Ted Leo & Aimee Mann Q&A: On The Both, Learning To Collaborate and Their Musical Theater Future

Ted Leo and Aimee Mann are two artists unaccustomed to sharing the marquee, but that's all changed now with the release of their collaborative album as The Both, a synthesis and meeting-in-the-middle of Leo and Mann's sonic signatures. The record that arose is a warm, intimate and often exuberant piece of work that fans of either (or, ahem, both) will shine to.

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We spoke to Mann and Leo on Easter Sunday, as their record was preparing to debut on the Billboard 200 chart this week at No. 59.

Billboard: Did you guys foresee ending up being on the Billboard 200 chart with this record?

Mann: What? No. Wait a minute -- Are we?

Leo: Are we? What are we, like  No. 198 in the Top 200?

Mann: Oh my god.

Leo: We didn't know about this, so the answer to your question is no. In all honesty, there's no way these days to predict how a record is going to sell right out of the box. So I certainly don't ever expect to be on any chart anywhere.

How long was the idea of a joint record brewing in your heads?

Leo: It happened pretty quickly. We toured together for like a month in the Fall of 2012, and just over the course of that trip we began to formulate the idea and we started writing in December of 2012. And by the Spring had decided to do an EP, but over the process of writing and recording those first five songs, I think we both felt so good about what was happening between us that we felt like we should carry it further and make an LP and have the collaboration be more of an ongoing concern. So we pushed it through the summer and finished the record at the beginning of August and here we are!

How close was the collaboration? With some bands, each member will work with the singer individually and cobble it together, or were you doing more of a line-by-line breakdown?

Leo: We were. I mean, it carried a little bit; sometimes it's a verse and chorus and sometimes it was actually, surgically -- within each line -- finding the right words together.

Mann: There are some songs where each person has their verse, the chorus may be written by one person the bridge written by the other, but there are definitely songs where we would go over line-by-line or just ask each other questions about things, sort of focus it in, focus the narrative.

Leo: Even when we wrote in separate blocks and brought those blocks to the table, we would then go through an editing process together where we really picked it apart.

You both are used to doing whatever you want artistically. Was the collaboration difficult at first?

Mann: I thought it was really fun and satisfying, I have to say. First of all, there's something about working with another person that's very inspiring, you have another person's whole sensibility and realm of talents to utilize. To see how somebody else works is really re-energizing and instructive, and also, for me, when I write, there's usually an initial chunk, maybe a verse, maybe a verse and chorus, and then there's a bit of a lull where you kind of realize 'Alright ,I gotta settle down into the second verse, what exactly do I want to say, where am I going?' And that's when the craftsmanship of it takes over more than just the pure inspiration, and at that point I can just send it off to Ted and say 'You come up with something' and he gets to work off of pure inspiration. And we go over it together to clean it up, or to tighten it up if it needs tightening up. But it's more fun and its faster working with another person because you don't have to travel on the closed circuit of your own brain.

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Leo: I'll say, in all humility, that working with Aimee in this kind of close collaboration was, initially, slightly bumpy for me. And by initially, I mean literally the very first back-and-forth that we had. What I learned quickly was that we are close enough friends that we were able to remove the preciousness of ego from the process and really enjoy the challenging and the bolstering. The actual process of writing with someone in a way that I've never been able to connect with before.

I can imagine that, when you're writing alone, there's a lot of self-doubt involved, and that it'd be useful to have someone there to say, "No, that really is good."

Mann: Yeah.

Leo: Yeah. Trusting in your partner when they might have a question, and not clinging to what you've got down as the be-all and end-all, and accepting that you've chosen to work with this person for a reason -- you like their ideas. So if they have a different idea than you then let's get into it, you know? Let's figure it out.

The record itself sounds like a meeting in the middle between you two, and I'm wondering how the live shows came together with that in mind.

Mann: Ted was opening for me and he was playing solo electric, and I think the idea for this project kind of had the live element in mind from the very beginning, because that was one of the things that was a real attractant, what an interesting and full sound he got just playing guitar, just his voice and the guitar. There was a song that he was playing that I asked to sit in on bass and background vocals with, so us playing together was there from the beginning. So it was a pretty simple matter adding drums. It's definitely not a studio project that we're struggling to translate to live, it was always conceived as a power trio where I would be the bass player.

That's a good segue to my next question -- who wrote the treatment to your video for "Milwaukee"?

Leo: Our friend Daniel Ralston, who directed it. The whole "Ed Leo" idea -- it's a nice thing, the way this video came about. Aimee and I have been friends for a while, but we actually did deepen the 'idiocy' part of our relationship over Twitter in the last couple of years. There was this Twitter thing that happened when someone misspelled my name as 'Ed' instead of Ted, and this guy Daniel ran with it on Twitter, hashtag #EdLeo, imagining what the character of Ed Leo would be like. Then last year he actually began directing music videos and so he approached us with this idea and it seemed kinda perfect.

Mann: I always like any opportunity to see Ted in a wig. [Laughs]

And a Rush vest.

Leo: It's now happened more than once with you, actually.

Mann: Yeah, at least one other time in videos of mine.

Well, I hope Ed's okay.

Leo: Yeah I haven't heard from him.

I know you're just getting started with this, but I'm wondering if you've thought of expanding the collaboration at all.

Mann: Yeah! I actually want Ted and I to write a musical together. I think one of the hidden, odd things we have in common is a love of musical theater, and we actually have an idea -- you know, a very vague idea -- for a story. We haven't started writing music for it because obviously we're going to be pretty busy with this, but that's something I want to take a stab at in the next couple years.

That sounds like it would be really fun.

Mann: I tell ya, I think Ted is going to be the great, undiscovered musical theater gem.

Leo: [Laughs] That might be the best compliment anyone's ever given me.