LENGTH: 3,523 words
ISSUE: Volume 7, Issue 42
HEADLINE: Aimee Mann
BYLINE: David Simons
The metamorphosis of songwriter Aimee Mann from '80s new-wave babe to an Elvis Costello-caliber pop maestro is one of the more fascinating stories of recent times. At the far end of Mann's 15-year-long career sits an over-played, over-polished hit single; at the other is Mann's independently released new album, Bachelor No. 2, deemed commercially unfit by the artist's former label. In between lies a body of work considered among the finest any songwriter has attempted in recent times.
Perhaps predictably, Mann's increase in craftsmanship has been paralleled by a decrease in sales; today, her audience consists of a modest but intensely loyal band of faithful followers. Yet her inability to reach a much larger audience hasn't always been for lack of trying, or talent. Mann's brainy (and often barbed) lyric writing has often been packaged around some absolutely fantastic hooks, and in 1995 her single "That's Just What You Are" even managed to squeak into the Hot 100 for a few weeks, helped along by a plug on the mega-popular Melrose Place.
A single is supposed to sell albums; unfortunately, Mann didn't have one to sell, since her label, Imago, had gone belly up but took nearly a year to release Mann (and her prophetically titled I'm With Stupid) from its contractual clutches. By the time I'm With Stupid was finally picked up by Geffen a year later, "That's Just What You Are" was just a memory.
Ironically, Mann's career couldn't have begun on a more positive note. Fifteen years ago, the former bass-playing singer/songwriter for Boston's 'Til Tuesday became the toast of her hometown when her quartet blasted into the Top 10 on its very first try with "Voices Carry," its big-drum, synth-riff and breathy chorus perfect for the big-haired summer of '85.
It would be the last time Mann would reach such a lofty position, commercially speaking. In the years that followed, Mann would shed her glossy '80s image and begin crafting tight pop melodies spiked with witty, incisive lyrics that owed more to the Beatles than the Cars. Everything's Different Now, her final 'Til Tuesday offering, was a major musical progression and the first hint that Mann had turned a corner as an artist. At the same time, the highly confessional subject matter of Everything's Different Now (mostly about her breakup with songwriter Jules Shear) was hardly the stuff hit singles are made of, the album sold poorly and 'Til Tuesday disbanded. Her commercial heyday already behind her, Mann began the '90s on her own but a sudden favorite among critics worldwide.
Mann continued her forward momentum with her first solo effort, 1993's Whatever, an album packed to the gills with big hooks and clever word play (by now her trademark), held together by the intricate guitar overlays of producer Jon Brion. The compressed vocals and distorted rhythm guitar of lead-off track "I Should Have Known" showed a harder-rocking side of Mann, and pointed in the direction of her next collection, the Brion-produced I'm With Stupid.
Recorded at Boston's Q Division Studios in late 1994, I'm With Stupid musically reflected Mann's interest in the stripped-down efficiency of Liz Phair and Beck; lyrically, the songs contained overt jabs at the record heads who'd done little to promote the universally lauded Whatever. From its opening first line, "you fucked it up", I'm With Stupid was confrontational and direct; its antidote, however, was the striking Abbey Road-like guitar accompaniment (Brion outdid himself this time around), which colored, rather than covered, Mann's unaffected vocal delivery. An album with few flaws, I'm With Stupid is a true pop-music masterpiece.
Though unfortunate, the subsequent mishandling of I'm With Stupid might have been somewhat excusable had the situation not repeated itself in nearly identical fashion in the years that followed. After hitting yet another record-industry pothole, Mann decided she'd seen enough, bought back her master tapes, and ditched Interscope in favor of the Internet. Bachelor No. 2, issued through her own website (www.aimeemann.com) on her own label (Superego), takes its cue from the melodically rich I'm With Stupid (and includes the Stupid-era track "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist," a co-write with Elvis Costello). Occupying the producer's chair for the first time, Mann, with guidance from Brendan O'Brien and Buddy Judge, colors Bachelor with technical trickery ("Calling It Quits"), alternates simple acoustic-guitar tracks with multi-layered arrangements, and even shows an unabashed flair for Bacharach ("Satellite").
Coinciding with Bachelor is the release of a handful of Mann contributions to the soundtrack album for Magnolia, the new Paul Thomas Anderson film (Mann's husband, songwriter Michael Penn, has himself written music for and starred in Thomas' Boogie Nights and Hard Eight). Four years ago, Mann foreshadowed her move to independence with "It's Not Safe," a song which warned that anything really worth keeping should be kept to oneself, because "god knows it's not safe with anybody else." Mann now has the chance to put that theory to the test, once and for all.
You spent some time during the early '80s at Boston's Berklee College of Music. How much did that training figure into your career?
Well, I went there to study bass, but also because I had this idea that I might be able to be a musician, that I might have talent, but I wouldn't really know if I didn't learn anything. So I just went to see if my hunch would play out after a couple of semesters.
I guess it did.
Yeah, I got lucky. You can waste a lot of money doing things that way with any other profession.
Are you a songwriter as a result of your Berklee education?
Not really ...
So are you of the opinion that songwriting can't be taught? For instance, are music magazines wrong for breaking everything down into their technical elements?
Personally, I've never found that to be very useful. But on the other hand, I just started taking piano lessons. When you're doing scales, you get very familiar with the instrument, it's a priming in your brain. Which might not be immediately useful, but it does help you in the sense that you have to do this stuff in order to become really comfortable with your instrument. And that all ties in eventually.
How do you approach the business of cutting your new songs? Do you wait until you've got enough for an album, or do you track them as they come?
I usually like to do it in chunks, you know, work on a few songs, tinker with them, then go back in and start a couple more. I don't like those three-month blocks in the studio because you can really lose your mind.
You and Michael have Pro Tools at home that you used for some of the vocal over-dubs. Did you also use the machine to demo the new material?
I was going to demo the songs, but in the studio. Until I realized that if you're doing demos in a 24-track studio that sound great, then what's the demo part? You might as well just put it out.
Aside from the tracks you'd started around the time of I'm With Stupid, you've done most of your work this time without the help of Jon Brion, whose tight schedule prevented him from getting involved. Did being your own producer affect the creative process at all?
That was one thing I missed, because when you're working with Jon, he plays most of the stuff, and he's producing, so you don't have to be right in the room paying strict attention all the time. Which meant I could go into the lounge and work on new material if I wanted. Which you really can't do when you're producing yourself. Your attention has to be in a different place.
How much of the Brion spontaneous-production methodology rubbed off on you?
I learned a lot from watching Jon. He generates so many ideas that even if you pick up on one-tenth of it, you can do pretty well. On the other hand, because he can do everything on his own, you don't really have a chance to learn as much, because he's learning by trial and error and you're not really a part of that. So I felt that I was falling behind in that area, even though everything he ever came up with was fantastic.
Including the way he'd color the songs instrumentally. From a guitarist's stand-point, it would be extremely difficult to replicate that level of accompaniment.
I know. The secret is out on Jon now, he's really in demand as a result of that.
Nevertheless, Bachelor has its share of surprises tucked into the mix. For instance, how did you come up with some of those crazy back-up vocal parts?
A lot of that stuff came from this policy that at least one ludicrous thing had to happen per song. Some goofy sound. Like in "Optimist" when we got this vocal thing that's like the Swingle Singers. I used to listen to that stuff at Berklee, I loved that sort of thing.
In concert. you're usually playing that old Gibson J-160 acoustic/electric. Is that your main writing tool?
For this last album, yes. In fact, one of the main differences between this record and I'm With Stupid was that I didn't write very much on electric guitar for Bachelor.
You'd said that you'd been listening to Liz Phair's first album around the time you began writing for I'm With Stupid. Were there other reasons why you "went electric?"
Because it was the only guitar I had at the time! I was in England for about eight months, I was doing this tour with Squeeze, which was a lot of fun. The record company rented an apartment for me, and I was playing these shows around town and hanging out. I started writing those songs for I'm With Stupid there, but I didn't even have my acoustic with me. So I had to borrow this electric guitar from somebody, and I just plugged it into this tiny little amp. So I just wrote on that.
Hence the small-amp/distorted electric vibe of some of those songs, like that barred E progression of "Long Shot."
I know. You don't play barre-chord riffs like that on an acoustic guitar, it's just too irritating.
Do you find that you might get a fresh song idea just by playing on a totally different guitar?
Definitely. Like "It's Not Safe," which was the first song I wrote for I'm With Stupid, I remember I was over at a friend's house and he had this semi-hollow body Telecaster, and I wrote it on that. It's interesting how different guitars make you write different kinds of songs. Trying different types of acoustics will do the same thing, like the J-160, that's meant to be played live, it actually has more of an electric-guitar feel. So that one kind of has its own thing.
A lot of your guitar songs are capoed, do you like to write that way? Or are you just adjusting after the fact to suit your vocal range?
I usually write with it off and then add it later once I realize that I'm onto something that's just not that comfortable to sing. Although sometimes I'll stick it on just to try to get some different inversions or sounds. B-flat was kind of my key-of-choice for a while there, which also had something to do with it.
Sheryl Crow said she wrote a good deal of The Globe Sessions on bass. As a bassist yourself, have you tried that approach lately?
Not anymore, though with 'Til Tuesday, I wrote that way all the time. In fact, the entire first album was done on bass, since I didn't play any guitar then. Every single song, just coming up with bass lines and putting a melody over the top. The bass line and the feel were just more important in those songs.
You can really hear that in 'Voices Carry", which essentially has no chords until the chorus, just that G-Bb-C bass line with a synth riff over the top.
And that's not the kind of chord progression I would play normally, and yet it sounded all right on the bass that way.
So when did you begin writing on the acoustic?
By the time of the second album, "Coming Up Close" [from 1986's Welcome Home] was the first song I'd attempted without the bass. I really haven't gone back since, these days I just find I need more melodic information.
"Amateur" ; [from I'm With Stupid] was somewhat reminiscent of Bacharach, which you really brought to the fore this time out with "Satellite."
Actually, "Satellite" was written as a direct Bacharach rip, except I kind of realized afterwards that it sounded like I'd ripped the Bob Newhart Show theme instead (laughs). But that was just another thing about allowing myself to be producer, when I wanted a song to sound like Bacharach, rather than hint to the engineer, I just brought in "What the World Needs Now." And told him to copy every sound on it! A real producer would never do anything like that, but I don't care. And of course it never comes out sounding quite that way anyway, but it's just a good place to start, a good exercise.
You've had quite an assortment of co-writes over the years. "That's Just What You Are," for instance, was a song Jon Brion had started, then you came in and wrote the bridge and finished it off. Is that your "favorite" way to collaborate?
A lot of times Jon would do that, hand me a little chord progression and some words and melody, or some kernel of an idea. And I just always found his music very inspiring, so it was very easy for me to make a whole song out of that. "Amateur" was like that as well, a lot of it was already there, I just had to bring it to the end. The other thing about Jon is that he would always tell me right away what the concept of the song was, and I'd always know immediately what he was talking about. Like with "That's Just What You Are," he's referring to someone who's always acting like a jackass and won't do anything about it, you know, "that's just how I am, and I can't change," that sort of thing. I could relate to that!
So coming into it like that, where you've already got the road map, seems like the most preferable way to go.
Yeah, and it's definitely a lot more fun. Because there's already something there to follow.
What about writing with Elvis Costello? Same thing?
It's actually just the opposite with me and Elvis, that's a case where I'll have to come up with the initial framework. Like on "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist," I had a verse and a chorus, but I couldn't come up with any words for the verses. So then he came along and wrote this whole B-section to the chorus, which was really great, it takes the song in this whole other direction. And then he added in the verse lyrics, which I then had to tailor to get back to the original topic.
It sounds very similar to the way he worked with McCartney.
Yeah, I'll bet it was. Because that seems to be a very effective method for him.
Your husband helped out instrumentally with Bachelor, and yet there are no Mann-Penn credits.
We don't really collaborate, mostly because we both like to work in the same style. Also, Michael has a harmonic sensibility that's totally different from mine. He just goes to chord changes that are kind of foreign to me, even though it doesn't sound foreign when you're listening. Still, it's hard when you're writing with someone, and he's going to this chord change and you're thinking, "Wow, I would never go there." But of course he can get away with it on his own, because he's got the melodic ideas and the arrangements already in his head, he knows exactly where it's going once it's time to record.
Do you two at least sit down and exchange ideas?
Every now and then there'll be a song that he's working on that'll be close enough to my style of writing, that I'll come in and say, "Look, why don't you try this chord progression," or, "Why don't you do this thing in the middle." And he'll give me advice as well, particularly if I'm stuck, I might ask him what he thinks, and he'll come up with some chord that I hadn't thought of. But, in general, I don't think we really click as writers.
One thing you and Michael do have in common is the ability to come up with inventive lyric ideas. "I swore you off, but you climbed back on", some people would labor over a line like that. Did you?
It depends on how bad my writer's block is (laughs). I find that by jotting down ideas in a notebook, which I've just started doing again because I'm thinking about doing some more writing, really helps, it's the kind of thing I should probably utilize more than I actually do. For me, it's usually just a matter of writing down topics rather than individual phrases. But something like that can really jump-start the creative process, especially when you don't feel like writing at all.
What other techniques might you employ to get back on track?
A while back I was reading this Fiona Apple interview in which she was talking about making poetry by cutting out headlines from newspapers. So I thought, "That sounds like fun." So I tried that, and got a couple of the lines for "Calling It Quits" that way. And I kept really working at it like that, and writing stuff down as well until it took a shape that meant something to me. Then I just went back and threw out all the other stuff that was just word-play for fun.
What's an example of something you've altered to fit the meaning of the song, but maybe kept the initial premise?
In "Red Vines," instead of "They're all still on their honeymoon/just read the dialogue balloon," I'd originally written, "They're all still on their honeymoon/it's Underdog Day Afternoon" (laughs). Which I thought was just a bit much, although for a while there I was going to call the record Underdog Day.
You're on your own after 15 years in the majors. How does that feel?
Much better. I'm totally relieved to not have to work within that other system. I would have done it sooner, but it's not like you can just go! They own you. In this case there were so many other bands they were dealing with they probably thought, "She wants to go, good, fine, let's move on." They're just trying to hone it down to their top five unit-movers anyway (laughs).
You've become yet another disaffected major-label artist to jump on the Internet bandwagon.
There's now another place to go, there's another option. Even if you don't know how it's going to pan out in the end. I mean, there is a chance it could all backfire and that free downloads could just lead to nobody buying music any more. And that's not very helpful. I mean, those guitar strings cost money! But the way I see it is that's it's better to gamble with something that might work out to your benefit, than to stay with something that's guaranteed to fail.
In "It's Not Safe," you wrote about an "idiot who keeps believing in luck." Is that you?
In this business, people often say one thing and do another. And for a long time I guess I did believe, until I finally reached the point where I stopped believing and just got out. I'm now satisfied that I can't do anything to make it better, I just equate it with anybody who's ever had to get out of a bad relationship. Believe in luck? Sure, you can be like Annie, you know, the sun will come out tomorrow, but that's crazy. I'd rather be perky and optimistic on my own behalf, and whatever happens, happens.
Aimee's Top 5 Required Listening
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Zombies, Odessey and Oracle
Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Loud Family, Plants and Birds And Rocks and Things
Sinatra/Jobim, Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim
Guitar: Gibson J-160
Bass: Framus bass
Home Studio Equipment: Mac Power PC, Logic Audio
Studio Mics: Neumann U47 (vintage tube) through a Neve mic pre-amp, 1176 or Summit TLA 100
Live Mic: Shure SM58
Writing Tools: Line 6 POD (Guitar Direct Box) and a dictaphone
Aimee's Recommendations Of Songwriters To Make Note Of:
* Look for Andy Prieboy's musical, White Trash Wins Lotto. It has the greatest songwriting I've heard in along time.
* Elliot Smith, as always.
SUBMITTED BY: Jeff Deckman