Amy Mann has never felt more of a musical outsider.
While the songwriting luminary first appeared in the cultural consciousness in the mid-80s as a prickly singer and guitarist in the new wave sensations until Tuesday, it is now – 61-year-old Angeleno peering through her thick glasses into our eyes. Zoom calls, donning a pale blue turtleneck and neatly slicked back hair – she feels completely out of step.
Mann told me this Tuesday morning during an interview about her new album, Queens of the Summer Hotel, a collection of elegant baroque pop songs she performed before the pandemic for a planned stage adaptation of her 1993 memoir Girl, Interrupted. The best-selling book follows author Suzanne Kaisen’s stay at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts in the late 1960s and spawned the 1999 film of the same name starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. One of Mann’s songs, a waltz, is about McLean’s former patients, the poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, and the title of the album comes from Anna Sexton’s 1959 poem “You, Dr. Martin”: “I’m the queen of this summer hotel. / or a laughing bee on the stalk of death ”, who also visited the hospital.
“I have to do with her chaotic thinking, how it fueled her writing skills, but also made it so hard for her to find a place to land,” Mann says of Sexton. “There is humor in her discussing her time in McLean that I appreciate.”
The play is currently in limbo due to the pandemic. But Mann, whose battles with major labels in the 90s over the releases of her first the solo albums “Whatever” in 1993 and “I’m With Stupid” in 1995 were well documented – she made her career finding her own way with one door closing and she opening another.
Concept albums filled with classical music and explorations of depression and suicide can be rare in contemporary music. However, Mann is known for creating low-key melodies that not only voice destructive stories, but also promote them. In 1999, she wrote songs for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which, unlike the typical soundtrack, functioned like musical theater, woven into the plot. It was then that Mann founded her own label SuperEgo, through which she continues to release compilations of her sophisticated Beatles-style songs, marked by her cold-blooded yet bold singing. (As she told Nylon, “It’s a lot more fun to have a lemonade stand than to work at McDonald’s.”) She won the People’s Grammy for her latest solo album, 2017’s Mental Illness.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the wholeness that comes from Amy Mann,” said her recent co-writer and punk member Ted Leo. “You don’t need to know about her history with major labels – and how she released music on her own long before much of the rest of the pop world did – to feel the integrity of her songwriting.”
Like Mann’s lyrics, Girl, Interrupted, is often sardonic and outspoken, both colloquial and literary. And just like the book, the stories from The Summer Hotel Queens show how life in the late 60s could be dangerously depressing for women. Working with longtime producer Paul Brian, Mann wrote these candid songs in a feverish rush. The harmoniously rich “You Fall”, “At the Frick Museum” and “Suicide is Murder” evoke and expand certain points in the text.
“The book is episodic, with sketches of events and characters – the story doesn’t become obvious – so I thought about what a certain character might sing or what episodes might end with a song,” said Mann, once produced by Barbara Broccoli, Frederic Zollo and their daughter of Angelica. “I found it very liberating,” Mann said of theater scripts. “I felt that I could do anything.”
In Give Me Fifteen, Mann describes a sexist doctor who makes a diagnosis after a short observation — because “women are so simple after all,” Mann sings crookedly, and clearly has a political dimension. So Kaisen goes to McLean in Girl, Interrupted. But “Give Me Fifteen” is also an allegory of a world in which medical issues are too often ignored or misunderstood as concerns women’s health. “It’s maddening, and every woman has experienced it firsthand — not seriously,” Mann said.
She recently experienced it herself, while battling vestibular migraines and a nervous system disorder that led to increased tinnitus and distorted hearing. “I couldn’t listen to music,” she said. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘I guess I never work again.” Mann improved many of her symptoms by using her daily expressive writing technique to relieve stress.
“One of the things I encountered when dealing with these symptoms was that people who historically had to suppress their feelings were more likely to experience neuroplastic symptoms,” she says. “The part of the population that has to suppress their feelings more often is the marginalized people. Unfortunately, women are still marginalized. “
Mann’s best songs of its kind were about patriarchal life. “Voices Carry” until Tuesday in 1985 caused emotional suppression in the context of toxic relationships – “When I tell him I’m falling in love / Why does he say / Hush, hush / Hold it now / Carry the voices” – with a man who only “wants me / if he can keep me in check. ” Fourteen years later, in her late thirties, Manna’s Save Me, trailing Magnolia, became her masterpiece: a spare, neatly played ballad and perhaps the most modestly beautiful song ever written about the bond between damaged people. He was nominated for an Oscar for the original song and solidified Mann’s status as a respected songwriter.
This period of her career was not without difficulties, which, she notes, also filled her with the experience that she brought to the material “Girl, Interrupted.” In 2002, after her solo breakthrough, she entered a treatment center in Arizona. “I had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I did not work”. She was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of unresolved childhood trauma that triggered a “fairly serious dissociation.” At the treatment center, she befriended other people who were recovering, some from addiction, and until the pandemic, Mann continued to attend Al-Anon meetings. “I have tremendous compassion for the people who are struggling,” she said.
Mann was born in 1960 near Richmond, Virginia, where her father was an advertising manager. In part, according to Mann, the childhood trauma was caused by “frequent interruptions in care.” Her parents divorced when she was 3 years old, after which Manna’s mother and her new boyfriend kidnapped Mann. They took her to Europe and traveled. Mann’s father had been looking for her through a private detective for almost a year when she was found in England and returned home.
“By the time I saw my father again, it was like he was a stranger, and then I didn’t see my mother again until I was 14,” she said. “I think having two parents, when you spend so much time away from them, and then they just don’t seem like parents anymore, it sets the stage for future problems.”
Her idol, passionate about music, was David Bowie. She started playing guitar at age 12 and moved to Boston after high school to attend Berkeley College of Music, although she eventually gave up playing in art punk bands like Young Snakes. But atonal dissonance was not her vocation, and soon she began performing in Boston with Til Tuesday instead. The last touring line-up of the group included a young John Brion. Before recording records with musicians such as Fiona Apple and Kanye West, Brion’s early producers were on Mann’s early solo albums.
When Mann turned to her methodical solo work, she found herself preferring structure in music. “Writing for me is an exercise in order, not chaos,” she said. “Trying to describe something – making connections, connecting parts, trying to summarize complex ideas in a three and a half minute song – is trying to bring order to the chaos for me.”
Mann’s songs continue to resonate. Sky Ferreira performed “Voices Carry” live several times before releasing a recording of her cover in 2018, calling it “very personal lyrics for me.” In January, New York-based singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins released her wise sophomore album, A Survey of Phenomenal Nature, which captures Mann’s rough emotions, his wise poise and the centrality of her words.
“I’ve really been dreading the term ‘singer-songwriter’ for most of my life,” says Jenkins, who grew up archetypes of protest singers or coffeehouse denominations. “I reached out to Amy Mann to find that songwriting could be more challenging. She offers a broad definition of who a singer and songwriter can be, with a very cold-blooded group leader personality. “
Mann’s work continues to grow with Queens of the Summer Hotel, as well as another project she is currently working on: a musical based on her 2005 LP Forgotten Hand, also a concept album about a young woman and a boxer. an addict who falls in love and runs home.
Mann’s personal cultural interest is largely extra-musical these days: at her Los Angeles home, which she shares with her husband, singer and songwriter Michael Penn, she recently re-read early 20th-century novels by Theodore Dreiser. “I have strange tastes,” she says of her literary preferences. “1915 is my favorite period.”
Reflecting on her trajectory, I ask Mann if there is something she sees more clearly now than she once appeared in the music world decades ago. “It was an era when, God forbid, if you were called a ‘difficult artist’ – that would be the end of history,” she said. “But I was stubborn too. I just always wanted to get better. “