A few things you should know about Aimee Mann: She boxes. Comedians and twelve step programs are her great inspiration. While her songs might lead you to believe otherwise, Aimee Mann isn’t sad. She guest-starred as a cleaning lady on Portlandia. The word brain came out of her mouth 19 times during our conversation at Q Division studios in Somerville. She is 51.
Q: So, I think you know that I want to talk to you about creativity and aging.
A: Aging. That word aging seems to have certain connotations.
Q: I know.
A: Aging sort of implies decay.
Q: Right, and that’s real. Our bodies are going to break down and die. But we can also think and talk about aging in terms of the passage of time.
A: Yeah it’s interesting because I feel like it does sort of have two meanings. I would say my relationship to what I do has changed over time, but only in a positive way, you know? Like, really in a positive way.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: I think that two things happen as you do something a lot. One, your brain becomes acclimated to the specific kinds of tasks that you ask it to perform and begins to perform them more automatically for you. And the second is that you learn how to make smarter choices and shortcuts, so that you’re more efficient. I almost feel like it’s exponentially easier and more efficient to be creative, because a lot of creativity is generating ideas and then stepping back – well, this is how it works for me — generating ideas and then stepping back and being objective and editing your ideas. For me this task would be thinking of the thing you want to say and arranging it in a form that rhymes. That would be one big task that I require of my brain. And if your brain is closer to doing that automatically, then you’re already ahead of the game.
Q: You’re basically describing what scientists who research the nature of creativity talk about as a critical combination of divergent and convergent thinking. First you have to be able to generate a lot of different ideas, and then be able to filter and sort them in the most efficient and productive way.
A: And if your brain can sort to do that immediately, and now that I’m thinking about it it’s not like it does it so well, but it does it better, then that’s helpful because what you’re generating is like presorted ideas. And the second form of intelligence that increases over time was demonstrated at karaoke recently, which by the way I’d never done before. But they have these weird rooms that you rent out, it’s like very Japanese, it was in New York City, and this friend of mine had rented this room. Each room had individual karaoke machines, it’s very much like a little kind of conference room. It actually has a sex cubicle flavor.
Q: Oh, wow.
A: So it’s even weirder. I mean not that there’s any sex involved with it, but it’s sort of weirdly sterile and creepily secret at the same time. So my friend was doing this thing with a couple of his friends so I stopped by. And then, you know, because everybody was singing, it was like fine, I’ll sing a couple of songs. And I’ve never done karaoke before because I know the kind of equipment I need, like the right microphone, the right monitoring system, I know the technical things that have to be in place in order for me to perform optimally, and karaoke does not have that.
Q: It’s not an optimal audio environment.
A: Yeah. It’s not an optimal situation. But then as people were choosing songs and I saw them do their thing, interestingly enough a lot of the songs were very complicated songs that I had heard a million times before but in a million years could never have sung the melody. Like, I never would have remembered how it went except maybe parts of the chorus. So I was really impressed at their ability. Their memory for melody was better than mine, because I have to really consciously learn other people’s songs. But there were a couple of songs that I knew I had listened to enough that I could probably remember them, and also I knew that they would be in my key. So I was seeing other people who actually, in my opinion, had an advantage over me, in that their memory was better, struggle with certain songs because the key was totally out of reach. And I thought, I’m ahead of the game only because I know how to edit. I know how to choose a song that’s close enough to my key so I know I have a chance of not looking like an idiot. But that’s not talent, you know what I mean? That’s just having been around.
Q: It’s intelligence.
A: Yeah. It’s intelligence, but it’s not talent. It’s not singing talent.
Q: Big difference.
A: But it’s funny because it got me thinking about how half of talent, or 80%, some large percentage of talent, I think, is just being smart enough to choose the things that are appropriate for you so you will be seen in the best light.
Q: And do you feel like you continue to acquire those tools?
A: I do. Yeah. I do. Because you’re always learning, hopefully. A lot of singing is muscle memory. You just do it a million times and then you get a feeling for how it feels when it’s right. That’s not talent either. That’s practice. Talent is hugely predicated on practice.
Q: I was going to ask you about that, too, about the distribution of inspiration to discipline when it comes to creativity.
A: It’s so heavily weighted on the discipline. Because I don’t – I’m just not inspired. 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.
Q: So how do you work? Walk me through it.
A: You know, mostly how I write songs is when I’m on tour and I’m warming up in the dressing room. I usually try to warm up with stuff that’s in the range of the first couple of songs I’ll be singing, and I’ll just start playing some chords and humming a melody and generally what happens is I will make up some kind of mocking little song about my bass player. And because there’s no pressure and it’s just meant to be funny and time-killing and a warm-up, about half the time I come up with some melody and I go, you know what? That’s pretty good. I’m going to put it on a tape. And then when it comes time to work on a record I just listen back to all those little tapes and then I’m really able to listen to it like I’ve never heard it before because I’ve totally forgotten it by the time I hear it. And then I can be really objective about it. I do think self-consciousness is kind of the death of creativity.