A case of mutual musical admiration has turned into a full-fledged touring duo for much-loved singer-songwriter Aimee Mann and indie rock icon Ted Leo. Calling themselves The Both, Mann and Leo have a combined musical repertoire covering nearly 60 years. Mann began her solo career in 1993 after stints with Boston punk band The Young Snakes and new wave group ‘Til Tuesday. Leo is best known for his work in Ted Leo & the Pharmacists as well as for playing in bands like Citizens Arrest and Chisel.
The Both got its start in February 2012 after Leo opened some shows for Mann and they forged a friendship that eventually led to a songwriting partnership. The pair released a self-titled debut album last April and continues to tour in support of that. They make their way to Northeast Florida Friday night with a performance at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, with opening act Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) of Against Me! opening. Folio Weekly caught up with Mann as she was settling in back home. Here’s part of that conversation.
Folio Weekly: Tell us how you and Ted Leo hooked up.
Aimee Mann: About two years ago, I was on tour to support the Charmer record, and he was opening. It was a solo thing — him on electric guitar, which I just found so interesting. I thought that he got such a full and interesting sound out of the guitar. His guitar-playing is unique, kind of virtuosic, in a way that other people just don’t have. As I’d see him play a set, I started to think that this would be a great trio just adding bass and drums. And I started to sonically visualize what it would sound like — what a collaboration would sound like. That was also very appealing to me, because when I’m doing my own tours for my records, I usually play acoustic guitar. But the idea of kind of going back to a scenario where I play in this very stripped-down kind of rock band where I’m playing bass is appealing, because I haven’t done that in a long time.
In press material, you say of The Both, “Honestly, I feel like for the first time, I’m part of a rock band.” What did you mean by that?
I was in a couple of other bands, but it was really the first time where I felt like I knew what I was doing. The first band I was in [The Young Snakes], I didn’t really know what I was doing — didn’t really know how to write songs and didn’t really know how to be in a band. That was sort of what that was for, to just learn what it was like to play shows and play with other people and have that experience. And the second band I was in [‘Til Tuesday], I was more the leader of the band. But I still didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of being a leader of the band. I knew that I wanted to direct the writing of the songs and have the final say on the songs, but this [The Both] is more of a collaboration where each song is really 50-50, where we’re both making an effort to try to accommodate and incorporate each other’s style.
What’s the songwriting process like for The Both?
Every song has to start somewhere. What that looks like can be as small as a little voice memo of somebody humming a melody into the phone, or a chord progression. It can be a whole first verse, or a verse and part of a chorus. It can be music that doesn’t have any words. I think really what it is, is the point where you as a writer feel, like, “OK. I’ve reached a little break in the process.” And you throw it over to the other person.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about songwriting from this project?
It’s very interesting to make an attempt to get inside somebody else’s style and songwriting style. I think he [Leo] has a unique songwriting style; I don’t think I’ve figured it out yet. My first feeling was, “He changes chords a lot faster than I do. He uses a lot more chord changes, so I’m going to come up with an initial idea for a song that has a lot of chord changes. How can I make that work where the chords change every two beats?” It’s a fun exercise to see if you can do that and make it musical and make it sound like your interpretation of what the other person sounds like.
How long do you anticipate The Both to continue? Is there an expiration date, or will you just let it run its course?
As long as it’s working and as long as it’s fun. We’re definitely going to write songs for another record. The two of us have had a lot of talks with a playwright about the possibility of writing a musical. We haven’t really gotten started on that. It’s mostly in its talking phase; that might be another project that we eventually get involved in.
Will it be a love story?
Actually, no. Not at all. We actually want to write a musical that’s about Edward Snowden in some way. We’re still talking to the playwright about how to structure that because it’s always kind of tricky to write something about a real life, current thing. Ted is very politically involved, and I think a political thing is great for him as a collaborator.
If you could give a younger Aimee, just starting out in the music business, one piece of advice, what would it be?
You know, I think it’s just a matter of doing it. You just have to get out there and do stuff. Some things are best learned by trial and error and playing in a band, making music and writing songs is one of them.