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Aimee Mann, Billy Collins dish on each other


Aimee Mann and Billy Collins first met at the White House.

She, the tall, blond singer of literary proportion and often tragic tone, still laughs at the thought: "We met at the White House, which is a sentence I may never utter again."

He, the poet of everyday life and the wondrous world around us, would like a revision: "I'd like to say we met at White Castle having a burger one night, but we actually met at the White House, which sounds like a big residential name-drop."

Hosted by President Barack Obama in 2011, the salon tribute to American poetry landed all over the map: Steve Martin was there with his banjo, Common with his street rhymes and Alison Knowles with her Fluxus performance art.

But somehow the two to really hit it off were the 53-year-old L.A. singer and the 73-year-old East Coast poet.

Apropos for the setting, Mann sang "Save Me," one of the songs she's most famous for, along with "Voices Carry," the 1980s hit from 'Til Tuesday, the band in which she sang.

Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, made the Obamas laugh with "Lanyard," a deceptively simple poem about much more than braiding plastic strands at summer camp.

As performers are wont to do, they talked about performing together one day. But, unlike most performers, they actually meant it.

A few phone calls later and now they're embarking on an unlikely three-date mini-tour up the coast from Malibu to Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa.

Before they share a stage at the Wells Fargo Center tonight, we asked each one to talk about the other.

<b>Billy Collins on Aimee Mann: 'Edgy and casual'</b>

<i>Q: What was your first impression of Aimee Mann?</i>

Billy Collins: Well, she's very pretty. I'm afraid that's my first male impression. But brushing that aside, I like how she fits her music. Her music feels both edgy and casual. I like the work she does with minimal instrumentation, where her voice is in the foreground. It's a very winning voice, very seductive and intense. And at the same time, it's very relaxed.

<i>I like that she sang "Save Me" at the White House that day.</i>

Save us all. Save me and everybody else.

<i>Do you go all the way back to the 1980s 'Til Tuesday music in her catalog?</i>

No. I learned about her within the last four or five years. I would listen to her on music feeds like Pandora.

<i>How did this tour come to be?</i>

We came up with this idea of collaborating and it seemed like a good excuse to spend some time with her, in a selfish way. And it also seemed like a jumping into the unknown.

<i>Will the two of you perform together on stage?</i>

Well, we're not sure yet. It's clear that I'll do what I do best, which is reading poems, and she'll do what she does best, which is singing. But I think there will be some back and forth. She has a song, "Voices Carry," and I have a poem called "Carry," which is a love poem, which uses the same metaphor about voices carrying over water. The poem starts, "I want to carry you and for you to carry me the way voices are said to carry over water." So I think in these three performances we'll make discoveries along the way that fit together.

<i>How do you prepare?</i>

Well, we've had some exchanges, but I don't think either of us likes to overthink something like this. One aspect of it that will be new to both of us will be having the conversation. I'm not sure when that's going to happen, but we're going to sit down and talk about our creative process and I think we both want to be surprised by what the other one says. My fantasy would be we both get up and harmonize for an hour — she gives me a tambourine and I harmonize like Phil Everly.

<i>So you've got pipes?</i>

I've got a pipe.

<b>Aimee Mann on Billy Collins: 'A dapper gentleman'</b>

<i>Q: Before you met, were you aware of Billy Collins' poetry?</i>

Aimee Mann: Very vaguely. I think like a lot of people, I always thought you had to be a real egghead to read poetry. I don't know what I was thinking.

<i>What was your first impression of him?</i>

A very dapper-looking gentleman. He had a touch of "sitting on the veranda." But I thought what he had to say about mastering form before you really become concerned about having your own particular voice — I thought that was really interesting and I really wanted to hear more of that. So when someone suggested that we do shows together I thought this would be an opportunity to hear him expound on those ideas.

<i>How do you imagine the night unfolding?</i>

I think we'll read some poems, play some music, do a little chatting, possibly deconstruct a couple of things during the conversation, maybe take some questions and then play more music and read more poems. I think to a certain extent we'll have to play it by ear because it's such an unusual setup.

<i>He described it as jumping off into the unknown. Is there a risk to this?</i>

Yeah, when you plan your own show you pretty much know what you're getting into. This is not only a show with somebody else but a show with a totally different discipline and different approach. But I feel like his vibe is so nice and we have enough things we've talked about that we can probably pass the ball back and forth pretty gracefully.

<i>Are you one of those people who would rather not over-prepare for a night like this?</i>

No. I don't have that much confidence in my ability to wing it, so I have thought about things, like if we're talking about process, things I would want to say.

<i>Why do you think people are so interested in the creative process?</i>

I don't know, but one of the ways I actually prepared for this is to go back to the introduction in Stephen Sondheim's book "Finishing the Hat," because as a great lyricist and also overall cranky, opinionated person he really says all the things I think and feel about lyric writing. So anything I say will be 98 percent quotes from him.

<i>(John Beck, director of "The Monks of Vina," writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Reach him at 280-8014 or john@beckmediaproductions.com.)</i>