Ted Leo And Aimee Mann On Ego, Humor And The Uncanny Valley
Famous songwriting teams used to put pencil to music paper in small offices at the Brill Building, or find their collective voice while gigging around Liverpool. Today, they don't even have to live in the same time zone — they can even inspire each other in 140 characters or less.
Veteran singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo call L.A. and New York home, respectively. But they bonded over Twitter, and their followers got to watch as their mutual admiration blossomed into a partnership; their combined talents are now known as The Both. Mann and Leo spoke with weekends on All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland about writing the songs for their self-titled debut — beginning with a shared tour stop in Milwaukee and an encounter with that city's tribute toHappy Days' Arthur Fonzarelli, a statue locals call The Bronze Fonz. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
TESS VIGELAND: Since the song "Milwaukee" is basically where this collaboration started, I think we have to start there. Aimee, what inspired this one?
AIMEE MANN: We were in Milwaukee, and it was fairly early in a tour we were doing together — I was supporting my record Charmer, and Ted was opening doing a solo electric thing. After sound check, we had taken a walk together on their River Walk, and encountered the Bronze Fonz. We were like, "Oh, we've got to take a picture with it!" But the pictures we took, they were all kind of horrifying, and we couldn't figure out why.
TED LEO: Are you familiar with the uncanny valley concept? When something is almost too realistic, but just shy in a way that is very creepy, like with a lot of virtual reality images and robots and things like that. And I think this particular piece of public art captures that really well. It's just less than life size. The teeth are a little too clearly delineated.
MANN: So, you're half expecting it to say, "Ayyy!" But it's sort of tiny, like it's a little too delicate.
VIGELAND: So how did that lead to the song?
MANN: Well, because we were kind of fascinated with it, and we were touring together, and that sort of led to us playing in each other's sets a little bit. And that led to, "We should try to write some songs." So, when we had a break, there was a piece of music I came up with. For sort of placeholder lyrics, I started writing about this day we had walked around and seen the Bronze Fonz, and also there was a big bronze duck — which was also bizarre, because it was twice the size of a real duck, and we didn't understand why that was so big, but the Bronze Fonz was so small. And so, kind of as a joke, I had written these lyrics, and then we sort of became attached to them.
LEO: We had the discussion, you know, "Can we keep these lyrics in?" And I think we decided, "Not only can we, but we must."
VIGELAND: Aimee, I watched the video that you two put together for the Both website, and as well as the hilarious video for "Milwaukee." I was telling some colleagues here how funny you were, and I might as well have said the sky was purple — there is a stereotype of you and your music out there, and I wonder if you're pushing against that a little bit in this collaboration.
MANN: Well, you never really know what people think of you. Of course, my music is not cheerful, good-time party music, and my voice doesn't come across that way either. That's not necessarily my intention, but you know — you play with the cards you're dealt. That was one of the reasons I love this collaboration so much: I get to hear Ted singing things that I've worked on that I intended to have a lot of energy and almost aggressiveness to them, that I can never portray with my voice.
I've spent a lot of time with comedians. I think the through line is that it's an art form that works a lot with language, and sort of sussing out the possibilities of a joke within a certain group of words, or certain kind of idea. That rings a bell with me, so you know, I feel like I have something in common with it. As far as being funny, anything I've appeared in, like the Portlandia episode I was in, I literally ask a funny person: "Just tell me what to do, and I will do it exactly, because I want it to be funny."
LEO: I'm going to interject and say though that Aimee is also inherently funny, even with she is doing herself. We both have a history of working with comedians over the years. When you're writing serious music, I don't know if it's a natural need to kind of pivot in the other direction, when you're speaking in between those serious songs, just to balance the equation or what.
VIGELAND: Ted, you tend to write some pretty muscular songs. Aimee, as we've touched on, yours can be a little bit more delicate. I know I'm oversimplifying your work, but how did you find a middle ground?
LEO: We're both big fans of harmony singing, and my favorite parts on the record are when we're singing together. So even if something is tending toward one direction of the other, when we come together is — I mean, at the risk of being real cliché — that's where the real sparks on the record happen for me.
I had never collaborated with any one as closely and as deeply as on this record, and initially in the process, there were certainly some ego hurdles to get over: the kind of preciousness of your first ideas for things, or receiving feedback that was challenging you to come up with something different. And luckily, I think we set out from the beginning making a verbal and conscious pact to try and set that ego aside, and really look at each song as a puzzle that working on together could only make better.
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