Copyright 2000 The Washington Post  
The Washington Post

February 4, 2000, Friday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 1234 words

HEADLINE: SPOTLIGHT; Mann's Double Exposure

BYLINE: Richard Harrington, Washington Post Staff Writer


SINGER-SONGWRITER Aimee Mann has spent much of the '90s battling music industry indifference. For instance, not one of her three solo albums has been released by the label it was originally recorded for. So it's something of a miracle that as the millennium turns, Mann has two albums out, including one on a major label: Reprise has released the soundtrack to "Magnolia," which director Paul Thomas Anderson constructed around unreleased Mann songs, and Mann herself will distribute "Bachelor No. 2," recorded for and later rejected by Geffen/Interscope.

"Having two records at one time is a little extreme," Mann laughs from her Los Angeles home as she prepares for a rare tour, the first with her husband, the equally estimable songwriter Michael Penn. They'll be at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis Sunday and Monday and at the Birchmere Tuesday.

"It's purely by accident," adds Mann of this seeming bounty of music. "I could have had 'Bachelor No. 2' out in the summer, but most of the album was two years old and I wanted to add something new. Then things started to gear up for 'Magnolia' and that put me way behind schedule finishing it up."

Anderson had become an ardent Mann fan after being exposed to her music through his association with Penn, who contributed to the scores of his first two films, "Boogie Nights" and "Hard Eight." Anderson wanted to use a single writer to thematically underscore his film, much the way Mike Nichols used Paul Simon's songs in "The Graduate." Mann ended up contributing nine songs to "Magnolia," though only two, "Save Me" and "You Do," were written specifically for the film.

"Save Me" figures prominently--at one point, the film's emotionally burned-out characters evince a communal misery by solitarily singing lines from the song. Meanwhile, a lyric from "Deathly"--"Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?"--was transformed into dialogue and birthed one of the film's central figures, the addict Claudia (Melora Walters). Throughout, Anderson used Mann's material to inspire and inform his film.

"We had discussions about the characters," says Mann of her working relationship with Anderson. Most of the film's characters are emotionally, romantically troubled, but looking for salvation, and many of Anderson's and Mann's conversations had to do "with the idea of rescue missions."

"I knew the kind of people Paul was talking about," Mann explains. "I knew what he was getting at, and I was pretty confident that I could tap into stuff that was going on. I made it real for Paul, but it's his personal interpretation. For instance, Claudia is a coke addict and I was not writing specifically about a coke addict, but about other aspects: You want to be loved, you want to love other people, but you can't bear to be close to anyone. It's a more general idea and it's fine with me if Paul takes that and makes it someone who's got a drug problem."

The "Magnolia" soundtrack includes an instrumental version of "Nothing Is Good Enough," the full version of which appears on "Bachelor No. 2." It's a caustic encapsulation of Mann's problems in the '90s as she sought to connect with a label that would understand and respect her work, not ignore or reject it. She sings, "It doesn't really help that you can never say what you're looking for/ . . . but you'll know it when you hear it/ know it when you see it walk through the door/ So you say, so you've said many times before."

Mann's not exaggerating about the "many times before." She hit early as lead singer and songwriter for Boston's Til Tuesday, whose debut single, "Voices Carry," was a Top 10 hit in 1985. Thanks to early MTV exposure, the band's first album sold well over a million copies, but as Mann abandoned synth-rock for a more folk-rock/guitar-pop approach, Til Tuesday lost its support at Epic Records. After 1988's "It's All Different Now," it took Mann three years to extract herself from her deal with Epic, which wouldn't let her record for anyone else or release new material.

Mann's problems were just beginning.

Her 1993 solo debut, "Whatever," came out on Imago, a start-up label with no idea how to promote Mann; by the time she recorded a follow-up, "I'm With Stupid," Imago had lost its distribution deal and financing with BMG but refused to release the album or let Mann out of her contract. Imago eventually sold "Stupid" to Geffen. Then, as part of last year's merger of Universal and Polygram, Geffen was absorbed by Interscope, which didn't hear an immediate hit single and gradually lost enthusiasm for the project.

"They wanted me to re-record or write new songs," Mann says. "The instructions were very amorphous but they added up to the overall instruction: Go away, change, be different, write other songs in a different way. The impetus for me wanting to leave Interscope was hearing people there talk about Sheryl Crow, who merely sold a million and a half records, as being a loser, someone who was not producing for them. I realized this was not the place for me."

Such ongoing problems seem absurd attached to one of the most critically acclaimed songwriters of the '90s. After all, Mann's been favorably compared to such past masters as Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Randy Newman and contemporaries, all of whom she's collaborated with, like Matthew Sweet, Jules Shear, Squeeze and Elvis Costello (Costello co-wrote "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" on the new album).

A sense of frustration and utility has informed songs on each of Mann's solo albums: "I'm With Stupid," for instance, was a clever reference to bad choices in both men and labels. Elsewhere in "Nothing Is Good Enough," Mann sings "Ladies and gentlemen here's exhibit A/ didn't I try again and did the effort pay?/ Would a smart man simply walk away?"

A smart Mann didn't simply walk away. Having bought back "Bachelor No. 2" from Interscope, Mann is now starting her own label, Superego, with that album as its first release (a preview EP sold close to 3,000 copies during her fall tour). In addition, Mann and manager Michael Haussman (once Til Tuesday's drummer) are starting United Musicians, a collective that will address marketing, publicity and radio promotion issues.

It's all part of a burgeoning Internet-centered alternative distribution system that is bypassing the creative and contractual hegemony of the major labels. The actual numbers may be smaller, but the rewards may be greater: For instance, Mann is likely to make four times as much per record through her own distribution as she would have from a major label deal. And she's finally free from "amorphous" instructions.

"My overwhelming feeling is one of relief," Mann says. "I don't know anything about selling records or being on the Internet or Web sites, but it's an interim stage of total relief. We hope to develop a system for ourselves that works. In the meantime, even the mistakes are more fun because they're our own mistakes."

"Bachelor No. 2" will be available at Mann's performances and through her Web site:

AIMEE MANN AND MICHAEL PENN -- Appearing Sunday and Monday at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis and Tuesday at the Birchmere.

To hear a free Sound Bite from Aimee Mann, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8107. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)