Copyright 2000 Newspaper Publishing PLC  
The Independent (London)

May 18, 2000, Thursday


LENGTH: 1551 words


BYLINE: Andrew Gumbel


Strange things happen to people who listen to the music of Aimee Mann. Perhaps it is the mellifluous beauty of her songs, or her dazzling command of harmonic progressions, or the crisp, cool melancholy of her voice, or the burning honesty and linguistic playfulness of her lyrics. Or perhaps it is her iconic status as a poete maudite of modern rock, adored by the critics and by fellow musicians, but apparently condemned to drift through the limbo of the recording industry without ever quite finding the audience she deserves.

Whatever it is, it draws people to her like ancient Greek sailors to the Sirens. People don't just listen to Aimee Mann, they become obsessed. Cameron Crowe, the film director and former rock journalist, is one such fan. So is Liz Phair, the singer-songwriter, who knelt at Mann's feet when the two of them met at a concert a couple of years ago. And so too is Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and Hard Eight, whose recent film Magnolia puts her songs at the very heart of his fresco of restless characters cracking up over the course of one day in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley.

The duplicitous, apocalyptically tinged world that Anderson conjures up is ideally suited to Mann's temperament. Songs such as "Wise Up", which is used as a chorus for the main characters at the nadir of their disparate emotional journeys, or "Save Me", an extraordinary anthem of despair and redemption, illustrate the persuasive power of Mann's songs to engage and move her audience.

They might also just be the spell-breaker to end Mann's appalling run of luck. For more than 10 years, ever since she left her Boston-based band Til Tuesday to establish a solo career, her rich talents have been consistently let down, not to say sabotaged, by record industry executives unable to hear anything in her music except the lack of an obvious marketing strategy.

Twice, she found herself in a particularly pernicious form of musical hell, in which her record company would neither agree to release her songs nor allow her to look elsewhere for another label. Twice, she fell victim to corporate mergers that simply hung her and her music out to dry.

But now Magnolia has drawn a new, enthusiastic audience and won her nominations for both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. At the same time, she has managed to break free of the record companies and issue Bachelor No 2, her first studio album in five years, on her own label.

Although she is hardly the next Britney Spears, she is selling more records than ever, thanks in large part to the internet. And in the UK, Bachelor No 2 is currently the number-one seller on's online retail service.

Mann herself is laconic about this swing in her fortunes. "Magnolia has certainly brought in a new audience," she says cautiously. But she remains daunted by the process of "orbiting around this music industry sun" and the obstacles constantly put in the way of the one thing she wants to do, which is to write and play the music that comes from her heart and her gut.

And it is no wonder: as little as two years ago, she was being told that her new songs were "unreleasable", because the honchos at the Geffen label, where she was signed, "didn't hear a single" (a line that inspired her bitingly satirical retort "Nothing Is Good Enough", which features on Bachelor No 2). She was told to write more commercially, but without anyone specifying exactly how.

Mann was so desperate that she seriously considered giving up the music business altogether. "My discouragement level was really, really high - alarmingly so," she says. "There's nothing noble about persevering in a ridiculously futile circumstance. You think, 'if nobody cares I ought not to be doing this'. Of course, there are people who care, but they're not at your record company."

Mann was saved by the support group of musicians and friends she had built up in Los Angeles, many of them gravitating around an intimate club called Cafe Largo in the Fairfax district. She and her husband Michael Penn played a regular gig there on Tuesday nights; other performers included Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple (Paul Thomas Anderson's girlfriend) and Rufus Wainwright. Admired by a number of Hollywood players, they were periodically commissioned to provide songs for films: Smith won an Oscar nomination for his work on Good Will Hunting, while Mann herself had a song in Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire.

Anderson was a personal friend and enough of a fan to pester her regularly for sneak previews of her work. "If I'd written a new song, he'd say, 'play it for me, play it for me'," Mann recounted. "I didn't take the interest to be professional, at first. Things developed in an organic sort of way."

In particular, a demo tape of the song "Deathly" so impressed Anderson that he used it as the basis for the character Claudia, who takes refuge in drugs to mask her fear of relationships with men. As the script developed, so did the music. "Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee's songs into a screenplay," Anderson writes in his sleeve notes for the Magnolia soundtrack. "She was articulating feelings and ideas better than I ever could and I wanted to rip her off."

While the film was coming together, Mann's contractual status was falling apart. Geffen was bought out by Polygram and folded into Interscope, a label specialising in rap music; Polygram, in turn, was then bought out by the Universal Music Group, which set about dropping scores of artists from its rosters. Partly thanks to Magnolia, Mann was emboldened, along with her manager, to buy back her material and issue it independently under the SuperEgo Records imprint.

Bachelor No 2 reprises three songs from Magnolia - "Deathly", "You Do" and "Driving Sideways" - along with 10 others mining familiar Aimee Mann territory: the disappointments of unreliable relationships, the anger and insecurity that they generate, the sense of being adrift and alone. That may sound depressing, but in common with Mann's two earlier albums, Whatever and I'm With Stupid, her style covers a wide range from the emotionally intense to the downright jaunty.

Musically, she manages to devour an eclectic range of influences, from the tunefulness of the Beatles to the hard-edged rock of the Pretenders, by way of bluesy alternative country and - especially on the new album - Burt Bacharach.

She has also collaborated with Elvis Costello (with whom she co-wrote her Eighties hit "The Other End of the Telescope") and Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.

Her assured reworking of these disparate inspirations has only caused her material to improve over the years. One can't help wondering, in fact, if the frustrations she suffered at the hands of record producers didn't inadvertently turn her into a better artist. One of her earliest solo songs was already called "I've Had It"; on the new album, the theme continues with some raging lyrics on "Nothing is Good Enough" ("Critics at their worst could never criticise the way that you do/ No, there's no one else, I find, to undermine or dash a hope quite like you/ And you do it so casually too").

Mann acknowledges the autobiographical strain in her work, but rejects the idea that personal misfortune has somehow been her most reliable muse. "Nobody's life is perfect," she says. "There are always things ranging from the irritating to the downright painful, like losing a parent, or being stuck in a job that sucks the soul right out of your body. This sort of difficulty and anguish is a subject worth contemplating in itself. In my songs I like to get to the bottom of things and see if there is some core truth to get out. I really enjoy using language in an interesting way. All of this adds up to better song-writing."

Plenty of people in the business will tell you that Aimee Mann is difficult, or withdrawn, or a poor communicator. In person, she is quite the opposite - personable, smart, unpretentious and without bitterness. If she's happy about her current success, it's as much for the freedom it has given her, as it is about fame or recognition.

She is about to embark on the biggest US tour of her career, playing to larger houses in more cities than ever before. To alleviate Mann's awkwardness with on-stage banter, she and her band of musicians - including her husband, Michael, and her long-time guitarist and backing vocalist Buddy Judge - are hiring a succession of stand -up comics to do the talking for them. If the gimmick works, she might consider bringing the show to tour Britain.

Further down the line, she hopes to form a collective called United Musicians that would pool the resources of like-minded artists to record and distribute albums over the internet. She never imagined herself as an entrepreneur, but this project might be just the thing to rescue the airwaves from its relentless diet of mindless rap and teeny pop.

Of course, now that she is tasting success, the record companies are rushing to woo her back. But she's not tempted. "It's way too late for that," she says wryly. After a decade of frustration, she has music to make and no more time to waste.

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GRAPHIC: The use of Aimee Mann's music in 'Magnolia' has drawn a new audience and won her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations