It’s nice to know, in a petty misery-loves-company way but also in a galvanizing we’re-all-in-this-together way, that other people, successful people, ridiculously talented people, struggle. Take Aimee Mann. She’s a hell of a songwriter: sharp and literate and brutally frank and lovely. I like to think of her pacing a dark chamber in the house Magnolia built hemmorhaging hooks and insights between breakfast and boxing practice. When we spoke at Q Division in Somerville earlier this year she painted a different portrait of the artist.
I’m not inspired, says Mann. I’m not one of those people who has ideas when I’m walking down the street. Very occasionally, once every five years or something, that’ll happen. But I don’t think about music when I’m not playing music. It doesn’t happen unless I pick up a guitar and play something that then inspires me, and that’s accidental.
A dozen or so years ago, when Mann was on the cusp of 40 and doing battle with record company executives, she stopped altogether. She describes it as a massive and sustained case of writer’s block, and sheepishly explains the cure.
I’m totally embarrassed to admit this, but a friend of mine, Buddy Judge, had said that he got that book “The Artist’s Way,” and even though I think it’s not very well-written he was like, “You know what? I did it. I did all the exercises.” And I’m like, “What the fuck, I’ll try it too. If Buddy can do it, I’ll do it.” And I think that it really does have some good ideas, mostly to just take suggestions. And if you feel uncomfortable, if you’re embarrassed, do it anyway. And I think that’s kind of great advice in any problem. Say yes to stuff. Ask people their advice and take it. Stop taking your own advice because it’s just a closed system. So I did that and it helped. I would make up these games for myself – I still do this actually — and Michael [Penn, her husband] and I started to do this with a friend of ours. We have, like, a songwriter’s club. We developed a really elaborate version of it, but I had a simpler version. I always started with writing down names of chords on little slips of paper, and then just threw them up in the air. And whatever landed face up, those were the chords. I did some other stuff, like cutting out headlines and things from newspapers. I got that idea from Fiona Apple, actually, to kind of jump start lyrical stuff. There’s a song of mine, “Calling It Quits,” that I wrote that way.
Take suggestions. If you’re uncomfortable, do it anyway. Say yes to stuff. It sounds so basic but it’s not. For some people it’s actually wildly elusive, the readiness and willingness to a) admit you need help and b) accept it. It’s like standing in a shop window in your underwear — horrifying until you realize that the people on the other side of the glass are in their underwear, too.