Copyright 1996 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
February 4, 1996, Sunday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Page 6; Calendar Desk
LENGTH: 1454 words
HEADLINE: POP MUSIC;
SPOILING FOR A FIGHT;
AIMEE MANN IS A TOUGH CUSTOMER DISGUISED AS A NEW-POP CHANTEUSE. CUT HER OFF IN THE GROCERY LINE AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
BYLINE: By Lorraine Ali, Lorraine Ali writes about pop music for
Though it's part of her job as a professional musician, Aimee Mann isn't crazy about having her picture taken.
"The music is the easy part. It's the photo sessions that are hard," says the singer-songwriter, whose second solo album will be released on Tuesday. "See, I actually have the problem ancient tribes have -- that a picture steals your soul. It's like, 'Don't you know? I'm in the music business, there's not much of my soul left to go around!'
"I was doing this photo shoot, and the art director was talking to the photographer. She said, 'I want you to try and get some shots of Aimee smiling. Do you think that's possible?' The photographer replied, 'I don't know -- is she bitter?' " Mann smirks. "The answer, of course, is yes."
A decade of hard knocks has honed Mann's ornery state. After delivering the 1984 hit "Voices Carry" with her band 'Til Tuesday, the Virginia native bounced from fame to obscurity, drifted in legal limbo and went crashing down with a failed record label. Along the way, she made the difficult transition from pop sensation to respected artist.
Now, after a three-year absence following her critically acclaimed solo debut, "Whatever," Mann is back with a new album, "I'm With Stupid," and a monthlong U.S. tour that includes shows Feb. 22 at the Roxy and Feb. 23 at the Galaxy Theatre.
Just as the album goes straight for the jugular, there's a new sense of confidence under Mann's old sarcasm.
"I don't feel vulnerable about putting my music out there because now I feel totally in charge of it," says Mann, 35, during an interview at the West Hollywood offices of Geffen Records. Wearing faded Levi's, clunky shoes and round, wire-rimmed glasses, the lanky singer sizes up the past few years in a series of introspective observations and dry witticisms.
Much of Mann's cynicism stems from a long game of record-label roulette. 'Til Tuesday was dropped by Epic Records after its third album, 1988's "Everything's Different," failed to sell. The company then tried to fuel Mann's solo career by teaming her with such hit-machine songwriters as Diane Warren and Desmond Child.
Mann demurred, but was tied up by her Epic contract for three years. In 1993 she finally released her solo debut on Imago Records, a new label that promptly went bust.
"You do find yourself dealing with people who absolutely don't mean what they say, and they know they are lying to you," Mann observes. "It's like wholesale disappointment. You just think, 'Oh my God, can I not trust anyone?' "
Despite her disappointments, the songs on "I'm With Stupid" convey feelings of frustration and confidence rather than bitterness. The record is musically rawer than her last album -- a turn that the avid Beatles and Kinks fan attributes in part to newer influences such as avant-popster Beck and the queen of blunt-rock Liz Phair.
Songs such as "It's All Over Now" continue an ongoing theme in Mann's life and work -- her struggle for independence.
"I think that comes from allowing yourself to be controlled," she says. "Someone offers a criticism, and you go crazy trying to correct it. You knock yourself out trying to appease. Then you start to realize that other people aren't always right. Then you start to resent it. Now I'm at the point where I've gone so overboard that I'm always ready to fight."
Mann, who often jokes about her increasing aggressiveness, gives an example of just how much she's changed over the years.
"It's like when you're standing in line at the market, and there's a guy who keeps trying to creep up ahead of you. Before, I would just put up with it, then feel crummy about not saying anything. A few years later, I would maybe get up enough courage to say something. Now I'm to the point where if he steps in front of me, he will be killed.
"The amount of will it takes to say, 'Excuse me, I was here first,' is equivalent to the amount of will it takes to slug him." Mann pauses, then grins. "I'm having a little problem balancing things here. Can you tell?"
Aimee Mann grew up in Richmond, Va., with her divorced father and her older brother. She was heavily influenced by her father, an advertising agent who dabbled at the piano.
"I was always a tomboy who was pretty solitary, interested in reading and painting," she says. "I was into all the stuff my father was interested in. We're very much alike. We like watching football games and eating asparagus."
Before she was 10, Mann began forming neighborhood bands.
"I had a very vague notion that it would be fun to be a singer. Of course, the ability to sing might come in handy. Anyway, I remember there was one of those cassette-tape recorders, and I recorded my voice singing a line from 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' I listened back to it, and it was so awful! I thought maybe I should rethink this whole singer thing."
She eventually enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music, but her real breakthrough came with the rise of punk and new wave. "Tune and tone was not prerequisite," Mann explains. "Experience was not necessary. In other words, you could get away with the most god-awful (stuff)."
At Berklee, Mann formed a band called Young Snakes and worked briefly with a lineup that eventually became Ministry. In 1983, she and schoolmate-boyfriend Michael Hausman formed 'Til Tuesday, and the quartet played around the Boston area for a while before winning a "battle of the bands" contest and signing with Epic.
The group's debut album, "Voices Carry," soared into the Top 20 on the strength of its title song, which charted at No. 8 and became an MTV staple. The album wound up selling 650,000 copies.
A second album, "Welcome Home," eventually went gold and included the minor hits "What About Love" and "Coming Close." After the commercially unsuccessful "Everything's Different Now," 'Til Tuesday broke up, and Mann -- pining to go in a more acoustic direction -- drifted into obscurity while waiting for her contractual obligations to blow over.
"It never bothered me that the attention around 'Til Tuesday faded," Mann says. "Instead, it was a relief. I wasn't one of those people that was into being noticed and famous. I found that just one person in the airport staring at me was unnerving."
It would take five years of hard work -- not to mention heavy bouts with depression and anxiety -- for SHE SAY SHE HAD THOSE PROBS? Mann to resurface as a strong songwriter with "Whatever." But while Mann has become a critic's darling, popular success has thus far eluded her.
The period before "Whatever" was "frustrating, but it never occurred to me to quit 'cause there was nothing else to do," says Mann, who moved to Hollywood last year. "It did occur to me to quit this time around, though. It was unlikely I'd ever make money selling records, and it certainly wasn't any fun anymore."
GRAF TK EXPLAINING WHY SHE DIDN'T QUIT....
Even though Mann has become more direct about what she wants, she finds that people still tend to misinterpret what she writes.
"The immediate assumption is that every song I do is about the same failed relationship," she says, perhaps referring to songs she wrote during her highly publicized and particularly heavy breakup with fellow singer-songwriter Jules Shear WHAT HAPPENED TO HAUSMAN? during the last days of 'Til Tuesday.
"It's like, 'What are you talking about?' Maybe some of the lyrics are that way, but all of them? I find it annoying and unbearably condescending, as if a woman could have no other concern but a boyfriend -- and always in the context of 'I want to rope him in, but he's trying to run away.'
"Sometimes I would really love somebody and they didn't return my feelings, and it would be painful," she continues. "But it's not because I'm female, it's because I'm human. It's awful to be told, 'Well, you're just the girl and that's how you're supposed to feel.' "
Mann's wrapping it up. She has to go home and pump herself up for yet another soul-stealing photo session tomorrow.
"If another photographer asks me to stick my hand under my chin and look like this," she says, striking a dreamy expression, "I'm gonna have to beat him to a pulp.
"When they ask me to smile, it's like, 'You know what? If I just met you right now, you would never get a smile out of me, so I'm not gonna smile for you now!' It's like, 'I've smiled all my life, and I'm done. I have no more for the likes of you!' "
Mann cracks a huge grin. "It becomes a real contest of will. It's like, 'Hmm. Who will win this time?' "
Aimee Mann plays Feb. 22 at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $16. (310) 278-9457. Also Feb. 23 at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 8 p.m. $18.50.. (714) 957-0600.
GRAPHIC: Photo, LOOKING BACK: Aimee Mann says that these days she is less vulnerable "about putting my music out there." LAWRENCE K. HO / Los Angeles Times