Copyright 2000 Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
May 14, 2000, Sunday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Page 5; Calendar Desk
LENGTH: 1385 words
HEADLINE: POP MUSIC;
BARDS OF A FEATHER;
MARRIED SINGER-SONGWRITERS MICHAEL PENN AND AIMEE MANN SHARE A TALENT FOR WRITING LYRICS, MELODIES--AND THEIR OWN TICKET TO CRITICAL ACCLAIM.
BYLINE: NATALIE NICHOLS, Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar
It's a sunny afternoon in Laurel Canyon, but things are a little stormy inside the home of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. The stress of a photo session has sent Penn out the front door in pursuit of a nicotine fix as his wife mildly objects.
He returns almost immediately. "I only had one puff," he says. That's not so bad, he's told. "It is when it's your first day quitting," he replies sharply, clearly annoyed with himself.
But Penn quickly mellows as he and Mann settle into chairs in their large living room, which is adorned with books, art, musical instruments, exotic rugs and comfortably distressed furniture. Sitting near a bookcase filled with reference works (including "The Pop-Up Book of Phobias"), they lightheartedly rehash the discomfort of posing for pictures, and soon the tension dissipates.
The talking certainly helps, but the returning calm seems just as much the result of a nonverbal communion between these two remarkably well-matched people, who got together five years ago and were married in late 1997.
As individual artists, Mann, 39, and Penn, 41, share a knack for writing beautiful melodies in the tradition of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and R.E.M., as well as lyrics about terribly dysfunctional relationships.
Both are blue-eyed, and each has a birthday in August. They have each collaborated with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, Penn on the scores for "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," and Mann on the soundtrack to last year's "Magnolia," earning an Oscar nomination for the song "Save Me."
Both are also part of the scene at Largo, the tiny Fairfax district nightclub that has cultivated a community of literate, eccentric artists including Jon Brion, Fiona Apple and Grant Lee Phillips.
The Largo vibe has proven so comfortable that Mann and Penn are taking it on the road in the form of their Acoustic Vaudeville tour, which comes to the Henry Fonda Theatre on Thursday and Friday and the Sun Theatre on May 25.
Modeled after their intimate club performances, the show features the duo taking turns in the spotlight, backed by each other and a band. They'll also continue their quirky practice of having stand-ins handle the between-song banter (in the case of the Fonda shows, comedian Patton Oswalt), relieving them of a chore that ranks right up there with posing for pictures.
"It's hard enough to get a grasp of the songs we've rehearsed," Mann jokes.
As much as they enjoy re-creating a familiar setting in unfamiliar places, Mann and Penn are also delighted to be presenting a concert the way they want to, rather than following conventional wisdom by doing individual sets.
"Every system that the music industry has, has served each of us poorly," says Penn, summarizing their separate long histories of baffling record labels with their critically praised but unfashionable pop. "So the more systems we can subvert, the more exciting it is."
"Also, there's something to be said for doing something that's meaningful to you, rather than in this rigidly prescribed way," says Mann, whose successful reacquisition from Universal Music Group of her latest album, "Bachelor No. 2," has been a big story in the music press.
Her husband recently negotiated a similar release from Epic Records, gaining ownership of his latest collection, "MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident)," and his Web domain name (michaelpenn.com). Thus, he joins Mann and many other enduringly talented musicians who are using the Internet to connect directly with their audiences.
Ironically, at least for Mann's former label, shortly after she became independent her "Magnolia" work garnered the most attention she's had since scoring the 1985 hit "Voices Carry" with her old band 'Til Tuesday.
Penn escorted her to the Academy Awards ceremony in March, feeling not only proud of his wife, he says, but also "happy to see something really good getting some acknowledgment, from whatever quarter. Because of 'Magnolia,' Aimee's gotten some recognition, where she was sort of slighted in the whole female revolution of a few years ago."
Penn seems not at all envious of her time in the spotlight--not only because they are a mutually supportive couple, but also because neither particularly enjoys being scrutinized.
"We don't like public speaking," says Penn. For him, it's too much like acting, an occupation he has assiduously avoided (outside of some long-ago work as an extra and a small role in "Boogie Nights"), partly because it's the chosen livelihood of his entire family, including younger brothers Sean and Christopher, mother Eileen Ryan and his late father, director-actor Leo Penn.
Instead, Michael took up guitar as a child, joined cover bands in junior high, and was writing songs by the time he was attending Santa Monica High School. After a stint in the '80s band Doll Congress, he launched his solo career on RCA with 1989's "March," which produced his biggest hit, 1990's "No Myth." The follow-up, 1992's "Free for All," didn't fare as well. Problems with the label ensued, and five years passed before Penn emerged with "Resigned," this time on Epic.
Virginia-born Mann attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where 'Til Tuesday was formed in 1983. Her romantic travails informed both "Voices Carry" and the songs on her critically acclaimed solo albums, 1993's "Whatever" and 1995's "I'm With Stupid."
A combination of creative differences and corporate mergers kept her at odds with record companies for years, until last year when she became free and clear. She initially sold "Bachelor No. 2" on her Web site, and it was distributed to stores earlier this month.
Acoustic Vaudeville has required them to spend more time together--or, as Penn puts it, "less inappropriate time apart"--but both insist they never get sick of each other. In fact, the idea of familiarity breeding contempt contradicts their sense of what a relationship should be, although Mann observes that "most people do marry their enemy, and they're in constant opposition."
That kind of strife is a fascination for these songwriters, who both tend to analyze romantic malfunctions from the viewpoint of someone who can't quite believe how bad they were. Penn says his songs are a way of "dissecting the past and trying to figure out the patterns I've been in."
Conflict certainly lends a more satisfying bite to their pretty tunes, but Penn says he's also on a bit of a mission to expose the "gilded lie" that is Western culture's ideal of love.
"If you talk about, say, 'Romeo and Juliet,' most people will think of it as a play about the highest form of romantic love," he says. "They won't realize that it is a horrible tragedy. And this notion of a soul mate is so damaging. That isn't love at all. It's a knee-jerk reaction that has much more to do with your parents and your own dysfunction, and knowing that's a person you can repeat a pattern with. It has nothing to do with the person."
Not that Penn doesn't believe in true love, he hastens to add. "But that's something that develops out of friendship," he says. "That's the cosmic thing, the spiritual thing that happens later."
Indeed, the Mann-Penn union evolved in just that way. They first met about a decade ago, not long after 'Til Tuesday released its last album, when Penn was touring to support his debut collection, "March." A fan of Penn's music, Mann caught his show in Boston, then later "borrowed" his producer Tony Berg to work on material for her debut album. Years passed, then they met again when Mann came to Los Angeles to work on "I'm With Stupid."
"We were both out of relationships and determined to never get into one again," Penn recalls. "We were just hanging out as friends, and it grew from there."
They have so much in common, however, that the attraction occasionally seems a little strange even to them.
"At the same time," Penn says, "what we do is sort of the mating call of a very specific kind of animal, so it makes sense that we wound up together."
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn play Thursday and Friday at the Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., 8 p.m. $ 31. (323) 480-3232. Also May 25 at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, 8:30 p.m. $ 25. (714) 712-2700.
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: The Acoustic Vaudeville tour has required Penn and Mann to spend more time together, but both insist they never get sick of each other. PHOTOGRAPHER: KIRK McKOY / Los Angeles Times