Aimee Mann, Ted Leo combine their divergent talents in new duo project
May 1, 2014 12:00 AM
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
She's known for her cool, aloof delivery and the words "hush, hush" and he runs hot as a onetime hardcore punk with a blazing electric guitar. Aimee Mann and Ted Leo are something of a mismatch for a tour let alone a collaboration that goes by The Both.
The project, which has resulted in a newly released self-titled album, started with a tour they launched in 2012.
Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.
When: 8 p.m. Monday.
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"I feel like I was the first one who felt like we should write some songs together," she says in a dual phone interview. "My initial feeling that it could be a thing was from listening to Ted play opening my shows and hearing what an interesting and full sound he got just playing electric guitar. My first thought was, how can I get in on that full sound?"
Ms. Mann had a band history, first with Boston art-punks The Young Snakes in the early '80s before moving on to lead New Wave band Til Tuesday with the hit "Voices Carry." Her acclaimed solo career, launched in 1993, picked up in 1999 with the song "Save Me," from the "Magnolia" soundtrack, earning both Grammy and Oscar nominations.
That was around the time that her new partner was hitting the underground with his most successful venture punk/power-pop band Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
As she noted, he was going solo on that 2012 tour.
"I asked him if I could play bass on a new song of his, 'The Gambler,' and that song really started to lock into my brain as 'This is what it would sound like if the two of us wrote songs,' " she says.
"The secret background history to that," he adds, "is that I was already thinking about that because I had actually begun writing that song with Aimee in mind. I came up with a chorus before the rest of it and the first thing that popped into my head was 'I betcha Aimee would dig this song. I should ask her if she would be interested in joining me on it,' and she beat me to it."
When that song gelled and they moved on to co-write "You Can't Help Me Now," she wrote a verse and chorus and threw it his way. His return verse was greeted, he says, by "a lot" of critical notes.
"I've never collaborated, at least not in many years, at this really deep level of writing, and certainly not with someone who I admire and respect both craft-wise and personally as much as Aimee. So there was an initial hurtle for me to get over in figuring out why getting notes back on a verse that I wrote that was making me feel weird," he says. "Identifying that feeling, understanding that it was just ego and then learning how to put that aside and then work with this person to create something better, that was one of the most important moments of my creative life, probably. Because I feel like from then on, the whole thing really took off and we were able to really take ideas back and forth without fear of ego inserting itself and if it did, we'd become good enough friends that we could talk ourselves through it."
"The Gambler" became the opening track on the debut that was recorded last year in Los Angeles with Ryan Freeland and Mann band member/producer Paul Bryan. Their voices blend beautifully on an album that finds a middle ground between his brash power-pop and her cool indie-folk approach.
"We discussed many times sort of jokingly, 'Could we be the next John Doe and Exene [Cervenka]?' or something like that," he says.
"Wait a minute, I thought it was Buckingham Nicks," she says dryly.
"Or Captain and Tennille," he says, making them both laugh.
They decided to call it The Both rather than Ted and Aimee or Mann and Leo after they caught themselves tweeting about their tour with "#Both."
"We were on the road, losing our minds somewhere in the middle of Europe in the dead of winter, and it seemed very funny to us at the time to have our name have a hashtag because we had been going crazy on Twitter about the thing," he says. "I got real attached visually to the idea of having the hashtag in front of the name, but, lucky, we came to our senses and said, 'That's going to get old in about a second,' and a week later there was that Kanye song with hashtags in it, so we're like 'OK, we'll drop that.' "
On the road now, she's happy to be playing bass again and he's taking on a few new challenges to match the sound they got in the studio.
"The record is largely a three-piece record, but there are a few overdubs here and there, a few bells and whistles," he says. "Some old Chamberlin strings or like mellotron flute have become important parts of the songs to me. So I've figured out a way to replicate those with a little Modeling keyboard on stage and that's something I've never done live before."
As you might guess, Mr. Leo and Ms. Mann have different fan bases, and there was no telling how they would react, but The Both are happy with the way the project has been received.
"People seem to really like it," she says. "I was sort of worried my fans would be disappointed because it was not the usual, or vice versa. You never know what to expect, and honestly you can't think about it."
"The shows that we've played have been super fun and the crowds have been really fantastic," he says. "While obviously there are people there who want to hear one or two of our own songs" -- which they are doing -- "it's also really great with the record having been for two weeks or whatever, to have people actually knowing the songs from the record.
"I was a little afraid," she says, "that people would think it's two solo people and they would be mad that we weren't playing more of our own stuff, but that doesn't seem to be the case."
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