Copyright 2001 The Christian Science Monitor

The Christian Science Monitor

February 16, 2001


SECTION: Features, Arts & Leisure: Scene and Heard

LENGTH: 1,103 words

HEADLINE: Songwriting Duo Breaks the Rules

BYLINE: Stephen Humphries



Triumph. Disappointment. And a bat flying around a concert stage.

Those three things hardly sum up the frenetic activity of the past 12 months for Grammy Award nominee Aimee Mann and her singer-songwriter husband, Michael Penn, but they're among the topics of conversation on the afternoon before one of two recent sold-out shows here in Boston.

"I haven't really paid that much attention to Grammys ever, because it's a numbers game," says Ms. Mann, whose name is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Madonna, Macy Gray and Britney Spears in the nominee envelope for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The awards will be announced Feb. 21.

HUSBAND AND WIFE: Aimee Mann and Michael Penn (background) may record a future live album.

"It's between the people who sell the most records," she continues. "The fact that I'm nominated is just shocking.... I don't even understand who knows my name on the nominating committee."

After buying back her album's master tapes from a record company that said the album didn't have hit potential, Mann bravely started selling the album on her website:

While the former 'Til Tuesday singer is finally getting recognition for the sophisticated melodies of her third solo album, the superb "Bachelor No. 2," Penn's 2000 release, "MP4," is following the same painful footsteps that his wife once endured to bring her record to the public's attention.

Penn has managed to wrest his domain name,, from his record company, but he's had less success in winning back the rights to "MP4," which he feels wasn't adequately promoted by Sony. "It is exciting to see how [the Web] can be a viable way for people to access what you do," he says of his wife's experiment.

The singer is also frustrated that his first two albums, "March" (which yielded his breakthrough hit, "No Myth") and "Free for All" are no longer in print. "I've toyed with the idea of trying to license them," says Penn, explaining how he'd like to compile the best of the two records onto one disc.

"You know what I think you should do?" chimes in his wife. "You should re-record some either live or semi-acoustic versions of the best songs. For instance, the arrangement we're doing of 'Bedlam Boys' is 4,000 times better than the original."

More certain are plans for separate new albums. "I think I can make a record at home pretty inexpensively," says Mann, who has three songs ready so far.

"I'm fairly optimistic about being able to fund the record because I've had a pretty good year," she says.

Penn's immediate focus is on completing the soundtrack for "The Anniversary Party," a coming movie starring Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lisa Kudrow, and Alan Cumming.

"There's one piece that sounds like a 1920s jazz record," he reveals, adding that the varied score ranges from rave dance music to orchestral sounds.

It's in concert that the spouses unite to meld their respective talents into one show, each taking a turn at the microphone while the other joins the band. Humorous banter between songs, meanwhile, is usually provided by a comedian (most recently David Cross, who has appeared on TV's "Just Shoot Me").

Then again, the evening's laughter could just as easily come from watching the audience duck to avoid a fluttering bat trapped inside the theater, as happened one evening last year.

The friendship, chemistry, and empathy between the handsome couple is as apparent on stage as it is in person. So why haven't the couple recorded a duet together?

In response, Aimee turns to Michael, "You know, I've got this one song...." What follows is an intimate discussion between husband and wife, as if no one else were present. "OK, let's do it," they finally declare in unison.

What are your "desert island discs"?

Before concluding the interview, The Monitor asks Aimee Mann and Michael Penn to select five albums that each of them couldn't live without if they were stranded on a desert island.

"Sgt. Pepper," says Aimee without hesitation before going on to her second choice. "Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra" because I know it really well, but you want to have something intricate that you don't know that well on a desert island."

"That's only two," says Michael. "Well, I'm just going to stick with pop music, because otherwise my brain will explode," he concludes." I would probably say 'Revolver' and 'Odyssey and Oracle' [by the Zombies]."

"Yeah, I'll add that," Aimee says of the Zombies record, which produced the 1969 hit "Time of the Season."

"Um, I might just go for greatest hits records or compilations ... actually they have double albums, don't they? See, I immediately discover a way to cheat," Penn says gleefully. "There's a Sinatra record with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Alright, I've got three," says Mann with swaggering confidence.

"Yeah, see I can't do this. I used to do this sort of thing, then I gave it up," says Penn sighing.

"He's just amazing. He's a great singer," Mann says of Frank Sinatra. "The combination of him and Jobim is pretty much perfect."

"I need a pen," replies her husband, and he soon begins doodling ideas for his desert island discs onto a pad of paper.

"The Loud Families' 'Plants & Birds & Rocks & Things.' OK, I've got my five - cough it up, pal," Aimee says in mock triumph, as if she's just won a game of scrabble.

"Some Dylan collection, because I don't think you can just limit it to one album. 'Downtime' by Peter Blackwood and either 'XO' or 'Either/Or' by Eliott Smith.

"Now I want to do 10," says Aimee. "I'm going to add the first Liz Phair record ['Exit in Guyville'] and 'X0' [by Eliott Smith]." Aimee also mentions "Runt: The Ballad of Tom Rundgren" by that singer, when Penn suddenly exclaims, "Oh, the new Randy Newman record is great."

"Really? You want that on the desert island?" says Aimee incredulously.

"Right now I do, because it's new," replies Penn. "How about [Randy Newman's] 'Sail Away' or 'Good Old Boys' ?" she says.

Penn doesn't reply but instead looks at his wife and declares, "you know what record really sounds good? The first record." "I don't really know that one," says Aimee. "What about Beach Boys, put down Beach Boys. There, you've got plenty," she says brightly.

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