A Conversation with The Both's Aimee Mann & Ted Leo, Plus A Quick Chat with Dolly Parton

The following is probably the shortest interview I've ever done. But it gets to the heart of what I wanted to learn about this smart, warm and honest performer.
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A Conversation with The Both's Aimee Mann and Ted Leo

Mike Ragogna: Of course everybody's asked you this, but how did you guys decide to become The Both?

Ted Leo: Well we were on the road together, we were touring in the fall of 2012. I had a song that I had actually been writing with Aimee in mind, and luckily it happened to be a song that she responded to and approached me and asked if she could join me onstage playing it, which spared me the angst of asking her to join me on it. From that point on for the rest of the tour, our sets began cross-pollinating a little more. I was joining Aimee on a duet of hers and we started spending more and more time on stage together. It was just such a fun and energizing thing to play with her that when the tour ended and we had the conversation that people often do when these things happen, which is like, "Yeah, we should do something together sometime." It was more serious than the usual conversation and very quickly, we began kicking ideas back and forth and churning out some songs.

MR: What's the creative process for The Both. Is it pretty evenly balanced?

Aimee Mann: Well, more or less, it turns out to be even. A song has to get started somehow, so one or the other of us will come up iwth an initial idea and sometimes that can just be a riff or a chord progression or it could be a whole verse and a chorus and then person A hands it off to person B to come up with th enext section. There's a lot of talking back and forth about, "What did you intend with this first verse? Where would you like it to go? What's the narrative, or do we want to keep a narrative?" I would say one or two songs are a little more impressionistic than that but in general we do kind of have conversations about what comes next and we make sure there's not too much time in the song before the other person chimes in with either a harmony or takes over the lead vocal. In general we tend to sing the verse that we wrote. There's usually a lot of back and forth.

MR: And it seems like a pretty even distribution of intellegence and pop through this project. Some of my favorite lines on this project is from "You Can't Help Me Now." "Any time you establish a need to atone, you're prone down the tracks you map on the seams of your own broken bones." Wow. The visual and intelligence behind it really speaks a lot about your talents. With a lot of collaborations, I think it can be very hard to get to that point where you have a deep level of communication because you're usually compromising within a collaboration.

TL: I appreciate you saying that. What you said at the end there is kind of crucial to how we work. The compromises that we arrive at, we make a very conscious decidion to now have it be designed by committee. It's not the kind of thing where edges get whittled away until it's sort of blandly acceptable to either or both of us. We really kind of challnge ourselves to get to a point with every line or even specific words within lines where we're actively excited about what we've come up with and we're not just settling for something. If one or the other of us doesn't understand what the person is saying or has a challenge to it or thinks they might have a better idea, we really made an effort to remove our egos from the process and look at each song as a really fun collaborative puzzle to be solved and made the besat that we can make it as opposed to allowing any kind of clinging or ego-driven hurt to impede the process.

MR: Speaking of fun, was the song "Milwaukee" truly inspired by the Fonz?

AM: Yeah, in part. That was a song that I started. It was the second song we wrote together and I started it with the idea of, "I'm going to write a real Ted Leo song." What does that translate into? A fast shuffle beat and a lot of chords. So to have placeholder lyrics I started writing about this day that we were hanging out in Milwaukee. It was probably a show pretty early on in the tour and we were walking along the Milwaukee River Walk and stumbled upon the Bronze Fonz. The Bronze Fonz is pretty ridiculous for a lot of reasons. We have since become obsessed with it and have tried to analyze all the reasons we think it's ridiculous, but for our purposes now we don't have to go into every reason, but just to know that as a gag I was writing about this walk and the Fonz and this other bronze duck and it was really windy. I was just putting in these details of this time when we were hanging around, but then as we were both working on it we kind of felt like, "I'm sort of into this. I'm into this very Milwaukee-specific referedce." I do remember that show very well, it was the first show that I got to see Ted's set all the way through and it was the first show where I thought, "I can really see how the two of us could have a musical collaboration," I could see what it would sound like. This song, "The Gambler" was very key to that. But that was the first time I saw Ted's show all the way through and started to think that we should do something together.

TL: Lyrically regarding you bringing up "fun," I think we both attempt to actually kind of write about something germaine to human nature or something relatively serious when we're writing. I think it's kind ofrare in both of our catalogs to have something like "Milwaukee" which, while it kind of branches into other places it is essentially our origin story song. That's part of what makes it so fun for me. I rarely write or sing about something like that. It reminds me of the fun amid which our project was created and then it adds a change of pace from our normal dark concerns. It remains fun to play and sing.

MR: You mentioned writing about human nature, and to that, one of my favorite songs lyrically on the album is "The Inevitable Shove." How did that come about?

AM: That was started by Ted. Ted sent me this piano figure that I really liked because it is a completely different thing. It's actually not un-showtune-like, which is actually weirdly another thing we share, we both really like musical theatre. It has a little bit of a Godspell feel, in the best way possible. I don't want to offend you, Ted.

TL: No, no, I take that as a compliment. I'm happy to get onboard the Godspell train. Lyrically it's just about things that we were both going through in our lives, other interpersonal issues and coming to terms with the fact sometimes that you can't control what other people are going to think or do even in regards to yourself and you sometimes have to let go of your attempt to manipulate and control situations and let people do what they're going to do and continue on your own path.

MR: One that's sort of a foil to that is "Volunteers Of America."

TL: It is sort of flipside to that. Do you want to pick that up, Aimee?

AM: "Volunteers...," that's a song that you started musically, I think. I wrote the chorus to it.

TL: You wrote one of the verses, too.

AM: Right, and I think I started the theme of a vague idea of the line between being helpful and of service to people and being co-dependent and a martyr and where the lines in that quadrant get drawn and how being brought up in catholocism contributes to that with the idea of faith versus work, although I'm not a catholic. That's sort of another attempt for me to try to crawl into Ted's brain and write from his point of view.

TL: Lord knows my lapsed Catholocism gets sprayed all over the page sometimes.

AM: But it's in you, and it never gets out.

MR: While we're on that subject, what's in the news that's got your interest?

TL: Oh God, yeah. For example, I'm most recently mortified at the situation with HSBC getting off the hook for laundering all of that Columbian drug money while there are people getting busted on the streets with a small amount of cocaine or a joint or something in a state where it's not yet legal, or serving jail time. Stop me if I'm going too far into the weeds here, but it's an example of going back to Eric Holder's comment when he was Assistant Attorney General about going easy on corporate fines because of how it might affect people who need jobs if these companies go under, it's another example of the whole idea of "Too big to fail" and the benefits of being wealthy. You can very easily fine people involved in the company without bankrupting the entire corporation. This is just yesterday, but this goes on.

AM: I love that he's really hooked you in!

MR: [laughs] And we haven't even talked about the Nevada rancher yet.

TL: I'm mad! But I'm always mad about something.

AM: I think that what's always most interesting is to see how people's personal issues impact politics and public policy and just as a broad example to see how the need to be right about things like denying climate change or people's need to believe that that's not possible or people confusing a vague religious belief with a political belief with a sense of anger and irritation at what they perceive to be the other side, well literally their desire and desperation and need to be right is literally leading the planet into being completely destroyed. It's just amazing. I have a friend who says, "Yeah, you're right. Dead right. They'll put that on your grave stone." "I was right."

MR: It's sad how so many people always vote against their best interests as well.

TL: I actually feel that there's a willful disregard for accepting or allowing themselves to believe facts that are often presented to them that are based in--as Aimee was saying--a certain indignation, a certain need to feel agrieved or to feel that they're the ones being put upon. It's almost like a psychological problem that presents one from accepting facts that don't allow them to be the agrieved party in any situation.

AM: I think the other factor is there's this real mistrust of science and facts and a feeling of just the "other," that somehow science and facts are the province of some undefined elite and "In defiance, I'm not going to believe what the elite is telling me," whether it's correct or not. People really have a problem--everyone has a f**king problem with thinking a feeling is a fact. They have a feeling about it, they're convinced about it, and it's a f**king fact. No one's exempt from that, intelligent people aren't exempt from that, educated people aren't exempt from that, everybody has it and that's why for me self awareness and self knowledge is the most important thing in that area. I'm always interested in that angle because I feel like it impacts everything. It also saves me from having to learn actual facts because I'm too dumb to remember them.

MR: [laughs] What advice do you have for new artists?

AM: Oh my God, Ted, you get it.

TL: Do something else.

MR: [laughs]

AM: I don't know what somebody would do if they were just starting out. Honestly? Be good. Care. Give a s**t. Give a s**t about making good music because that will always resonate to other people who care. If all you care about is being famous, there's no advice for you. I don't know what to say. There are a million ways to become famous, none of them savory. It's not that hard to become a notorious person, but caring about what you do will always resonate with you on some level.

TL: I could not have said that better.

MR: Wait Ted, it's your turn!

TL: [laughs] I will just add that, for example, we didn't set out doing this project with anything in mind other than crafting something that was really enjoyable for us to do and that we wanted to put a lot of work into making good. Whatever happens with that happens with it. Lord knows the music business is incredibly difficult these days. But never forget that whether you wind up making a living off of it or not, you're making art and art is important in people's lives. Like Aimee said, if you care about what you're doing it's going to reonate with somebody.

MR: Nice, beautiful. Aimee, Charmer was your last release, and Ted, you had The Brutalist Bricks. Is The Both the next step from those projects in your musical evolution? Is The Both the next part of the conversation?

TL: It feels like that for me. I wouldn't have said that, going into it, because it feels like at the time I was still thinking about what was going to be happening with my own next "solo" project, but it really does feel like that for me now. It feels like this is the next part of the conversation. If I can speak for you for a second, Aimee, I think we both agree that we're going to certainly keep this going for as long as we can.

AM: Agreed.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne


On May 13th, Dolly Parton's new album Blue Smoke will be released, it covering a wide range of styles from gospel to mountain to pop, taking on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," the witty "Lover Du Jour," and eye-poppers like Bon Jovi's "Lay Your Hands On Me" and literally a killer version of the classic "Banks Of The Ohio." Album guests include Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, and on April 27th, Dolly will be appearing on QVC for a pre-sale of the album. The following is probably the shortest interview I've ever done, the result of there being like twenty other participants from Reuters to health and music zines and beyond. But it gets to the heart of what I wanted to learn about this smart, warm and honest performer.

A Tiny But Lovely Q&A with Dolly Parton

Mike Ragogna: Dolly, you've had an amazing recording and music history. When you look back at young Dolly Parton, what would you tell her?

Dolly Parton: [laughs] Well, I would tell her I'm pretty proud of her, because when you get older, you really reflect and you really think so many things. One of the things I think about is just how fortunate that I have been to have been able to actually see my dreams come true, because I know so many people that can't say that. I know so many people that are far more talented than me and that have worked just as hard and came to town the same time I did and never really made it big. So you wonder, and you kind of go back to that Kris Kristofferson song, "Why Me Lord?" You just really think about all those things. But more than anything, I just think that little girl who moved here back in '64 to try to make those dreams come true and now here I am at sixty-eight years old and so many of them have come true. But what's so funny is I still feel like that little girl. I'm still dreaming, dreaming big. I've still got new dreams to dream, new dreams I hope to come true, so I just love the music, I just love to write, I love to perform and I hope to be doing this until I keel over dead in about thirty years.

MR: [laughs] Dolly, I have to ask you my traditional question. What is your advice for new artists?

DP: Well as I've often said, I try not to give advice, I just try to pass on some information. But I think it's true with anything, like that old saying, "To thine own self be true," I think there's really so much to that, that people know what they really want, they know what their strength and their talent really is and I think you need to be willing to sacrifice that if you have to. You've got to protect it, you've got to fight for it and if you really are that good and you really have that much faith in it, if you really stay in it long enough changes are it will happen and if it don't I've always said, if you're really dreaming an impossible dream, you should know that it's okay to change dreams in the middle of a stream. If it's something that's not going to happen you can still rework it and apply what you've learned from the other stuff to a new dream.

MR: These are very sweet answers, thank you so much.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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