The songs on Aimee Mann's new album didn't struggle to get out of her head. They seemed to tumble out at a speed that shocked even their owner.
“There was just a sense of urgency and I’m not really sure why it was. There was like a literal fever. There were songs that I wrote in a day, which is not at all my thing,” she says. "Once I start really concentrating on it, it just kind of became my whole life for a while.”
It became “Queens of the Summer Hotel,” 15 songs created for a still-to-happen stage adaptation of the novel “Girl, Interrupted,” Susannah Kaysen’s memoir about her psychiatric hospitalization in the late 1960s. The album comes out Nov. 5 via Mann's SuperEgo Records.
“It’s very fun to take a piece of prose and think about how you can turn it into a song and think about what the mood of that needs to be and try to picture it as it would appear on the stage,” Mann says.
While the show's path to the stage is still up in the air, the songs it inspired have Mann's signature sardonic humor, wry lyrics, moody melodies and powerful emotional resonance. How they get used on stage doesn't seem to bother the songwriter.
“I don’t know what it will look like. It may just be more like a play with some music. That’s kind of up to them, but because I’d had so many songs, I was like, 'Well, now I feel like I have to record them.’”
“Girl, Interrupted” is about the nearly two years Kaysen spent confined in McLean Hospital, an upscale psychiatric institution in Massachusetts. The bestselling book, published in 1993, contains vivid portraits of fellow patients and helped push the discussion about how America treats mental illness. A film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie followed.
Mann, who first gained fame fronting ’Til Tuesday and earned an Oscar nod for her work on the “Magnolia” soundtrack, started with the book, marking passages she thought would make interesting songs or scenes that could conceivably translate into musical moments.
“My idea was to have each character have a song — sort of like 'A Chorus Line' — where each character talks about their own relationship to the overarching theme,” Mann says.
So “In Mexico” is a portrait of a character in the book who lived in Mexico and shot speed. “Burn It Out” is about a character who set herself on fire. A mention in the book that the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell had also been treated at the same psychiatric hospital prompted the song “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.”
Mann titled the album “Queens of the Summer Hotel” so it could stand alone from whatever final ”Girl, Interrupted" cast album emerged. She got the name from a glib comment from the poet Anne Sexton, who also was treated at McLean Hospital. Sexton called it “a summer hotel.”
Mann and her frequent collaborator, producer, arranger and songwriter Paul Bryan, grounded the sound in the pre-hippie 1960s with the flavor of classical music running throughout the orchestration, nods to Chopin and Mozart.
Bryan helped give the album almost visual cues, like adding maniacal strings to “Give Me Fifteen,” a song sung by a narcistic, misogynist doctor. For “At the Frick Museum,” he arranged the strings to sound like someone tiptoeing through an empty museum.
“It’s not just a collection of songs loosely based around an idea. They’re very specific for characters and things that are happening temporally in the play,” he says.
So well thought-out is the album that there are two small interludes — “Check” and its reprise — that mimic the sound of nurses doing repetitive rounds, checking in on the patients. “As an arranger, it was really fun to hang clothes on these songs,” he says.
Mann called the process an “interesting puzzle” and a challenge. "I found that really exciting. I mean, obviously, the subject matter is something I’m familiar with and I have been interested in for a long time.”
Indeed, the album comes four years after her last, “Mental Illness,” which won the Grammy for best folk album. She has often talked of her struggles with depression and anxiety, in part to explode any stigma.
“I think the American attitude is that if you have a problem, you should be able to solve it by yourself, that to admit that you have a problem is to be weak. It’s all this ridiculous rugged individualism,” she says. “But I do think that’s relaxing a little bit, and people are starting to take these things more seriously.”
One of the new album's most powerful songs is “Suicide Is Murder,” a monologue the narrator has about her own suicide attempt. It starts a little flippantly, calling the act "pre-meditated, rehearsed tragedy” before turning serious: “Beware ’cause anyone who knew you/Will be cursed and part of them will also die/There’s no end to the asking of the question/Why?”
“I’m close to people who committed suicide, and it’s really devastating and in a way that very few things are,” she says. “It's kind of reminding the listener of the terrible toll they’re going to take on the survivors.”