Copyright 1996 MTS, Inc.
LENGTH: 4,545 words
BYLINE: Brett Milano
TITLE: Life After New Wave: A former MTV queen rehabilitated into a singer-songwriter, Aimee Mann doesn't suffer fools-- she writes songs about them
It's Saturday evening in West Hollywood, and Aimee Mann is miserable. Not for the usual reasons, at least not the ones described in so many of her songs: She's had no tempestuous love affairs lately, and she doesn't happen to be feuding with a record label this week. But she is down with a stomach flu, which she caught on a European promotional tour that she reluctantly agreed to do for her new album, I'm With Stupid (Geffen)-- the overdue follow-up to 1993's Whatever (Imago), which found the former 'Til Tuesday frontwoman reborn as a thinking/cranky person's songwriter.
After giving her interviewer a warm greeting, she proceeds to expound at length on why she hates doing interviews. Such is Aimee Mann's relationship to the music business, which would charitably be described as love/hate.
"People should realize that this is not fun," she says, more as a statement of fact than a complaint. "There are pitfalls to being recognizable-- and I've only had a record that went gold, so I can't imagine the living hell that being a multiplatinum artist must be. You have no relationships with people. You have no intimacy in your life-- nothing. You have a different room every night, and that's a strain in pure brain-function terms. If the brain has too many details to constantly think about-- if you have to constantly figure out things like 'where's the light switch here?'-- you get incredible stress; you get breakdown. I've had what I would consider emotional breakdowns at least a handful of times, as recently as my last trip to Europe.
"That's why I have total sympathy for someone like Courtney Love," she continues. "Or Kurt Cobain-- obviously he was uncomfortable with people coming up to him and saying, 'Kurt, you're amazing; you're great,' as I think most normal people would be. If you don't have an incredibly needy ego, then it starts to seem kind of surreal at best, and really intrusive at worst. You start to feel that people expect more of you than you could possibly give them. People get the idea that if you're famous you've got some exalted sense of humanity, where the truth is really just the opposite."
Mann's apartment is a quiet and comfortable place, located about a mile from the glitter district of the Sunset Strip, but done up in a low-key, undergraduate-like style that reflects her Boston roots. Antique tapestries are the only wall decorations; there's a modest stereo and a smallish CD collection. A few unfiled stacks of vynil albums are propped against the wall (visible are Roy Wood's out of print masterwork Boulders, and a Greek pressing of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour.) Boyfriend and fellow songwriter Michael Penn is playing house-husband, brewing tea and washing dishes when he's not working on the computer or providing wiseass comments. (When Mann is asked why she doesn't tend to date unknowns Penn says, "She's dating one now." The serious answer, she says, is that she's bound to have more in common with people in the same line of work.) Mann wraps herself in a blanket and settles into a futon to keep the flu chills away; the scene is surprisingly close to domestic bliss.
"I really don't feel like I live anywhere," Mann insists. "I moved to Los Angeles because Michael was here; that happened about a year ago. I still have an apartment in Boston but I've lost the whole thread of living there; maybe I have three friends there now. And I lived in London for awhile last year. That's the way you have to live if you're putting a record out."
Mann isn't any less frank on I'm With Stupid, which ranks as pop's most attractive temper tantrum in memory. Couching relentlessly bitter, often accusatory lyrics within impeccably crafted pop tunes, Mann comes across as the kind of friend who fixes you a drink and makes sure you're sitting comfortably before telling you what an asshole you are. If ever an album was summed up by it's title or by the first line in the opening song-- in this case, "You fucked it up," on "Long Shot,"-- I'm With Stupid is it.
The people who screwed up on I'm With Stupid are many and varied: At least one ex-boyfriend gets raked over the coals, a couple of self-destructive friends are taken to task, and the remaining knocks go to the ever-popular music business. Even the affectionate songs have a defensive air about them: "Sugarcoated" champions ex-(London) Suede member Bernard Butler against the critics who've knocked his attitude (Butler returns the favor by playing on it) and "Amateur," which sports one of the loveliest melodies Mann's ever sung, defends onetime boyfriend Jon Brion against friends who've chided him about working with his ex. (The ex-Grays/Jellyfish member has been Mann's main collaborator since he joined the last lineup of 'Til Tuesday.)
At times the anger is pushed to an almost humorous level of overstatement- notably on the closing "It's Not Safe," which gives one more twist of the knife just when you're expecting a resolution: "You're the idiot who keeps believing in luck/ Even when you know that no one else gives a fuu-uuck"
"Well, you can't exactly call me happy-go-lucky," she says. "But isn't it nice that Alanis Morissette has taken the mantle of the relationship angst-driven songs? So maybe now people will describe my songs as being about something other than a boyfriend. If the album has a basic text, it's like this: 'You're a nightmare, I'm not going to get involved with you, so go away.' And that applies whether I'm writing about the business or about a relationship.
"I think that people who are naturally timid are going to go overboard once they realize that they really don't have to put up with other people's shit," she continues. "And I think that's me. I have traditionally been very timid and put up with a lot, for a number of reasons. I've always been strict with myself, because I hate to make people angry. So what's the difference between assertive and obnoxious? That's a female problem as well."
Do we detect an indication that Mann went into therapy before writing these songs? "Not lately, but I did that a couple of years ago," she says. "I thought it was terrific. To me it was a big puzzle, you have all these clues and if you solve the puzzle, you're happier. I mean, that's fun. No, one reason I sound so adamant is that when you get stronger, you start getting afraid that somebody's going to take it away from you. You want balance. It's just as bad to let nobody get near you as it is to let people walk all over you."
The tunes on Stupid are so catchy that one may miss the underlying venom. It's likely that "That's Just What You Are" (originally on the Melrose Place soundtrack and repeated on Stupid) slid onto radio playlists for that very reason. Mann and Brion, who play most every instrument save for some guest appearances, remain a damn fine pop combo, and their ideas have jelled somewhat since they first recorded together on Mann's solo debut, Whatever. While that album seesawed between styles-- a Byrds reference here, a Badfinger pastiche there, a power ballad there-- Stupid is more "indiepop" in flavor, sounding as close to Guided by Voices as it is to the Beatles: a slightly jaded reappraisal of mid-'60s pop rather than a face-value homage.
"It's definitely true that there's a more specific kind of sound on this one," she says. "If you listen to Whatever, you can hear what we were trying to sound like on every song: This is the Badfinger song; this is the Simon and Garfunkel song; this is the Randy Newman song. I wanted the new album to be more straightforward and to have more guitar because I'd written most of the songs on electric guitar, and because I'm way crankier.
"It's almost taboo in interviews to admit you've listened to anything recent," she continues. "Like, if somebody suggests you sound like Nirvana, you're supposed to immediately deny it. But the fact is that a couple of years ago, there were a couple of albums that were so good that I would consider them classics: Beck's Mellow Gold, the first Liz Phair album [Exile in Guyville], the Posies' Frosting on the Beater, the Loud Family's Plants & Birds & Rocks & Things. I personally believe that [Lous Family leader] Scott Miller is the best songwriter out there right now, and that was one of my criteria: 'Would Scott think that this song is any good?'"
It seems entirely likely that Mann would be a rock critic if she wasn't making albums, given her fannish love for the kind of brainy pop that tends to excite rock scribes. But she goes a step further and gets most of her heroes to collaborate with her: Elvis Costello wrote a song for her ("The Other Side of the Telescope," on the third 'Til Tuesday album, Everything's Different Now) and remains a friend. Both Scott Miller and Kinks head Ray Davies made onstage appearances with her last year. She also loves Squeeze, and joined that band for a brief tour last summer (Squeeze frontmen Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford sang on "That's Just What You Are" and hit American radio for the first time in years; Squeeze fans will catch the "Up the Junction" guitar quote in "Long Shot.") And she coaxed XTC leader Andy Partridge onstage with her in New York last year; it remains the only time that Partridge has been before an audience since his nervous breakdown during a concert in 1983.
"I'll tell you how that happened. For awhile I was dating the guitarist of XTC [Dave Gregory, who also played in her touring band]. So this is how my intensive understanding of human nature works to my advantage: I asked Andy if he'd come onstage and just play tambourine on this XTC song we were covering ["Collideascope," which XTC recorded in '60s drag as the Sukes of Stratosphear]. I knew that he had severe stage fright, so I said, 'Just play tambourine and have some fun.' Of course he's incredibly nervous, but once he's onstage he's fine, and a bit of a ham. So he's standing beside me while I'm singing his song- and not especially well, I might add. So before I know it he's up there singing four times as loud as me. I think he's afraid of being a disappointment, with all the high expectations people have of him. I know the feeling, but I got over it- now I don't care if I disappoint people or not."
Since she likely shares their fan base, does she consider herself in the same class as the writers she admires? "I'd love it if they considered me in the same class. I know I'm not as good as Scott [Miller], and Jon [Brion] is also a better songwriter than me, though I have songs that are better than some of his. I think I have some songs that are better than some of Squeeze's songs, especially on the more recent albums. But at their best, forget it."
There was a time when the notion of Aimee Mann as a critics' darling, not to mention a first-division songwriter, would have seemed farfetched. Her first band, the Young Snakes, was a footnote on the early-'80s Boston scene. She now tends to dismiss them as a collegiate art-noise outfit, but a listen to their now-scarce EP (Bark Along With the Young Snakes, on the long-defunct Ambiguous label) reveals an ambitious but very green band playing twisted pop.
It was her next band that got the brass ring. Even before they signed with Epic and hit the Billboard Top 10 with "Voices Carry," 'Til Tuesday (or 'til Tuesday, as they originally lower-cased it) had a large local audience and almost no hip cachet. The group was everything an underground band wasn't supposed to be, especially in the garage-heavy Boston scene: glossy, commercial, English-sounding and fashion-conscious. True, there were glimpses of depth in the songwriting, notably on the lovely ABBA-esque single "Coming Up Close" from 'Til Tuesday's second album, Welcome Home. But the first thing that people tended to notice was the sex appeal that Mann had no qualms about exploiting. For a time she even stopped playing bass onstage, preferring to strut in the spotlight. It was hardly guaranteed that Mann or her band would outlast the first heyday of New Wave and MTV. Indeed, "Voices Carry" recently appeared on No. 14 of Rhino's new wave series Just Can't Get Enough, right alongside such now-forgottens as Rubber Rodeo and Corey Hart.
Then something changed, seemingly overnight. The third 'Til Tuesday album, Everything's Different Now, was the groups best by a long stretch, and the one that won over more than a few cynics. By now the band had turned off its drum machines and taken on a warmer melody-driven sound, but the real change was in Mann's writing: Drawing from a then recently broken relationship (with songwriter Jules Shear, who wrote the title track and is mentioned by name elsewhere), she came across less as an MTV figure and more as a vulnerable, empathic frontwoman, even if the album's tone, notably on "J for Jules," was so confessional that it made one a little uncomfortable. [Milan's note: This last sentence is either an incredible run-on or deserves an award for most complicated sentence structure in recent music journalism memory. (At least he doesn't use the word 'which' again.)]
"I came to the conclusion that there was no reason to hide myself, that hiding didn't make you a stronger person," she says. "The same on the new album. There are at least four songs on it that I wrote for myself and said, 'It's fine. This will never get on the album anyway.' 'Long Shot' was one of those and lo and behold, it's the single. You don't put words like 'You fucked it up' into a song if you want it to be a single. But that line had to be there; it had to have that sound of colloquial dismissiveness.
"Some people criticized Everything's Different Now because every song on it was about that relationship-- and I'm thinking 'Hello? Is that a problem? Remember "Sarah" by Dylan?' What's important is whether they're good songs or not, whether they impart a certain emotion. The only annoying part of the whole Jules thing was that people started assuming I wrote every single song about Jules-- I mean, some people still assume that now. And that kills me. It's 10 years later! I really am capable of attracting some other man besides that one guy."
The glamour went out of the band around this time, with Mann often performing in glasses and sweatshirts; she's continued to favor the anti-fashion approach ever since. What happened for her was more than a change of image; it was more a matter of taking career control, not to mention freaking out under pressure.
"I can tell you exactly what happened," she says. "I was touring with 'Til Tuesday, things were going well but we'd been on the road for months. I was getting incredibly exhausted; along with exhaustion comes this weird zombie-state. There was one particular moment where I remember getting out my Swiss army knife and trying to calculate where I could cut my hand- so it wouldn't permanently damage me but it would make it impossible to play, so I could get myself off the tour. I knew the promoters would come down on me, I knew the band would come down on me, and I knew the record company would think I was a major-league asshole-- and in fact, all those things happened. But I had my knife out and for a few seconds it didn't even enter my mind that this would be an irrational, problematic solution. Then I suddenly see this picture of myself and I say, 'Hold on. What am I thinking?' From that point, all the other changes were a gradual process."
This was another turning point as well: the beginning of Mann's long-running disputes with record labels. She blames Epic for the commercial failure of Everything's Different Now, saying that the label never supported her move to a less-commercial sound. In terms of song collaborators she brought in Elvis Costello, and Epic asked for Desmond Child and Diane Warren, the song doctors whose names have become synonymous with assembly-line commerciality (clients include Aerosmith, Joan Jett, Heart and Chicago). "There was major diplomacy with that album to make sure that nothing embarrassing got on it. I spoke to Diane Warren on the phone, and it was my good luck that there was a scheduling problem, so I could duck out of it gracefully."
What followed was three years of bad will between Mann and Epic, with her refusing to make an album and Epic refusing to let her off her contract. As a result, 'Til Tuesday's most interesting period never got recorded. Beginning shortly after Everything's Different Now, the group began touring in semiacoustic form with only Mann and drummer Michael Hausman (who remains her manager) remaining from the original lineup. They added surprising covers to the set-- Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk" and They Might Be Giants' "Ana Ng" were regulars-- and drastically retooled the originals. A proto-grunge demolition of "Voices Carry" was the usual finale, with the lyrics changed to "He said, shut up! I said, fuck off!"
Jon Brion entered the picture around this time, playing guitar and harmonium in that lineup, and Mann gives him a lot of the credit for her musical evolution. "We became involved as a couple almost as soon as we met each other-- that was more dramatic than out working together, and less successful. At the time I met him I was working on a song with [Boston producer] Mike Denneen. And Jon started adding ideas. So we wrote a song together within the first hour of knowing each other."
Brion also reintroduced her to '60s pop, just because he played so much of it around the house. "After the first burst of 'Til Tuesday, I went through a period like the one I'm going through now-- where I wouldn't listen to music and didn't want to know about it. If I heard something on the radio, if it was good it would make me think about the business; if it was bad it would make me think about how the business could make something big out of a terrible song. But Jon would be playing music all the time, even when he watched TV. And I finally started enjoying it-- I'd say, 'That's Badfinger, isn't it? I forgot I loved that album.' He played all the things I didn't remember- Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, the Zombies. And I introduced him to things he didn't know about, like Randy Newman."
Even after their relationship broke up, the musical connection remained. The two stopped working together for a couple of years when their romance fizzled (ex-Cavedog Brian Stevens took Brion's place in the touring band), but patched things up in time for the new album. "Working with Jon is very atmosphere-dependent. If we're having a disagreement about something, we don't get anywhere. Conversely, if Jon's in a good mood and we're getting along, work goes quickly and there's very little wasted. There are emotional topics and themes that we have a psychic agreement about; if I write a line that's truthful and accurate, he understands why it's good. There are very few circumstances where he'll say something that I don't think fits. And as you know from my cranky diatribes, I'm not that easy to please."
It's no secret that Mann was feuding with Epic during the recording of Whatever, and that much of that album was three years old by the time Imago released it in 1993. There was enough rancor left from those days to color at least two songs on Stupid ("It's Not Safe" and "Choice in the Matter" are record-label songs thinly disguised as relationship songs). After signing with Imago, Mann often expressed relief that her record-label battles were over. Ironic, then, that another bloodbath should begin once her second album was turned in to Imago.
The original scheduled release date for I'm With Stupid came and went nearly a year ago; preview cassettes of the album (in the same form as the current release) were circulating last March. For a time, different reports seemed to be coming from the label every week: The album's about to come out; no, it isn't. When Imago was on the verge of collapsing altogether, Warner/Reprise announced that it would be releasing the album in October '95. Those reports were retracted within weeks; and another month went by before Mann turned up again, this time on Geffen.
Making matters "worse," she found herself with a single- her first successful one since "Voices Carry" 10 years earlier-- and no album to back it up. Originally conceived as a one-off U.K. single, "That's Just What You Are" was chosen by Giant for its Melrose Place soundtrack; it became the lead-off track for the soundtrack album and one of two songs (along with Letters to Cleo's "Here & Now") to get commercial airplay after being featured on the show. If Melrose Place really existed, it would be a stone's throw from Mann's current residence, but she frankly couldn't care less. "I've never seen the show. Or maybe I have, but I get it confused with 90210-- that's the one with Tori Spelling, right? But I have nothing against soap operas; it gives people a good chance to obsess about something besides each other."
She's far less casual about the Imago affair. What happened behind the scenes is still enough to get Mann visibly riled, stomach flu and all. Suffice to say that she and Imago owner/former Chrysalis founder Terry Ellis won't be having a friendly candlelight dinner any time soon. "Basically, Imago's financing was withdrawn [by] BMG, because Imago was losing so much money," she begins, taking a deep breath to get her energy up. "Terry Ellis owns my contract, and there was a long, annoying period during which I was lied to several hundred times about what was really going on. My label had collapsed, and I couldn't look for another deal because it was all up to him. At one point he was going to license it to Warner Bros., but they were just doing it as a favor to him.
"So how was I supposed to work under those circumstances? I'm not in control of my own career, and my album's about to be released on Instant Death Records. So I call [Ellis] up and said, 'If you release this on Warners, I'm not fuckin' touring. I'm not doing interviews, not promoting it at all, because you are basically killing my record. I'm just going to go on vacation, find myself another job.' So I got to the point where I was basically threatening to quit the industry altogether, but it wasn't a threat. I thought I'd talk to my friends in the soundtrack business, and see if I could scratch a living somewhere else."
It's not often that one hears Warner Bros. referred to as "Instant Death Records." And if Mann sounds like a temperamental artist throwing a hissy-fit, she's more than willing to take the rap. "People ask me things like, 'Well, aren't you bitter?' And I say, 'Yes! Of course I'm bitter!'
"There's no middle-class in the music business; that's sad but true. For somebody like me, it's understood that you're not going to make any money. So I'm out promoting my album; I'm isolated, hungry and sleep-deprived. And I'm doing it for what- for Terry fucking Ellis? I've tried my best to make him understand what's really going on. For instance, one time I heard him talking about [Imago pop band] the Figgs; they were asking for tour support so they could have a bus to sleep on. And I heard Terry Ellis say, 'Can't they sleep in the van?'-- and this is a guy who sleeps at the fuckin' Ritz! Does he have any idea what that entails, how heartless that is? Like musicians are trained seals and they're supposed to go to radio interviews and be entertaining? So you can see how difficult it is for me." Mann admits that she wouldn't mind having it both ways: getting respected and paid as a songwriter without embracing the celebrity role she played in 'Til Tuesday. "I had the fame and stardom and people recognizing me. It was unpleasant, strange and awkward, and I don't ever want it again."
Geffen ultimately stepped in and bought out her contract. Asked what her relationship with Ellis is nowadays, Mann replies that there isn't one. And she currently puts him in the same category with the abusive boyfriends, the loser friends and the general fuck-ups who populate her latest batch of songs. "Everybody I know that had success early in their life has turned out the same way. And what's inherent in any song I write is that I have limitless compassion for people like that, even Terry Ellis. What's sad about him is that he's really bewildered; he really has no idea. He couldn't tell what I was feeling because he's made himself into a person who refuses to feel. To me that's pathetic, as in deserving of pity."
The sun sets over West Hollywood, Penn comes in the living room with another cup of tea, and life starts to look good again. Mann admits that her personal life is a lot more stable nowadays; she and Penn are now talking about marriage. "Has my life been tempestuous?" she asks. "Sure Maybe it's a plus that my experiences have been so extreme. The reason there aren't more relationship songs on my album is that I refused to get into a relationship for two years. That what 'Long Shot' is about: meeting someone you would have fallen for if you were younger, but knowing that you don't have to act your feelings out because it will be a disaster. Before I met Michael, I knew that I couldn't get involved with anyone again unless I could see myself marrying them." Penn looks up as if the marriage part of that last answer was news to him, but doesn't seem to mind a bit.
Mann appears to still be getting used to the idea of happy endings-- noting, for example, that she has no idea how to write a non-ironic love song and no current intention of trying. But she and Penn are apparently carrying around some of the same baggage, including record-label disputes (Penn recently got off a sticky contract with RCA.) And within their Hollywood hideaway they've found a lot of what matters- room to create, a shot at a lasting relationship, and a chance to tell the outside world to fuck off. And that sounds suspiciously like the resolution of an Aimee Mann song.