The Associated Press
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March 6, 2000, Monday, BC cycle
SECTION: Entertainment News
LENGTH: 1015 words
HEADLINE: Aimee Mann's career set to re-bloom with 'Magnolia' soundtrack
BYLINE: By KIM CURTIS, Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: SAN FRANCISCO
Even if you can't remember the song, chances are you know the 1985 video for Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," in which Aimee Mann, stifled by an overbearing, abusive boyfriend, declares her independence by ripping off her hat and exposing spiky, bleached blonde hair with a skinny braided ponytail.
She begins singing from her seat during a stuffy opera, ignoring her boyfriend's repeated attempts to shush her: "He wants me, but only part of the time. He wants me if he could keep me in line."
Since childhood, the 39-year-old singer-songwriter has done things her own way.
A tomboy who taught herself to play her brother's guitar while she was laid up with mononucleosis at age 12, Mann later dropped out of the Berklee School of Music after four semesters because its engineering program wasn't strong enough.
She ventured out with a guitar, a powerful voice and heartfelt lyrics before Jewel, before Paula Cole, before Lilith Fair. And while she's had some commercial success over the years - three solo albums had critical success and even spawned a single or two - she remains mostly unknown to the record-buying public.
Now she's tasting success again, on her own terms, for poignant, straightforward pop with intelligent, honest lyrics, rather than the in-your-face attitude of years past.
"It's not tangible or immediate," she says. "I'm just making a living and being moderately successful. There's not a big ego payoff. It's the absence of feeling like a loser."
Mann's breakthrough could be the movie "Magnolia," about a traumatic day in the lives of nine characters in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. She wrote eight of the soundtrack's 11 songs, including "Save Me," which is up for an Academy Award for best original song.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who tapped Mann's musician husband Michael Penn for the "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights" soundtracks, says he was listening to her music when he began writing the script for "Magnolia."
"Everything she seemed to be thinking were things that I was thinking. This may be due to the fact that she was articulating feelings and ideas better than I ever could and I wanted to rip her off," Anderson said.
Speaking after a two-hour appearance in San Francisco - crooner Chris Isaak joined her on stage for a pared-down, acoustic version of the technopop "Voices Carry" - Mann appeared wired, her stick-straight, white-blonde hair pushed behind her ears. It was midnight and her eyes were bloodshot, but she was in a chatty mood.
"A show like this is great. The audience is fantastic, but it's very stressful. If you're exhausted, you can't feel good about walking on stage," she said in the spare, harshly lit dressing room.
Mann has known exhaustion. Some call her the poster girl for record deals gone bad, for artists who get chewed up and spit out by the business. If not for her determination and resilience, she might have quit altogether.
With that oh-so-'80s hair, Mann burst onto the charts at the height of New Wave and MTV with Boston-based 'Til Tuesday.
"People have this idea that you get signed and your worries are over," Mann said.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The band was finished after its third release, "Everything's Different Now," a title that proved prophetic. Mann had come into her own as a serious songwriter. The dance-pop of the group's debut had evolved into a more mature sound, which was unappreciated by her bandmates - and their label.
It took Mann three years to get out of her contract with Epic. In 1991, she released the critically acclaimed "Whatever" on Imago. But just as she prepared for her second release, the label lost its distribution deal and its financing.
Mann - and her album - languished for two more years until Geffen signed her in 1994 and, a year later, released "I'm With Stupid," a sardonic reference to her label woes.
What would she do differently?
"Virtually everything," she answers, from not being so quick to form a band in the first place to hiring a lawyer.
"You've got to be ignorant" to try to be a professional musician, she said. "It's nearly impossible to have real human relationships. It's crazy and exhausting."
Her latest effort, "Bachelor No. 2," was supposed to be released on Geffen, which was founded as an artist-friendly oasis by David Geffen in 1980. Universal bought the label in 1990, but merged with Polygram last year. It was then swallowed up by Interscope Records, which has made most of its money from gangsta rap.
Seven songs for the album were ready in July 1998. But shortly after handing them over, Mann was told the label executives "didn't hear a single."
"They have a formula," Mann said. "They really believe they know what they're doing. They discount the fact that there are people who want good, intelligent songwriting. ... They're listening for something else. They will totally miss your meaning.
"They say they don't hear a single, but they can't tell you what they want."
One of the two new songs Mann wrote to try to appease the record company was "Nothing is Good Enough."
The melodic piano arrangement and Mann's mournful voice disguise the biting lyrics: "It doesn't really help that you can never say what you're looking for. But you'll know it when you hear it, know it when you see it, know it when you see it walk through the door. So you say, so you've said before. But nothing is good enough for people like you."
Finally, Mann quit fighting. She and her manager, Michael Hausman, bought back the master tapes and released "Bachelor" on her own new label, Superego.
She's weary of people telling her what can and cannot be done. When she was growing up in Virginia, she wanted to learn to box and surf and build model airplanes.
"The level of opposition I received from people around me was phenomenal," she said. "You want to do things that express your personality. It's hurtful to be told over and over your personality is wrong."
Everything's different now. Mann is back in line. On her own terms, of course.
GRAPHIC: AP Photo NY342