about us seperately. In each of us trying to meet where we perceive the other might go, we're allowed to open doors into where our own writing spreads."
The Both's new album
For example, one of the new songs, "Volunteers of America" started as a mere vocal fragment, and, Leo said, "Aimee brought it to life as a rock song, which was then made rock-ier by me, and then Aimee wrote the break. Within each song, there are these twists and turns that we can make those energies that might seem different and not workable together."
For their San Francisco concert, expect most of the new songs, and a few classics and covers by each musician. While bouncing around the country on their tour, they may come up with even more material. The two retain a casual working relationship.
"One of the selling points of working with Ted is that I knew he'd be funny onstage," said Mann, who, despite her reputation as a serious artist, has been known to show a deadpan wit on several TV shows. She performed with her band in a 2002 episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (where her one line was, "Man, I hate playing vampire towns"), has appeared on Comedy Central, and as a housemaid version of herself on the series "Portlandia."
"I've been friends with ('Portlandia' cocreator) Fred Armisen for fifteen years, before he started at 'Saturday Night Live,' " Mann explained. "It was like working for the President; when he calls, you show up."
Mann even poked fun at her Til Tuesday past in a decades-later recreation/parody of "Voices Carry," in the music video for her 2012 song "Labrador" (which features Jon Hamm as a sleazy director). Ted Leo can be spotted wearing a wig, and their collaborative dry wit is also in their new music videos.
"I have a lot of friends who are very funny," said Mann, whose 2000 project Aucoustic Vaudeville included shows with comedians Janeane Garafolo, Patton Oswalt and Davbid Cross. "I listen to them when they make suggestions, so I have a moderate sense of humor."
Leo added, "Aimee is one of the funniest people I know," he said "We essentially met through our comedy world."