It was a fateful run in with a Fonzie statue, while sharing a bill on tour, that led Aimee Mann and Ted Leo to collaborate. The two aren’t likely partners on paper: Mann has carved out an enviable career as a melancholy and cerebral singer-songwriter, while Leo has spent a decade-plus toiling through the DIY punk circuit. They clicked, however, and began writing songs together despite living on separate coasts. The result, called The Both, doesn’t sound like an energized, more aggressive Aimee Mann or a more toned-down Ted Leo. Instead, the duo harness their synergy into something entirely new for the two of them. “It’s a nucleus burning inside of itself,” they sing, in tight harmony, on “Milwaukee,” and it’s apt description of their sound: Understated and exhilarating power pop that glows with the heat of its internal combustion.
The two of you have really embraced Twitter. What percentage of the time are you guys tweeting at each other while sitting next to each other?
Aimee Mann: Oh, it’s happened.
Ted Leo [laughs]: It’s happened more than once.
Mann: There are times where we’re Tweeting at each while sitting across from each other at a table or at opposite ends of the bus.
Leo: In late 2012 to early 2013, we found it extremely hilarious to be doing exactly that.
Mann: Childish and hilarious.
Is it safe to say the medium has added a new dimension to your fanbase and your interaction with your audience?
Mann: I think so. You can communicate things on Twitter with a level of stupidity that you don’t want to trot out in real life.
Leo: After hitting a MySpace wall and a Facebook wall, Twitter was a great medium for communicating serious stuff in addition to talking to friends and keeping up with bands, but now I’m kind of hitting a Twitter wall.
Do you ever hit that Twitter comedy stopper where you tweet what you think is clearly a dry joke only to get avalanched with like 8,000 serious replies?
Leo: Oh, absolutely. I wasted way too much time this morning trying to figure out if the response to something I said last night was friendly-pedantic or just pedantic. I finally realized that it didn’t matter if it was friendly or not. I’ve already wasted an hour of my day. That’s the kind of thing that’s actually pushing me away from using Twitter in the general stream of consciousness.
Mann: Did he just misplace a comma? What happened?
Leo: I questioned the rhyme scheme of another song.
Well, you’re stepping into a minefield right there.
Leo: All I said was that a rhyme scheme was questionable, then some guy wrote back and said…actually, you know what? I’m gonna find the exact wording right now.
Aimee, is this what the next few months of touring together is going to look like for you? Ted obsessing over and hunting down tweets?
Mann: That’s probably 30 percent of touring. It’s either “Look at what this asshole said, I’m blocking him immediately” or “I’m starting a Twitter war with him.”
Leo: I found it! This person wrote back to me, “There’s a literary term for an almost rhyme, it’s slant rhyme. They’re legit.”
Mann: They’re not legit! They’re not fucking rhymes! Look, I have written songs where I’ve used words that were imperfect rhymes. Guess what? They’re not rhymes! It was the best I could do. You know what it is? It’s a failure of craft. It was close enough and it was the best I could do because I couldn’t spend a year on one song. That’s it. It’s a failure!
Leo: I’m gonna take a step back from that. I wouldn’t say it’s a failure. It’s a choice. I bend pronunciation all the time to make things rhyme. That doesn’t mean I don’t know it isn’t a rhyme.
Mann: Yeah, sometimes I’m bending reality to conform to my lack of talent.
Well, Aimee, in the process of writing lyrics together, has there ever been a time where you’ve had to call Ted out on something like rhyme schemes?
Mann [mock flustered stammering]: Uh…Uh…Why would I…Why would I ever…Uh?
Leo [laughs]: Oh, yeah!
Mann: We both strive to make the song as good as possible, and part of rubric to do this is to have the rhymes be perfect. A nice little thing happens in your brain when the rhyme is perfect. Stephen Sondheim has this great book called Finishing the Hat where he talks about…
Leo: Oh, here we go with the Sondheim again! Here we go with the Sondheim again!
Mann: You agree with me, though!
Leo: I do. I do.
Mann: One of the things he says is that when we’re rhyming lyrics, even when it’s imperfect, it calls attention to itself. You want to make it as clean and as clear as possible.
Leo: And over the process of writing, something that honestly I will say I learned from Aimee is that we’ll hit a point where we have to think of a better rhyme. And we bump up against that time and time again. I think in the past I looked at finding the rhyme as settling for less than the word that I wanted to use. But what I found out by working with Aimee is that oftentimes there’s actually a better word to use that’s also works better as a rhyme, but you have to let go of your impressions that you’re clinging to of what you think is your best idea, especially when you’re collaborating with someone. And to look at it not as a point to be won.
We did a lot of micro-editing of our songs to make sure that we really were using the words we wanted to use and were finding rhymes that really rhymed. And I think that was one of the most fun processes that I went through and we really did wind up finding better ways to say things.
The reason I brought up the process of writing lyrics is because in interviews you’re very vocal of how in awe you are of Aimee as a lyricist.
Leo: Well, here’s the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been slack as a lyricist. Not to toot my own horn, but I think one of the things that people appreciate is that I put a lot of time into lyrics, but at the same time, you have to accept that your first idea might not be your final idea and it might not be your best idea. It’s only through working with someone else where you can get that immediate feedback.
You guys are coming from these divergent musical backgrounds, where do your record collections intersect?
Leo: America? Bread?
Mann: Not America. Not even Bread!
Before you started to collaborate musically, you toured together in 2012. What was it about seeing each other play night after night that made you think that you could write songs with each other?
Mann: For me, it was hearing Ted accompany himself on the electric guitar. I thought his guitar playing was so interesting and so kind of all-inclusive. I really had the urge to play bass with him and insert myself with the bass.
I also feel like melodically, in his songwriting, he’s very interesting and lyrically, he’s very interesting. He has an incredible stage presence and there’s an enormous amount of energy. So in working with him I feel like I can harness some of that energy and a bit more of an aggressive approach.
I also feel like I have it in me. It doesn’t come out in my voice whatsoever, or in my songwriting whatsoever, but I relate to an anger and an angst that oozes into Ted’s writing that I can’t access myself.
Now that you’ve partnered with Ted, do you now have an avenue to let some of that anger and angst out?
Mann: Yeah, part of what I love about our partnering is that I can write something and hear him sing it and think, “Yeah! That’s what it’s supposed to sound like.”
Our voices are so different too and I’m hoping that keeps it interesting rather than just providing a contrast.
We’ve come to an interesting point when we play together that comes from really paying attention to another person. We angle our microphones towards each other so he can really lock in with me and I can really lock in with him.
To call back to what you said about Ted’s “all-inclusive” guitar sound. That really comes through on the record given the fact that you perform as a three piece, but you produce a sound that is so big, if that makes sense.
Mann: It does. He’s a very inventive guitar player. Even when he’s playing simply, he makes interesting choices. He’s melodic, but very interesting. He doesn’t rely on the kinds of riffing building blocks that other guitar soloists do.
Leo: I’m tempted to sit here and let Aimee keep saying nice stuff about me for awhile…’cause it’s rare! [Laughs]
In regards to what you were saying about the three-piece sounding big and what Aimee was saying about my guitar playing, I can say that honestly, I’m playing at a better, freer level because of what she brings to the table melodically and as a bass player. People might not know, or tend to forget, that throughout Til Tuesday and previous to that, Aimee was the bass player and she remains a pretty incredible and interesting bass player. It’s been really fun for me as a guitar player, I think both musically and in the level of comfort that we feel that we are friends, that I find myself playing a little bit more freely.
Now that the two of you have been writing together and collaborating for awhile, are there any tricks or techniques that you want to steal from each other to bring to your own songwriting?
Leo: Oh, yeah! Going back to what we were talking about with rhymes, I’ve learned a lot about lyric writing. That said, my priority is to actually keep writing with Aimee for awhile. I don’t know when I’m gonna have a chance to steal stuff and bring it back.
Mann: I really feel that two heads are better than one. I really enjoy writing with Ted. There’s a whole rhythmic vocabulary that he has that I don’t have that I feel that now I can access. I feel like I tend to get into a rut with my own stuff.
He has a harmonic sense that is very interesting and exciting and he goes to very sophisticated places that I don’t think would occur to me.
He’s the whole package, what can I say?