Copyright 1996 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 897 words

HEADLINE: Q and A With Aimee Mann


DATELINE: Hollywood


Aimee Mann, the tall and striking bleached- blonde singer who made the band 'Til Tuesday one of MTV's early favorites, is back on the scene with her second solo release. At the musical instrument-strewn Hollywood apartment she shares with singer Michael Penn, Mann, sporting glasses, appears almost bookish, far from the video vixen of her MTV days.

'Til Tuesday put out a pair of well-received records on Epic, but the label balked at the acoustic direction of the third effort, dumping Mann into recording purgatory from which she didn't emerge until 1993's solo debut, ''Whatever,'' on Imago Records. But that label then didn't have the resources to release her next disc, tying it up for months until a deal could be made elsewhere. ''I'm With Stupid,'' boasting Mann's usual pop hooks and scabrous wit, is finally seeing the light of day, released last week on DGC, and Mann will soon hit the concert trail to promote it.

Q: Would you have been more prolific without all the record label problems?

A: Absolutely. I was under contract to Epic and wasn't allowed to leave. Nobody had the taste or insight, or whatever it takes, to stand up for the possibility that my music had some commercial potential. They didn't want to put out the third 'Til Tuesday record. It was basically, ''We will not promote your record unless you radically change your music to be way more commercial,'' which at the time was on a direct par with Heart -- horrible sludge ballads, co-written with the Hollywood hit doctors. The people in Heart were very unhappy about that, too, but they had the same blackmail situation. I think I'm just more stubborn, and I understood that no amount of money in the world could compensate me for singing bad songs. And you can easily make a record according to their specifications, and co-write with all these lousy commercial hacks, and then the regime changes and new people come in and they scrap your record.

Q: What happened to 'Til Tuesday?

A: The band never really broke up, people just sort of dropped out. Michael Hausman, the drummer, is now my manager.

Q: You're known for witty and sharp-tongued tunes. How important are lyrics to you in the equation of a song?

A: I think that there's a kind of person who does a lot of reading and appreciates interesting and clever uses of language. I try to use it at least in an articulate and maybe clever way. Most people don't care about language and don't read, and that's why so many other people's lyrics drive me crazy, because they obviously don't really care about them. Language is an incredible resource that nobody takes advantage of.

Q: Your songs often seem to focus on hopeless situations and messed-up relationships. Do you consider your songs depressing?

A: To me there's an aspect of all of these songs, even the ones that sound the most depressed, of being optimistic. The first step to solving any problem is when you define it, and writing the song to me is like defining the problem. To the person in it, none of these songs are hopeless. Take ''Choice in the Matter'' -- someone realizing almost immediately that the person they're contemplating becoming involved with is not to be trusted. You say to yourself, ''There is no choice, I can't get involved.'' Problem solved. There is no possibility that you'll be involved in a horrible nightmare relationship.

Q: There's a distinctive sound to both your solo projects. Are they self-consciously retro?

A: I had a specific purpose to keep the amount of overdubs not to eight tracks, but at least to under 24 -- which wasn't successful because it's pretty hard to staunch the flow of ideas from (producer and collaborator) Jon (Brion). That's just a rudimentary idea that's taken from older records: Fewer instruments means that you can hear more clearly what's going on. Duh. But you keep getting ideas, like we can double this, or maybe we should have a harmony here. You don't realize what you're sacrificing -- the ability to hear that great little guitar line because you've obscured it with 40 other guitar parts.

Q: You have a unique voice, immediately recognizable, that seems to hover between notes.

A: I always try to sing the note. (Laughs) It's a function of vibrato, a function of a less perfect instrument than others have. I am trying to hit the notes dead on. I try to sing as if I were talking, as conversational as possible. This is the best you get.

Q: What's your take on the state of contemporary music?

A: I go through phases of listening to current music and then not. Whenever I'm going through a particularly ugly patch of dealing with the music industry, I find the entire thing so depressing that I can't even turn on the radio. It's more fun to listen to music that's completely different, like classical, or Johnny Mathis singing Christmas carols, so I don't get into the habit of associating all music with horrible, wretched people who don't care for anyone's career.

Q: When 'Til Tuesday burst on the scene with ''Voices Carry,'' you had a distinctive look -- a long, single strand of braided hair. Is it preserved in a jar somewhere?

A: It may be. I can't remember. I'm the kind of person who does save locks of hair, though usually not my own. Chances are pretty good I saved it or gave it to somebody.