Aimee Mann’s last album, a Grammy winner in 2018, was bluntly called “Mental Illness.” So where do you go from there? How about a song cycle based on a book set in an actual mental institution? “That’s on-the-nose, I know,” she laughs. “Yeah, there was definitely a part of me thinking, well, this is a frying pan/fire scenario.”
Her just-released new album, “Queens of the Summer Hotel,” takes its cues from a 1993 memoir by Susanna Keysen, who wrote about her experiences being institutionalized at the McLean Hospital. If that sounds familiar by some other name, the book Mann’s record is based on was called “Girl, Interrupted,” famous for having been turned into a feature film in 1999. The singer-songwriter was conscripted to write songs for a stage musical, also based on the book but unrelated to the film, also to be called “Girl, Interrupted” — and when plans to further develop and produce that got put on hold, Mann decided to make it her next record. The songs largely transcend their theatrical origins — it’s definitely not a musical spin through the DSM-5 manual — though a little context doesn’t hurt.
“Mental Illness” won a Grammy for best folk album; although it had a good amount of orchestration, Recording Academy gatekeepers were able to focus enough on the finger-picking acoustic guitar aspects to enter it in the folk division. Whatever category “Queens of the Summer Hotel” ends up in when preliminary balloting decisions begin happening again a year from now, it probably won’t be folk, since Mann and longtime producer/arranger Paul Bryan really upped the orchestration for this — adding woodwinds to the strings, along with now emphasizing piano over guitar. So maybe it’ll be considered in the traditional pop division… or best non-cast album for an unproduced musical, if the Grammys think to finally add that as a category.
Whether or not it’s considered as award-worthy as the last effort, “Queens of the Summer Hotel” is another triumph from one of America’s and the world’s greatest songwriters — musically literate, wryly funny and sneakily touching by the same measure. Variety got on the phone with Mann to discuss the songs’ progression from aborted show tunes (which could still someday end up on a stage; she isn’t really sure) to superlative concept album.
VARIETY: Broadway productions and even off-Broadway stage shows can often be in development for a decade, or more … and still not get produced in the end. It has to be a patience-testing process for someone who is used to being able to make albums and put them out. Was there a point at which you decided, “Hey, I don’t need to wait for this to land on the stage – this works as an album”?
MANN: Yeah. I could see that it was taking a long time, and also, I think they were heading more to the idea of a play with some music, rather than a musical. At that point I felt like I had so many songs that really fit together as one thing, and I just didn’t really know where it was going because it was taking so long. I got itchy to get back into my making a record/touring cycle. And as it went on, I had very specific ideas about how I wanted it to sound and what I wanted the arrangements to be like. Once you start having those ideas and feelings, you’re like, “Okay, now I just have to record it. Who knows if any of these stories will be in the stage production, what form they’ll be in, or what orchestration they’ll eventually take? It’s all up for grabs.” So I wanted to get my ideas down.
How would you describe the overriding style of this album? It’s united by a lot of orchestration — much more than you’ve ever used before — and piano, but beyond that, there are some variations in how things sound.
In general, the idea for the sound of the music — and this probably at the end of the day only turned out to be a hint of a whiff of a flavor — was in, because the action takes place in 1968, me thinking that the music should reflect that. But not the hard-rock kind of hippie era. “Burn It Out” is more of a folky, Peter Paul and Mary thing. But the rest of it was more like Bacharach or kind of Sinatra standards — those were more my references.
And then the idea was to also try to sneak a little classical music flavor in there. I used to listen to a lot of Chopin, but besides the idea of a lot of waltzes, it’s not like I really sat down and analyzed that and then tried to take parts of it and make it into a song. It was more just a general influence. I had a lot of ideas about a kind of subtext that runs through all the songs. An idea that I was working on was that the main character had at one point training to be a concert pianist. And so I wanted to have these little echoes of classical music throughout the orchestration and the playing, a nod here and there to different composers. Those ideas started to crystallize into a really specific notion of what it should sound like.
Are there any classical composers specifically that you’ve alluded to that people might recognize… or might not, for that matter?
Really just a nod. [Laughs.] Not even to the level of a quote, but a flavor. The song “Home by Now” has a bit of a Mozart piano… some trills. Some of the other ones I wanted to have a Debussy flavor. But really just the merest whiff of a flavor, because obviously I’m not really conversant in classical music and that’s not my wheelhouse. It’s something to just keep in your mind, and even if it’s not really visible to anybody else at the end of the day, it’s good to have it there.
What else was different about writing on assignment with the theater in mind?
First of all, I thought that all of these songs would be sung by other people, so I didn’t really worry about range or style. And in composing for something that is a theatrical production, I definitely felt like I had a lot more freedom to just be like: “Oh, suppose I just slow it down in the middle!” Or even, “How about a song that kind of comes, states its point, and then ends after two minutes?” That was really fun, to feel like there’s fewer limitations.
Sometimes you’re constrained by your own habits. Writing on acoustic guitar, I feel like my hands just start to go to the same chords in the same order that I’m used to. So writing on piano, if I have an idea that I’d like to modulate a part of a song or go to a different key for the chorus, that kind of thing, it’s much easier. Because on acoustic guitar, I’m not a great guitar player, so there’s a lot of chords I can’t play. Like, I can’t really play seventh chords. And because I have arthritis, I can’t play bar chords anymore. So it’s so much easier to just move around harmonically on piano.
What’s the origin story of “Girl, Interrupted” as a musical, or of your involvement with it?
I was approached by (a pair of) producers, Barbara Broccoli, who produces the James Bond movies, and her ex-husband Fred Zollo. They have produced other musicals before, like “The Band’s Visit” and the musical “Once.” Their daughter Angelica was part of the production team, and she had known of my music and suggested me. And she was also the one who had the biggest attachment to “Girl, Interrupted.” That was a book that had really meant a lot to her, so I think that she was probably the genesis of this project. They had a director and a writer that they liked, and we all got together and started talking about what it could be.
I got a copy of the book and went through it and noticed a lot of places that I felt would make interesting songs or be scenes that could culminate in a song. You know, the book doesn’t really have a plot. It’s more episodic. But there are a lot of characters — Susanna Kaysen’s fellow inmates that she talks about a lot. So I made just a list of those people and what was going on with them, and figured that probably most of them should have a song that they should sing about their own circumstances. So I just started writing and was really off and running with a ton of ideas. I think I really way outpaced the writer, who wasn’t really sure how to approach it. Because it is kind of a difficult book, being as that it’s not very plot-driven. It’s more reportorial — “Here’s when I was in McLean, and some of my thoughts and feelings and a few things that happened” — but it doesn’t have a linear beginning and end. I think it was easier for me to have ideas about songs than it was to bring the script together. So it will be a big surprise to see what happens at the end of the day.
Where does the theatrical version stand now? It sounds like you don’t know if it’ll be produced, ultimately, or if your songs will definitely be used if it is.
The last script that I saw used a handful of songs, definitely not all of them. But that was maybe a year ago. Obviously the pandemic has really put everything on hold, and as you said before, these things could take a decade. Meanwhile, though, I have a record and I feel like I have a nice representation of the songs as I heard them, in more or less the order I heard them, and that’s fun for me. I mean, it always is sort of sad if you feel like you’re writing music that nobody will ever hear. I just couldn’t see letting these songs hibernate for another five years.
It’s a crossroads other people in your position have come to. A few years ago, Elvis Costello put an album out (“Look Now”) that included several songs he’d written from two different unproduced stage musicals he’d long been working on.
I was in New York recently and we ran into each other on the airplane, and so we’ve been exchanging emails, talking about that very thing. Thinking of all those unheard treasures, it makes me crazy. There’s a musical he’s working on now (based on “A Face in the Crowd”), and I think he should do his own version of it. There’s something really nice about having the composer sing their own songs. It’s more personal.
When Costello would sing the songs from his unproduced musicals in concert, he’d often set them up by describing the story and even explain the point in the narrative at which the song would have come in. Do you feel like you need to do that with yours?
I think most of them still work as songs. I mean, some of them you do need a little bit of a context for. “Suicide Is Murder” is not necessarily a song I would written outside this project in that particular way. Because it’s taken from a monologue of the narrator of the book, where she talks about her own suicide attempt and what she thinks is the mindset that you have to be in to attempt suicide. And I put my own thoughts and feelings into it, because that just happens inevitably. But the starter dough is definitely from the book.
It was interesting to see some of the reactions on Twitter when “Suicide Is Murder” was released as the first song from the project. Some people who had had suicidal thoughts before were very grateful for the song. But there were some people reacting against it. It seems like any time anyone has a thought that might seem judgmental in any way of suicide, there are people who respond to that.
The concept of suicide as murder comes from Susanna Kaysen, who had attempted suicide. So this is her point of view of someone who was suffering in that way. The vibe of her commentary about it was a little bit gallows humor — a little bit like, “Hey, it’s gruesome, and you have to really detach so you can get through it.” My reaction as I was in the middle of the song was thinking about people I have known who committed suicide and how rough it is on people who are left behind. The bridge is kind of a reminder of that, where it gets away from that glibness a little bit. And then also the phrase “Suicide Is Murder” for me started to take on more of an aspect of: It is fucking rough for everybody involved.
You use the word “cursed” for those are left behind after a suicide.
Yeah, that was my main feeling about it. Because you are. You just feel cursed, even with people you don’t know that well. I was doing an interview the other day where I was talking about favorite records of mine, and I was talking about Scott Miller and the Loud Family and Elliott Smith. And I cannot listen to those records. It really is too painful. I didn’t really know Elliott, but I knew Scott reasonably well. And even though I wasn’t super close to him, I still feel guilty that I didn’t somehow realize that he was suffering and wasn’t a better friend. And I will never not feel guilty on some level about that.
Naming the album after something Anne Sexton wrote, you’re sort of crossing narratives a little, or referring to something outside of “Girl, Interrupted.” Is there significance to you wanting to use that as a title?
I think the producers didn’t want me to use “Girl, Interrupted” as the title, just because if there is eventually a cast album, there might be some confusion. I liked the Anne Sexton quote because Anne Sexton was referring to McLean; she was another person who went there. And I thought it was really funny — there, again, is the gallows humor of the person who keeps returning to the mental institution, so that you end up thinking of it as a hotel.
You probably wouldn’t have written a song from the perspective of a cynical psychiatrist, left to your own devices. Or maybe you would have!
Absolutely, I don’t think so. Once again, there is a freedom in going all the way and saying: I’m just going to have this guy talk about how he’s so proud of himself for getting people in and out, 15 minutes, and he can tell exactly what’s wrong with you, and then off you go into the looney bin.
Do you have any sort of overriding thoughts on psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness in this? You have on the one extreme that kind of satirical or ironic point of view with the psychiatrist character. And then on the album you end with a note of hope: “I See You.” Is that making a statement that basic empathy is an even better cure, or path toward a cure, than the professional talking cure?
Yeah, it’s definitely an important part of the process. I mean, that’s not in the book — that’s all my point of view. In 1968, I think misogyny played a big part in how women were diagnosed, and there was a lot of hysterical female stuff still going around. I don’t think anybody knew about PTSD and the mental health impacts of that.
I’m of two minds about medications, because I was on an SSRI at some at one point for about a year and a half, and I think it really did help me to allow myself to start thinking in a different way, where before I could not get out of certain thought patterns. But I’ve also had experiences with medication where it can really (mess one up). This last year I found myself in the throes of migraine disorder, with vestibular migraines. I was sick and dizzy all the time, and went on medication (that is) like an antidepressant, but like one of the early, early ones — and I had, like, a psychotic episode on that thing. So it’s weird to have these medications that can abruptly change your mood for the worse. … You have to be really careful. … They’re drugs that work on your brain, and it’s a tricky business.
Given that you were writing from characters here, is there any song that sort of felt closest to you, and/or a more universal song than what any one character is experiencing?
I think “I See You,” because that’s really about me understanding and acknowledging that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling, and part of the struggle is feeling that people do not understand or will not believe them. Especially if it’s PTSD [which Mann has said she has suffered from] – that’s such a huge part of it is to feel like people will believe you.
You’re doing some shows in November at Largo and City Winery in New York right after Christmas that are tied to this album. So this must not be a year for doing any Christmas shows as you often have in the past.
I don’t think we can get it together. And I usually do those shows with Ted Leo, and he had a baby last year, so he’s still going to be on baby duty. But I’ve thought about maybe doing a Christmas-in-February sort of thing. Everything in this last year and a half has been so skewed and at times gotten so warped that I think to have a Christmas show in February probably will feel just right.
Formally, this album is an adaptation of songs originally meant for a theatrical production. But informally, your intent is probably not to have listeners thinking too much about questions like, “Well, how would it sound like with a man singing this” or “How does this directly relate to a passage from the book?” Is there an emotional overall experience you hope people will have with it? A general catharsis, if they identify particularly with some of the songs?
I think that the hope is always, first of all, for me, that there’s consolation in art in general, and especially if there’s songs that you feel like you relate to. Because to have a voice out there that seems like a voice that would understand is really helpful. I mean, that’s what I got out of listening to Elliott Smith. Obviously he was an extremely troubled person, but he was very honest, and there was kind of an exhilaration in that, besides just his craft and ability to write a good song with interesting lyrics and beautiful melodies. You really felt like you do connect with somebody when you listen to music — you do feel connected, and that experience alone has a value and a kind of therapeutic value. So that’s what I would hope for.
You never know, though — you could just piss people off on Twitter. So it’s kind of out of your hands.