LENGTH: 641 words
SECTION: Issue 835, p37, 1/2p, 1c
HEADLINE: True Hollywood Story: Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
BYLINE: Erik Himmelsbach
TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY:
AIMEE MANN AND MICHAEL PENN
In which two of L.A.'s best songwriters get dumped by their labels, get married and live happily ever after
If misery truly does love company, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn are the perfect couple. Married since 1998, the pair could tag-team a class called When Bad Things Happen to Good Songwriters.
Mann sits on a sofa nursing a cup of tea to fight a cold, but the vibe inside the couple's comfortably cluttered home in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon is upbeat. Though Penn, 41, and Mann, 39, may share a degree of cynicism toward the record industry, their sarcasm is laced with humor rather than bitterness. They both know that good songs are the best revenge.
And those they have in abundance. Epic has just released Penn's fourth album, MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident), a shining example of his quirky-jerky songwriting -- careening pop melodies stirred up with biting wordplay.
Meanwhile, Mann is putting the finishing touches on her third solo album, Bachelor No. 2. She's added a few songs to the record, which she bought back from Interscope following 1998's Polygram/Universal merger -- her new bosses had had a few suggestions for the album. "They said, 'Go write a bunch more songs and go back in the studio,' "she recalls.
"'Be different,'" Penn interrupts.
"Yeah, 'Be different,' "she says. "'Be another person,' "he adds. "Yeah," Mann continues. "'Could you just go away and be another person, one who sounds more like what we've heard before?'" Instead, she just went away, putting out the record on her own label, SuperEgo, and making it available on Aimeemann.com, as well as in stores.
Despite the serenity of the couple's marriage, Bachelor shows that Mann remains pop's wriest documentarian of love's emotional roller coaster. Thanks to a small but rabid fan base and the critical buzz she's riding from her songs on the Magnolia soundtrack, Mann could become the Ani DiFranco of the Internet -- an online indie superstar. You certainly can't blame her for gloating about this turn of events, but she takes no special satisfaction in comeuppance. "I was just so relieved to not have to stay awake at night trying to figure out how to work within a system that's impossible to work with," she says.
Both Mann and Penn learned the business the hard way. Mann arrived on the scene in 1984 as the voice of Boston's 'Til Tuesday; she was an icy, poufy-haired MTV pop queen in the video for the haunting ballad "Voices Carry." 'Til Tuesday recorded three albums before Mann went solo with 1993's Whatever. Before the follow-up, I'm With Stupid, was released, her label, Imago, went belly up. She was orphaned until Geffen issued Stupid without fanfare in 1995.
Penn, meanwhile, emerged from the shadow of his brother Sean in 1989. His debut, March, featuring the pure pop hit "No Myth," established him as an Elvis Costello-school songwriter. His second album, Free for All, flopped, and he sat in limbo for four years, unable to record for his label, RCA, or anyone else before landing at Epic in 1997. "I still stick pins in [the RCA mascot] Nipper," Penn jokes.
Mann and Penn have managed to recharge their creative batteries outside the corporate box, playing casual, spirited shows at the L.A. club Largo every Tuesday night for the past several months. "It's very, very loose, and it's such a forgiving crowd," says the ordinarily stage-shy Penn. "They know that they're there to experience it with you, and it really lends itself to some magical moments."
The couple have had such a good time, they're taking their loose-limbed Largo show on a brief nine-city tour. "Largo is the heart and soul of why we keep doing what we're doing," Mann says. "That's what it's all about. You play for an audience who cares. End of story."
PHOTO (COLOR): The little team that could: Penn and Mann in their L.A. home in July