Copyright 2000 Playboy
LENGTH: 2,812 words
SECTION: Playboy's 20 Questions
HEADLINE: Aimee Mann: The indie rocker hits some high notes on record labels, hackneyed lyrics and Britney Spears
BYLINE: Robert Crane
Aimee Mann fears nothing. Not even a cliched comparison to David and Goliath. The embattled singer, 39, has taken on corporate entertainment giants Seagram and Universal, labels Epic, Geffen and Interscope, and Svengali music executives Jimmy Iovine and Ted Fields. Despite her waifish appearance, Mann is a survivor in a landscape littered with show business casualties.
After dropping out of the Berklee School of Music in the early Eighties, Mann formed a seminal New Wave band, `Til Tuesday, which became an MTV favorite. Voices Carry (written by Mann) made the Billboard Top Ten and the album sold more than a million copies. The band recorded three albums for Epic before leaving the label over creative differences that is, Epic wanted more Top 40 dance-pop. It took Mann three years to get out of her contract; in the meantime she was unable to record or release new material elsewhere. Finally, starting over, Mann went solo, recording the critically acclaimed Whatever, for the ill-fated Imago label. Her second solo album, I'm With Stupid, was eventually sold to Geffen Records, which released it to even more acclaim in 1996.
In 1999, eight of Mann's songs were featured in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, with one, Save Me, earning her an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Phil Collins) and a Golden Globe nomination. Mann's third solo album, Bachelor No. 2, went into limbo when Geffen became a casualty of the merger of Universal and Polygram. Mann and her manager, Michael Hausman, finally bought back the collection of songs and released it on her own label, SuperEgo Records, available through aimeemann.com.
Robert Crane caught up with the attractively lanky singer at the Coffee House in West Hollywood. Crane reports: "Mann is a fierce defender of artistic independence. Her husband of three years, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, has been through similar battles. They tour together, armed with a wicked sense of humor. Mann is dedicated and opinionated. She takes no prisoners. But she loves to laugh, and when she smiles, the whole room lights up."
PLAYBOY: What's Thanksgiving like at the Penn household, and who is the alpha brother?
MANN: I think Michael is, but my guess is each one of them would dispute that. Usually we go to Michael's mother's house or we have in the past. And there's always some brother arguing with another. That's sort of notable.
PLAYBOY: If you ran a record label, how would you tell an artist you didn't like his or her album?
MANN: That was never my problem with record labels. They liked my record or didn't like my record. My problem was when they didn't like my record, wouldn't put it out and then wouldn't let me leave the label you're stuck on a label that doesn't want you. If somebody thinks there's no way they can sell a record, that's an intelligent thought based on practical matters. But nobody has those conversations with you. They just say, "We're not going to put it out." They don't say, "Here's why. Here's our difficulty." It's like, "Well, it's not commercial enough. We don't think we can sell 3 million records. It's not worth our time." So there you go. As an artist, I never found any room for a creative alternative plan. "Well, how about we market it in this way? How about if we go for a different audience on a smaller level, in this direction, by these means?" Nobody wanted to hear that. If I were running a label, I would sit everybody down and brainstorm and see if we could come up with a way to work it.
PLAYBOY: We suspect that your fans are also your husband's fans. Whose fans are more ardent?
MANN: It's kind of the same ballpark. I think at this juncture I probably have more volume because of the Magnolia soundtrack, but other than that, I can't really say.
PLAYBOY: When one of you writes a really good song, is the other jealous, or supportive?
MANN: Totally supportive. Jealousy never enters into it. For instance, he plays something for me and I go, "What a great line. That's a great phrase. I love this melody." You just point out the stuff you like.
PLAYBOY: Ever rip each other off?
MANN: No, but sometimes we tread on the same territory and don't really realize it. More often it happens in phrasing or using the same type of metaphor, but I think that's inevitable.
PLAYBOY: Do you have pens and pads of paper on your night stands?
MANN: No. You really have to be in the habit of writing stuff down, and I'm out of the habit because I'm in the touring-and-supporting-the-record mode, which is kind of a bad environment for songwriting. He's much better at it than I am. He has a much larger storehouse of ideas. I have virtually nothing on the back burner. There's no bank of ideas or pages. There's just pretty much nothing. it would have to be from scratch at this point.
PLAYBOY: Lilith Fair-- care to spill the beans on any offstage antics?
MANN: I did only four shows. It seems that everybody is disgustingly supportive and extremely nice, offering to sing background vocals on other people's songs. There are no jealousies or power struggles of any kind, from what I could observe. It was not only devoid of that, but shockingly the other way. Sarah McLachlan said, "Oh, I love your stiff. I love this song. I'd love to sing it. Come up and play with us." It's one big happy family. And also it's summer, it's outdoors. It feels more like summer camp than being on tour.
PLAYBOY: We hear you hung out with Tom Cruise during the making of Magnolia. Was he an inspiration to you and the film?
MANN: He's just an amazing guy. Looking at movie stars, you always have to wonder. But he's definitely able to focus on you-- whoever you are-- when he's talking to you, which is kind of amazing, given that 8 million people are always trying to talk to him at once. But he never blinks, and I find that suspicious. He seems genuinely nice and a kindhearted guy. Pretty rare.
PLAYBOY: It seems like some young film stars would much rather be musicians. What don't they understand? Can you offer any advice?
MANN: Like Keanu Reeves? Don't they understand it's a fucking grind? It's a tough job and people have to get over this fucking narcissistic idea that how it looks is more important than how it is. Yes, I'm sorry, it looks really glamorous, but it's not. It's work, like any other job. And being on location for two months shooting a movie, at least your in the same place every day. It's nothing like being in a different place every night and having to forage for food sometimes. That's my existence, anyway. I'm sure Sheryl Crow gets regular meals. You have to be in it for making records and writing songs, which is very rewarding. The other stuff is trying to sell it and that's never the fun part, unless you have a talent for it. If you're a good performer and have a desperate need to be loved by millions, a certain kind of dysfunction can help you along.
PLAYBOY: Is music still fun when you're mature enough to forgo indulgences that come with the musical life?
MANN: Music is more fun when you're old enough to really know what you're doing and insist on doing what you really want to do, as opposed to getting pushed around in a hundred directions, none of which you feel comfortable with but you feel you can't refuse, like when you're told, "You ought to learn some dance steps." And when you're young, you're trying to please people who shouldn't necessarily be pleased. They say, "You know, you guys should get a smoke machine." You're like, "Well, I always hated that kind of stuff, but maybe. OK, whatever." Michael and I do what we want with our live show. This is a true "we do not give a shit" rock show. One of the big things I used to hear from managers way, way back when I was in `Til Tuesday was, "You have to talk more onstage. You have to talk more to the audience." They actually gave me a piece of paper, like, "Here are some things you should say: How are you feeling tonight? Are you ready to rock?" No kidding. So I've always felt this pressure to talk onstage. When Michael and I started playing Largo in Los Angeles, both of us felt awkward about bantering between songs, so we said, "Fuck it. Let's get one of our comedian friends to do it." So we have a comedian on the road who does our banter for us. It's an insane idea that is so great, and it's entertaining for us. We get a whole comedy show between songs while we're onstage. Couldn't be better.
PLAYBOY: Has the need for a single ruined music?
MANN: What's ruining music is record executives who think they know what a single is, without benefit of being a musician, knowing anything about music or fucking listening to music-- like, not even being a music fan. If you're a music fan and you listen to 50 songs, there's one song that you keep singing at the end of the day. All right, that's the single. But the record executives don't do that. They think there's a formula, and the formula is, "Make it like a song that's already been a hit." That is what has ruined music-- executives at record companies who think they are better at making records than musicians and producers-- the people who make records.
PLAYBOY: Describe examples of hackneyed lyric writing.
MANN: The first one is when you hear the first line and then you can pretty much telegraph what the rhyme is going to be. Like "sitting by the phone, here I am all alone"-- that kind of thing. When somebody does a setup that's normal, and then comes in with something you didn't expect, that's pretty satisfying to me. I would also include gambling imagery, though I've done it, too. But cards and dice, those are always good. The elements-- wind, fire, earth, nature-- are usually bad. Weather in general. Oh my God! Rain-- stay away from rain altogether. Rain and sun. The sun should never come out. No rain should come down ever again.
PLAYBOY: Can one sing about love too much?
MANN: You've got to change your angle. I mean, love-- "Boy/Girl, I love you more than you love me"-- yeah, you could definitely sing about that too much. The dynamic that I'm more interested in now is, "You love me and I'm totally incapable of having any kind of human relationship."
PLAYBOY: Jewel is now the world's highest-paid poet, reportedly earning $2 million for her book of poetry. Would you care to comment?
MANN: You're just looking for a catfight! Listen, how old was Jewel when she wrote that stuff? Read my lyrics when I was 23 and you'll find I didn't write lyrics any better than she writes poetry. But people are buying it, so somebody likes it. Obviously, nobody gives you $2 million for doing something they don't think is going to sell, so it's to somebody else's benefit to make that deal. And however naive-- or whatever assessment you want to make of Jewel and her poetry-- she's the one with $2 million. I don't think Jewel is naive or simpleminded in any way. I think she's clever and canny, and she's doing what she wants. When does great art ever get its monetary due? It never happens. Whatever. I can't get that worked up about it. She's fine. She's great. She's beautiful. She has a great voice. She's perfect. She's exactly what everyone wants.
PLAYBOY: Any advice for the current crop of nymphet singers?
MANN: Where would you even start? I think these stars are primarily singers and performers. I thought of myself primarily as a songwriter and not a very good performer, so I come from a whole different mind-set. Also, there are moneymakers who won't encounter the kind of problems that I do. I don't think they're going to come out with albums that make anybody doubt their ability to sell them, but if they want to, they should stick to their guns. They'll get a bunch of shit for it, and I'll quote somebody-- I'm not sure, but I think it's Cyril Connolly: "It's better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self." My friend Andy Kindler is one of the comics we have on the road. One of his jokes is his advice to aspiring performers: "Take the high road-- less traffic."
PLAYBOY: What two things does Britney Spears have going for her?
MANN: That's a pitiful question [laughs]. She's lovely and she can sing and dance. She's a great performer. She doesn't write, does she? I don't even know. Did she write that song? You never know, because these kids are so young. It's fun to dress up and dance and sing, but at the end of the day when they're done with that, maybe they'll go, "What I really feel best about is serious songwriting." But then it will be difficult because executives will always look at them with dollar signs in their eyes and know that they can market the hell out of them the same way they had before.
PLAYBOY: Do you think of your music as elitist?
MANN: Well, it's very niche-oriented. Yes, you might have to read a book. That is one of the basic requirements. It might help if you're familiar with the English language. I can't call that elitist. You don't need a glossary to fucking understand my language. I think my lyrics are conversational. They're the kinds of conversations I have. Everyone's invited. If you have a hard time keeping up, we'll give you some books to read first. I mean, c'mon. I'm not overly intellectual. I don't think I'm intellectual at all. But compared with people who toss lyrics on top of a little tune and don't care if it makes any linear sense at all, the contrast is fairly literate, but it's not arcane in any way.
PLAYBOY: The Penn boys are enormously talented. What are their hidden talents?
MANN: The other two, Sean and Christopher-- first of all, I don't know that much about them. But nobody juggles at Thanksgiving, for instance. I think they're actors through and through. Michael is an extraordinary human being. He's extremely smart. It's not hidden talents so much; it's his hidden interests that are kind of surprising. He knows an enormous amount about theology, the history of the Catholic Church and the occult roots of Nazism. He's a fascinating guy.
PLAYBOY: You've complained that too much emphasis has been put on attractiveness. While it's a problem, you certainly qualify. Is it so wrong to get the message from a messenger who is physically appealing?
MANN: Lucky for me, because if I weren't, I'd be fucked. I don't think it's wrong, but I think we've been trained to dismiss music from people who aren't attractive. Janis Joplin could never get a record deal today. Carole King? C'mon. Tapestry was a big hit because it was a great record, and I think she's attractive. But she's not a goddamn model, and she would never get a record deal today. Never. Forget it. And that's why you have Jewel instead of Carole King, and if the music suffers a little bit, so be it. But we already have models. We can look at beautiful women until the cows come home. There are good-looking girls who are young and are great performers and that's always fine, but it's definitely at the expense of more-talented people who could really bring depth to one's musical world. But people aren't looking for that. They're overentertained. They're accustomed to constant entertainment, which has to be lighter, because you can't work with that volume of entertainment if any of it's meaningful.
PLAYBOY: Men have muses. What do women have?
MANN: Problems. Actually, I don't think men have muses. Michael doesn't. A woman dreamed up that one. "I'm going to be his muse. That's how I'm going to contribute to great art. I'm going to sit there and look hot." If you want to be his muse, give him a hard time. Then he'll really have something to write about.