Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Limited
Sunday Times (London)
April 16, 2000, Sunday
LENGTH: 1060 words
HEADLINE: If at first you don't succeed...
BYLINE: Mark Edwards
What do you do when your record label has let you down? If you're Aimee Mann, you turn your back on the biz and release your albums yourself.
I suppose I should admit that I'm writing this piece about Aimee Mann and I haven't even heard her new record. Still, it's not my fault. The London office of her record company failed to supply me with a copy. "That's how sad an operation this is," admits Mann, and then she laughs, because the London office of her record company is actually the small grey bag sitting on the table in the dressing room behind the ICA theatre, where our interview is taking place.
Mann is one of an increasing number of artists who have opted out of the major record companies and set up on their own (others include Jane Siberry, Ani DiFranco and, most famously, the Artist formerly known as Prince). Her new album, Bachelor No 2, is on her own Superego label. But we're at the ICA because she's just finished a showcase to promote her other current album, the soundtrack to the new Tom Cruise movie, Magnolia, which consequently is available on Warner.
The story behind the two albums couldn't be more different. Bachelor No 2, like Mann's previous solo albums - the wonderful I'm With Stupid, and the even more wonderful Whatever - emerged only after months of delays and record-company wrangles. Magnolia, on the other hand, saw Mann finally getting just a little of the luck that has so conspicuously avoided her for the past decade.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the hit film Boogie Nights, was such a fan of Mann's music that he approached her with the idea of basing a whole screenplay around her songs. Anderson puts it like this: "Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee's songs into a screenplay ... she was articulating feelings and ideas better than I ever could and I wanted to rip her off."
Mann describes Anderson as "a fan, and a friend" and recalls him searching through her house, opening drawers, looking for tapes of songs he might not have heard. "He said he might use them in a movie," says Mann. "But I didn't take it seriously. I've had songs supposed to be in movies before, but the scene gets cut, so the song disappears." Then she saw the screenplay for Magnolia, and realised how crucial her songs were to this particular script.
In one scene, the opening lines of her song Deathly - "Now that I've met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?" - had become a line of dialogue. In another extraordinary scene, the main characters in the film sing her song Wise Up, taking a line each as the film cuts between them and their interlinking plot lines. The scene marks a low point
in all the characters' lives, as Mann's lines pull them all together in the realisation: "You got what you want / Now you can hardly stand it, though / By now you know / It's not going to stop / It's not going to stop / It's not going to stop / Till you wise up."
As with so many of her songs (not least the title track on
I'm With Stupid), it's perfectly possible to read the song as an examination of Mann's relationship with the music industry. But after a decade of being as underappreciated by record labels as she is revered by her cult audience, the high profile of Magnolia finally appears to be giving Mann the kind of success she has always deserved.
That's Mann's career in a nutshell: screwed around by record companies, but adored by creative types such as Anderson and Elvis Costello, who can't get enough of her sophisticated pop, with its incisive lyrics and imaginative melodies.
Her most recent professional troubles came last year with the merger of Universal and PolyGram, two of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. Mann (who was on the Universal-owned Geffen label) survived the culling of 200 acts that followed, but it was still a difficult time.
"There's no postcard that comes saying, 'Congratulations, you made the cut,'" she says. "You just gradually find out that you survived. And since they had heard most of the record (Bachelor No 2), when we found out that we didn't get axed, I of course assumed that they therefore liked it."
But months went by and still there was little feedback from the company. "Well, nobody delays telling you that you're a genius and it's the best record they've ever heard," she says, "so I called my manager and said, 'That's it, I've had it.'"
Wanting out and getting out are - as Mann knows all too well - different things. In all, it took her three years to get out of her first solo recording contract, with Epic, back in the late 1980s, before she could finally release Whatever (one of the finest pop albums of the 1990s, by the way) on Imago. Then Imago lost its distribution deal just as her second album, I'm With Stupid, was ready, and it was a further two years before Geffen finally took her on and released it.
Throughout this whole saga, Mann came to appreciate her independence more and more. "Once you make the decision not to engage in the impossible struggle that you can never possibly win, it instantly becomes fun again," says Mann. "That's a big theme on this record, actually - the triumph of quitting. There's a song on it called Calling It Quits. That's my anthem: I'm giving up, and it's great!"
Right now, Bachelor No 2 is only available on the internet
(at aimeemann.com), but Mann is close to arranging a distribution deal for Europe with a major label that should see it in stores soon. A major label? Is that such a good idea? "Being signed in America was nothing but difficulties," she explains, "but every time I come over here, it's been great."
I suggest that the success of Magnolia must make for sweet revenge over those who doubted her abilities. "Revenge isn't very important," says Mann. "Except, yeah, it does make me feel like, 'See, I told you I can sell some records. I'm not a total loser.' But you know what you'd hope? You'd hope that they might look at this and think, maybe the next time an artist like her comes along we'll give it a little bit more thought."
Mann pauses, picks up her London office and puts it on her shoulder. "But you know what? Forget it! It will never happen. Never happen."
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