Copyright 2001 Newspaper Publishing PLC  
Independent on Sunday (London)

April 1, 2001, Sunday


LENGTH: 1031 words


BYLINE: Fiona Sturges


Aimee Mann has a reputation for being difficult. People, especially those working in the record industry, have to tread carefully where the Los Angeles -based songwriter is concerned. She hates posing for photos and despises promotional pop videos. Idle chit-chat isn't her strong point either. To side-step the problem of talking to audiences, she hired a bunch of stand-up comics to go on tour with her last year. So it is with some trepidation that I meet her in a hotel in Beverly Hills, just a few miles from her home. Yet, despite all the warnings, the conversation never runs dry. In fact, when you get her on the subject of the record industry, she is unstoppable.

What is immediately clear is that Mann is fiercely protective of her work - not surprising when you consider that just a few years ago she was being told by her label, Geffen, that her work was not acceptable. "They said they didn't hear any singles, but one guy hadn't even listened to it," Mann rages. "I called my manager and said 'I want to get out.'"

Yet Mann has some impressively high-profile fans, among them the film director and former rock journalist Cameron Crowe, her long-time collaborator Elvis Costello, and Paul Thomas Anderson, the director whose most recent film, Magnolia, drew directly on Mann's songs for inspiration.

It was with the Boston-based new wave band 'Til Tuesday that Mann got her first taste of the music industry. When she tried to quit the band in 1989 the record company refused to release her from her contract - it took three years to disentangle herself. But this was nothing compared to the horrors that faced her when she struck out by herself.

Following the release of her first solo effort, Whatever, in 1993, her record company Imago went bankrupt. Once again, she was left out in the cold, effectively owned by a company that didn't exist. She was eventually sold to Geffen, and in 1995 released her next album, I'm With Stupid. The critics were beside themselves, praising her wittily acerbic lyrics and clear, crisp vocals, but it was not long before she found herself in a familiar situation. Geffen was bought out by Polygram which was, in turn, subsumed by Interscope. Rather than put out her album, the company refused to release it, although they were also unwilling to let Mann out of her contract. After much legal wrangling, the singer and her manager bought back the album.

"When you sign a contract you think 'I'll make the record and they'll market and promote it,' but that's not how it is," she explains. "Now they want to tell you how to make the record. I was like 'Why don't you make the record, put your name on it and leave me out of it?'"

Fortune finally smiled upon Mann when her friend Paul Thomas Anderson, whom she met through her husband Michael Penn (brother of Sean), pestered her to hear some new material.

"Paul's a big music fan anyhow," she says. "I finally gave him a tape of the songs I was working on and it sort of dovetailed with him writing the script to Magnolia. The songs kept coming up one by one and acting as a pre-existing score."

The director was so taken with the song "Deathly" that he used it to create his character Claudia, whose fear of relationships leads her to seek refuge in drugs. In the sleevenotes Anderson describes "adapting" Mann's songs into a screenplay, the same way one would adapt a novel for the screen: "She was articulating feelings and ideas better than I ever could and I wanted to rip her off."

Still, even with such devotion from the director, it seems strange that a singer so distrusting of large corporations should willingly hand over her work to the most ruthless industry of all.

"Well, I haven't been fucked over by the film world yet. Listen, I have no doubt that the movie industry is absolutely horrifying. But when someone calls you up and wants to use a song in their movie, your involvement is pretty limited."

In fact, Mann holds Magnolia responsible for giving her the opportunity to get her music heard. In the same way that The Graduate showcased a whole album's worth of songs by Simon and Garfunkel, the soundtrack to Magnolia is, with the exception of two Supertramp songs, non-stop Aimee Mann, including the opening theme (a cover of Harry Nilsson's "One"). It earned her both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations; the resulting acclaim also gave her the confidence to put Bachelor No 2, her first studio album in five years, out on the internet.

Like the songs from Magnolia, Bachelor No 2 poignantly examines themes of longing and disappointment. There is none of the self-indulgent melodrama that afflicts Alanis, Sheryl and friends, yet there is an unflinching candour in her words which lend the proceedings an air of unsettling melancholy. Naturally, the record companies don't get off lightly, such as in "Nothing Is Good Enough", in which Mann snarls: "Critics at their worst/Could never criticise/The way that you do."

Now 40, Mann says that for the first time she has started to enjoy her career. "I finally know what I feel comfortable doing and I'm going to do that."

As for her promotional duties, it's just not what she got into music for. She describes posing for pictures as "horrifying. You feel like a jackass. There is such a thing as too much attention, y'know."

But her problems aren't quite over yet. Universal, the umbrella company that now controls Interscope, has released a new CD called Aimee Mann - The Ultimate Collection without her approval, to coincide with the US release of Bachelor No 2.

"I believe they did it to sabotage the release of my record. It's a couple of songs from my first two solo records and a couple of 'Til Tuesday songs. They even found a tape of me singing live on a radio show, which is not even authorised to be on an album. I'm suing them right now."

It is doubtless this no-nonsense attitude that has earned Mann her reputation within the industry. Does she mind? "My response to that is 'deal with it'. Now I have the experience to know what needs to be done, I will not let myself be pushed around. No way."

'Bachelor No 2' is released on V2 tomorrow

GRAPHIC: Mann about town: now 40, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter is only just beginning to enjoy her career JEFF MINTON