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HEADLINE: On the road again with Aimee Mann
BYLINE: John Beck
When it comes time to interview a musician like Aimee Mann, the first thing I do is stock up on CDs. I often scan a few clips to find out what's been written about her, and more importantly what she's been asked a million times, so I don't duplicate the paper trail that has followed her across the country.
There's nothing worse than listening to someone recycle quotes they've regurgitated a thousand times before. You can hear it. They know it. Interviews should be conversations, not broken records, even if the topic arrives at something as banal as what you ate for breakfast. (Every morning, Mann chugs a protein shake her doctor prescribed, but that's beside the point).
When her third solo work and first indie release, "Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo," landed on my desk a month ago, I did what I always do. I gave it the car stereo test. After the 13 songs looped a few times on a trip to San Francisco, I began returning to specific tracks. First it was the obvious No. 3 "Red Vines." Then No. 5 "Satellite." Then No. 4 "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist," a collaboration with Elvis Costello. Then back to No. 3.
By the end of the week, random shuffle had taken over.
For whatever reason a second copy arrived a few weeks later. Usually, I throw excess copies in a cardboard box beside my desk for the newsroom to either fight over or laugh at. Not this time. I listened to it on the computer while writing stories. I took it home and listened to it while puttering about the house.
In other words, I absolutely fell in love with it.
Blessed with an ear for the ironic and a seductive vocal range, she lured me in like a siren. I must admit I was never a big fan of synth pop or Til Tuesday. And I'd pretty much forgotten about her solo career until, like millions, I was reminded of her again while watching "Magnolia" last year.
The former '80s poster girl with the big hair and elfin eyes has evolved into not only a perfect messenger of the melancholy but a brilliant songwriter.
This isn't news. Anyone who saw "Magnolia" can attest.
But what's promising is that it wasn't just another short-lived comeback. Her follow-up, which includes four songs from the soundtrack, may be as morose and vitriolic as a Smiths album, but it's loaded with enough hooks and melodies to make the Beatles proud.
"I know a lot of people think I'm sort of gloomy," Mann says, talking on the phone from Los Angeles as she prepares for short solo tour that stops off at Petaluma's Mystic Theater Monday.
"But to me it's a very very very positive thing. Really just defining a problem for yourself is always a first step for change."
By the time we get around to talking about writing as therapy and whether or not she could ever coin a song like R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People," we're already waist-deep in a private self-help session.
She starts by saying, "I can talk about this in real psychological terms because that's a big interest of mine" before we dive into a seminar on "constructed personalities" and "narcissistic fronts."
So it comes as no surprise when she mentions the last book she read was all about psychopaths -- "not violent psychopaths but your normal everyday psychopaths."
"They're a a small percentage of the population but they're the people who never ever can learn from the past. It's like the past doesn't exist for them," she says.
You could frame a graduate thesis around the way Mann has evoked such monsters throughout her career, from the "hushed puppetry" of "Voices Carry" to recent lyrics like "Nothing is good enough for people like you who have to have someone take the fall" in "Nothing is Good Enough." Or "As we were speaking of the devil you walked right in wearing hubris like a medal" in "It Takes All Kinds."
Call it a continuance or a comeback, if it took an unlikely miracle like director Paul Thomas Anderson's odd request to use her music as inspiration for scenes in his film epic "Magnolia," then so be it.
The effect ripples far beyond the screen. Liberated from obscurity, Mann has arrived -- again, not just because of newfound commercial success, but because of hard-won creative freedom. Jaded after confrontations with numerous record companies, she independently released "Bachelor No. 2" on the Internet before distributing it to stores. So far, she has sold 150,000 copies -- not a lot by label standards, but more than enough to bankroll her independence.
"Once I finally got to the end of my rope and said f--- this, I'm not going to do this anymore, I don't really care what happens, that was extremely liberating," she says.
"Now every day is a new fun challenge because I don't have those b------- looking over my shoulder."
Her ragtag journey from the Berkelee School of Music to the punk-influenced Young Snakes and Til Tuesday and on to the present hasn't been a cakewalk. Like many other gifted songwriters of lore she has suffered for her sanity, and artistic control.
When her last label Interscope began toying with upbeat drum tracks to make her sound "something like Natalie Imbruglia" she said no way, eventually buying back the rights to the album and putting it out herself.
Now, she's filed a lawsuit against Hip-O records, which recently released "Aimee Mann: The Ultimate Collection" without her permission.
It's yet another squabble in a lifelong series of battles over artistic direction.
As irony would have it, the negative encounters also inspire positive ends, fueling plenty of vindictive songs.
"The song 'Calling It Quits,' to me, that's a positive thing," she says. "Sometimes the smartest thing to do is quit. Sometimes try, try again is terrible advice."
Turning 40 in August has had no effect whatsoever, she says. But the accumulation of doomed relationships, invisible scars, and more importantly, probing lyrics, continues to make her a better songwriter.
"It used to be that if I was sort of having trouble coming up with lyrics on the spot, if I wasn't in that place of inspiration where they wrote themselves, then I was a little bit at a loss.
"I've gotten much better at taking over and kind of figuring out exactly what I want to say and maybe writing it down in a paragraph. ... It's a long exacting process, but I think I've gotten better at that."
You can reach Staff Writer John Beck at 521-5300 or e-mail at email@example.com.