LENGTH: 2,364 words
HEADLINE: Against The Machine: Aimee Mann's Stubborn Diligence Pays Off
BYLINE: Jeff Clark
Every now and then, being "difficult" has its rewards. Sometimes, hard as it may be to believe, if you stand up for your dignity, you'll actually save it.
Ask Aimee Mann about that. A supremely talented songwriter and musician who bloomed as a solo artist following her '80s notoriety in a post-new wave band she outgrew, she unwittingly became the unfortunate poster child for screwed-over artists the world over, being juggled from record label to record label, standing by as they went under or were sold, having her material shunned by corporations who then refused to let her record for others... the list goes on ad infinitum, which often distracted attention away from her music. Like a lost-time accident (to steal a thought from the title of her husband Michael Penn's latest album), Aimee released only two albums during the '90s, Whatever and I'm With Stupid. Were they excellent, emotionally naked, vivid recordings? Oh yeah. Were they underpromoted and overlooked? For the most part, uh huh. Which was pretty much par for the course for talented, adult-themed singer-songwriters working with big labels at that point. We may have had seven or eight "years of the woman" in the 1990s, but Mann wasn't a piano-humping new-age kook like Tori or a flailing Gen-X whiner like Alanis or a namedropping grunge/smack casualty like Courtney, nor did she fit into any other convenient categories. If this was the '60s or '70s, I'm convinced Aimee Mann would be considered the equivalent of Joni Mitchell, but Mitchell herself couldn't get signed these days, believe me. Still, Mann's nightmarish dealings with an industry trying to mold her into something she wasn't -- the details of which we'll skip in the interest of space -- were unusually pathetic, even in context.
All of which just makes the past year even more glorious and satisfying. Tired of being tossed around and ignored, Aimee Mann put her money where her mouth had been and opted out of the machinery of the major label system altogether. It cost her a lot of time and money and headaches, but her long, frustrating road to artistic and personal freedom has finally, overwhelmingly paid off. It's been the busiest, most successful year of Mann's post-'Til Tuesday career, one in which she had two critically-adored albums released, undertook a thoroughly enjoyable concert tour with Penn, had her songs featured prominently in filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling movie Magnolia, and performed one of them on the Academy Awards.
"It worked out really well, that's for sure," Mann agrees, calling from Los Angeles, where she and Penn live. "It's a huge relief to be working outside the strictures of the major label system... I'm doing much better [revenue-wise]. I mean, I had to pay for everything. If we have some idea for marketing or we do a tour, we pay for it all ourselves. There's no subsidized tour support, I hire a publicist, and photographers for press photos, all that stuff I pay for, and that's usually what the record companies would pay for. But you get to make your own decisions. If I wanna spend 20 cents more per album to have a gatefold sleeve cardboard CD cover rather than a stupid jewel box, I can make the decision to do that, because I think it's worth it."
Of course, freedom has other costs and headaches. Mann had to buy her newest album Bachelor No. 2 back from Interscope Records after they declined to released it, citing a lack of commercial hit material, and she's been marketing it through her website since February. After trying to fulfill the orders themselves for several months, Mann and her longtime manager, former 'Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausman, hired the company Artistdirect to handle it. "You know, you can't really do it totally on your own, just like anything. You can't sell your records on the side of the road at a little stand, you know," she laughs. And, she readily admits, "It's actually pretty difficult to sell that many records just through mail-order over a website... You have to get it in the stores." In May she got independent distribution, meaning the album could finally be found at retail stores. Even so, she acknowledges that her albums aren't the kind of thing every place is going to carry, thus she still sells quite a number of her albums, both her current ones and her back catalog, at shows and over the web. Such options make it easier for an artist like her to go totally independent. "You can put out your own record, and yeah, it's pretty hard to sell your own record, I'll grant you that, but you can put it out and sell it on the internet. There really is some kind of option, whereas before there were no options whatsoever. And so if you wanted to have a career of any magnitude, you had to sign a contract."
With all of her success this year, of course Mann has gotten interest yet again from some large labels. Would she ever sign a contract with a big company again?
"No. Definitely not. I have no interest in it. I mean, it's impossible. First of all, they own your material. They own the recordings... You're bought and sold and passed along, and then suddenly a crappy thing comes out and it's got your name on it."
She's referring to Aimee Mann: The Ultimate Collection, a new, somewhat shoddy "best of" from her solo work of the '90s that Hip-O Records, a budget reissue arm of Universal Music (which owns both Interscope and Geffen, who put out I'm With Stupid, released without her consent or input.
"We're gonna take them to court," Mann vows. "It's totally unauthorized, and in fact they didn't even contact us. We heard about it through the grapevine. We got in touch with them, and we said, 'Cut it out, you don't have a right to do this,' and they said, 'Well, we believe that we do, so we don't care.' And then I talked to [Hausman], and I said, 'Look, why don't we contact them, and try to get involved, so at least it can be something that I'm not ashamed of being out there?' And [Hip-O] basically came back with, 'You know what? Fuck you, we don't want your input, we're gonna do what we want.' So they have stuff on there like a rough mix of a b-side that's a mix of this one reel when it was two reels of instruments, there's some live thing that was done on the radio like ten years ago that wasn't even authorized to have been recorded, much less put on record. So there's like this ragtag motley collection of crap that I wouldn't even put on Napster. So I think it's a total fraud, because people think that I've put out a record, and you know, there's an assumption that if your name is on it, you had something to do with it. To call it The Ultimate Collection is a con. And it's annoying, on yet another level, because once again, here I am talking about the fucking record companies screwin' me over. It's never-ending! I get out of the system entirely, and here it comes back to haunt me once more. And just the hypocrisy involved is astonishing, because these are the same fuckers who didn't wanna put out my record. Now that I've done all the work, they wanna hitch their crappy caboose to the train."
Thoughts of such future disillusionment never entered Aimee's head growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the '70s. In fact, thoughts of a future in the corrupt ol' music business didn't really enter her mind at all.
"I was just a fan of certain things, like early Elton John, and Neil Young, and that kind of stuff, but it wasn't something I really applied to my life. I mean, I couldn't really make that leap. I wasn't one of those people who took a tennis racket and stood in front of the mirror and pretended it was a guitar," she laughs. "It didn't ever even occur to me to do something like that... I don't think I thought about the possibility of actually being a musician 'til punk and new wave came in, and that was a whole different thing, you know, it was real 'do it yourself' and 'anything goes,' and then I started to think, 'Well, maybe there's a place for me.' I mean, I had started trying to teach myself how to play guitar by then, and could sort of sing a few Neil Young songs or Bob Dylan songs on the guitar, but that was about it."
Moving to Boston, she enrolled in the Berklee School of Music to hone her songwriting skills. "I heard about this school, and I was like, maybe if I learn about music then I'll know if I have any talent or not. So I went to a summer session at this school, and did really well, so I stayed at it for a couple of years. And that's sort of what started it. I really didn't understand music before then. And then suddenly it clicked into place and all made sense. So I felt like it was something at that point I could actually attempt... When I was at that school, I started a band that was kind of this art/new wave band [The Young Snakes], and you know, there was just no such thing as a melody or chord progression. Everything was very atonal, and it was sort of like... we followed no rule of rhythm nor harmony, but in terms of later becoming a songwriter and learning to write songs, I really don't think I could have been a songwriter [without Berklee]. It was all information that I really needed, to understand how harmony worked."
After The Young Snakes, of course, Mann hooked up with a bunch of pretty dudes to form 'Til Tuesday, whose songs of awkward, self-aware angst seemed lifted straight off a John Hughes movie soundtrack. Quintessential '80s MTV stuff, they were as known as much for their big coifs as for their tunes, but by their second and third albums it was clear Mann was becoming a formidable songwriter. What goes through her head now when she sees an old photograph from those days?
"It wasn't a particularly happy time. I'm certainly not nostalgic for it. I would never go back," she confesses. "Um, the hair thing, it's like, you know, every fashion movement has its own hair and clothes that fifteen years later look really stupid. You know, eighties clothes are already coming back, so it all comes around. I certainly remember feeling that 'Bellbottoms, ugh, they'll never come back...' For years, people said that kind of thing, and of course, there you go: they're back. An advantage of being older is you say, 'never say never.' Stuff always comes back."
She doesn't perform much of that old stuff anymore, though, save for the occasional run-through of 'Til Tuesday's signature hit "Voices Carry." And it's just as well. Her solo albums are far superior, benefiting from a worldly-wise perspective and a more intimate presentation. There are moments on Bachelor No. 2 and the Magnolia soundtrack, especially, that the ache, the heartbreak, is so fragile and direct that you feel sorta uncomfortable listening to it. Mann has one of the loveliest, and loneliest, voices I've ever heard, and she knows innately how to make her lyrics say exactly the appropriate thing, whether devastatingly bitter or hopelessly smitten. She and Penn are not, of course, known for their wacky senses of humor, which is why the "Acoustic Vaudeville" tour they undertook this year worked on several levels. Backed by a fine band and trading off songs, her and Michael sounded incredible at their Variety Playhouse show in June, but what balanced the mood of the whole evening was Patton Oswalt, the comedian they brought along to open the show and provide the "between song patter" for the comparatively quiet Mann and Penn. Thus you had this wildman comic parodying the whole thing, screaming absurdities like "here's another song about pussy!" before Mann starts some obvious heartwrencher. It was a weird concept, but it worked, because it fucked with expectations; everybody -- especially Mann and Penn -- were laughing their asses off, not necessarily something associated with either of them.
"Yeah, and I think that's the intention," explains Mann. "It serves a lot of functions. Each of us were playing almost a full set, and it helps to break it up, it helps to lighten the mood, and I think it gets people energized. It gets people really paying attention to what's being said, so then as you're listening to the comedian, you pay attention to what he's saying, and you kind of transfer that kind of attention to the lyrics, which increases your enjoyment. I think, obviously Michael and I are two writers who spend a lot of time on the lyrics... And believe me, I'm bitter. There's plenty of bitterness, but it's funny bitter. It's laughy bitter. I mean, I think bitterness is funny, personally. [But] it's just impossible to be funny in a context where you're trying to concentrate on performing musically, and you wanna do it well. That takes an amount of concentration that just isn't conducive to sort of light chatter, light onstage chattery 'How ya doin',' it's very hard to switch modes."
After a busy year on the road and off, Mann is finally starting to slow down, playing a few dates here and there but spending more time at home with Penn. There's talk of them releasing a live album from the "Acoustic Vaudeville" shows -- "We're thinking about it, but I couldn't tell you exactly what our plans are," she says. But you can rest assured she's enjoying finally being able to relax with the knowledge that her future, for the first time in a long time, is in her own hands.