Private Playlist: Aimee Mann looks past the snark to appreciate Steely Dan’s craft

Aimee Mann with one of her Private Playlist picks. Photo credit: Aimee Mann.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. Aimee Mann is one of the most acclaimed voices in contemporary American songwriting. Casual music fans will know her best for two songs: Her first hit, “Voices Carry,” was recorded with Boston band ‘Til Tuesday in 1985. Fifteen years later, her song “Save Me” became an iconic scene in the film Magnolia and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. But to acolytes, Mann is a paragon of smart, reflective, and penetrating songcraft. Her last solo release, 2017’s Mental Illness,” won her a Grammy for Best Folk Album. Alongside fellow indie darling Ted Leo, she writes and records as The Both and co-hosts a podcast, The Art of Process.”

I actually took an online class in drawing birds, just to have a thing to tune into. And, I'm telling you, there's nobody more optimistic - but also realistic - than bird nerds. Because they certainly understand what's happening to the environment, since birds obviously take a big hit. But they're so enthusiastic about birding. And I guess drawing birds is part of your birding experience, although I wonder how they sit still long enough for you to draw a bird. I'm probably not going to draw a bird from life, but I thought, "Yeah, let's learn some rudiments of bird drawing. Why not?"

JUDEE SILL

Lately I've also been asking people to recommend a record, like you do when you're 13 years old and your friend is like, "Oh, you gotta check this record out." So the Sklar Brothers (Jason and Randy) came over, and we did some socially-distant visiting. And I recommended Judee Sill to them. It's such sweet and beautiful music, but she was a real weirdo, and all reports were that she wasn't really nice. And I think she was involved in a couple of armed robberies. It's a very hard-edged story, but she made really beautiful music with this post-acid-trippy, Jesus-freak stuff. So it has a little something for everybody. 

STEELY DAN

Steely Dan is another constant go-to, and I don't know why. I feel like they obviously have a bad attitude, but there's something musically that I never get sick of. And I think their lyrics are great, even though they're clearly jerks in most of the songs. But in the invincibility and "know-it-allism" is this hint of vulnerability that is very appealing. And I'm not even sure if that comes more from the music or if it's in the lyrics. 

I grew up when they were happening, so the book on them was that they were eggheady, snarky, and super-smart. But also there was always this druggy thing, and they probably hated women a little bit. That felt like it was in there. But as a musician, now that I know what they're doing, I realize how even more amazing it is that they can craft melodies out of the chord changes that they choose, and that they have these snarky, jerky, and dark stories. But they're pretty great.

ANTHONY NEWLEY

I went on a crazy binge with “The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd,” starring Anthony Newley. He's somebody that I remember as a kid singing on talk shows. And his performance style was so bizarre, but fascinating. Then I heard that David Bowie modeled his singing on him, and if you listen to him, it's absolutely true. But Newley also acted in and wrote musicals. And this musical has so many songs that you've heard a million times: all those songs that became Vegas-y standards. He wrote a ton of those hits.

You know when some performers are really young, and they have this desperate narcissism? And for one brief, shining moment, you can't take your eyes off them?  This was when he was at his peak of those powers, when it's like, "Look at me, look at me. I need the love of every audience member." And something makes you go, "Yeah, I'll look at you." And then, later on, it degenerates.

PAUL McCARTNEY

The record of the week is Paul McCartney's “Ram.” I'm so happy to hear Linda singing on this record, and hearing songs about her, in a way that I absolutely did not appreciate when I was a little kid. Paul really wanted her to be involved in his music. It's obviously him going like, "Come on, sing! No, it sounds great. I'll sing along with you. It'll be fun." And when you're younger, you look at it like, "Oh, of course she's trying to horn in." But it really is not super-fun to go on tour and play arenas. And she's doing a job that he wanted her to do so they could be together. And, to me, it's to her credit that she was like, "Alright, I'm game, I'll go along." There are a lot of background vocals on this album done with wit and humor and panache, and it's nice to have her voice in there.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue
Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey
Dorian Wood is walking a tightrope and trying not to look down
Jeff Parker is busy studying music in hibernation mode
TOKiMONSTA is rediscovering her love for the guitar
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron

Playlist
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]
Credits

Guest:
Aimee Mann

Producer:
Myke Dodge Weiskopf