When Ted Leo and Aimee Mann toured together in 2012, Mann discovered she was particularly fond of Leo's tune "The Gambler," a song Leo wrote despite the fact that its title was the same as a famous song by Kenny Rogers. Mann convinced him to go for it, especially since, as she jokes, a "clerical error" could mean huge royalties. So Mann approached Leo about sitting in during his set and singing it with him. He readily agreed.
"The punch line is that I had written that with Aimee in mind," Leo says in a joint phone interview with Mann. "I kind of had the chorus before anything else. It had an Aimee groove, and I wondered if she would be into it. I thought I should reach out to her. As fate would have it, I didn't have to risk embarrassment about it by bringing it up on tour and asking her if she would sing it with me because she asked me about it first."
"You wrote it as bait, huh?" Mann responds. "That was like the worm you put on a hook."
Though Leo comes from more an indie rock and punk background and Mann is a straight-up singer-songwriter, the two discovered they had so much in common that they decided to form a band and cut an album. Dubbed the Both, the band has just issued its self-titled debut, a collection of spunky power-pop tunes that features jagged guitar riffs and harmony vocals. They recorded it in Los Angeles with Ryan Freeland; Paul Bryan, Mann's longtime friend and band member, handled production.
"We kind of built up to it," says Mann when asked about how the two decided to form a band and hit the recording studio. "It was first going to be an EP. Once we started recording, that's when we realized it would be a real thing. If we wanted to tour, it had to be a record. We just enjoyed being in a band together. It felt like a band immediately and once we started playing with a drummer, it really felt like a band."
Leo says the two initially went through a series of phases.
"Phase 1 was how much we enjoyed playing with each other the first time we toured together," he says. "Phase 2 became, 'Let's try some writing.' That quickly became Phase 3. We had a batch of songs we could make an EP with. We realized it was something that deserved more than a one-off EP and we built it into a full album and real band."
A few adjustments were in order as the two have such different singing styles. While Leo doesn't exactly scream, his voice does have a bit more volume. And Mann tends to remain in the same register; she speaks as much as she sings.
"I feel like I sing better with Aimee," says Leo. "Her voice is something that I admire. We lock in and sync very well together, but that won't work as well if I push my vocals too hard and they end up pitchy. When we are trying to lock in so tightly, that over-reaching would be a problem. Singing with Aimee has helped me to figure out how to hit the spot that I want to be at."
Mann takes the compliment but insists Leo is the better singer.
"Ted's pitch is better," she says. "His tone is more consistent. His range is better. I have a range of about three notes. I sing a lot of stuff that's higher than usual for me. There's an aspect where I feel like I'm petering out of my range when I'm singing harmony. I'm also not used to singing harmonies. It's fun to work on something and improve on it and feel like you're getting better at it. It's pushed me to sing in different ranges and sing in a way I don't normally. I like our voices together. I like it when we sing in unison and I didn't think I would."
A few musical adjustments had to be made as well.
"I cause myself problems in trying to be the sole engine behind the whole project and driving too hard to the point that it's teetering on collapse," Leo says of being a bandleader. "That's become a character of what I do, but trying to lock in with Aimee has helped me get a handle on that. It has freed me up to play a little better and a little looser because I'm not pushing so hard."
Formerly of the alt-rock act Til Tuesday, Mann went solo in 1993 and often tours as a solo act, so playing bass instead of guitar required an adjustment.
"I haven't played bass with any regularity in a long time but that didn't take long to adjust to," she says. "It was nice to get back into it. The times when we played Ted's solo songs, I have to say, were literally too fast for me. We played his song 'A Bottle of Buckie' and I had to practice it so many times to work up to the tempo."
No doubt the kinks will be worked out by the time the group comes to Cleveland, one of many stops on a short tour. The band will play most of the material on The Both and has a few covers planned as well. In addition, songs from Leo and Mann's catalog will find their way into the set. They've continued to write new material in the wake of the album's release, so some of that material might be ready for the live shows as well.
"[The show] would be a bit of a chintzy set if we left it at [songs from the album], so we'll pad it with our own songs and a cover or two," says Leo. "We also have some new songs that we've written and if we get them together in time, we'll include them in the set."
Mann says the band will rock a bit harder than you might expect.
"We'll be a hearty three-piece," she says. "Ted will play a little keyboard, but it's pretty much a power trio."
The Both with Nick Diamonds 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 6, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20, beachlandballroom.com.