LENGTH: 2,154 words
SECTION: That's Entertainment
HEADLINE: Mann Power
BYLINE: Mike Gee
Aimee Mann is the great survivor - and one of the most critically celebrated - and best - songwriters in modern music. She tells Mike Gee that it's been a hard road but she's the stronger and more determined for it.
The reference to the extinct flightless bird, the dodo, in the title of Aimee Mann's new album, Bachelor No.2: or the last remains of the dodo, is fitting. If ever an artist appeared destined to disappear for good, it's been the 40-year-old Virginian.
In a career that hangs on the lip of 20 years, Mann has survived the break-up of her commercially successful band, 'Til Tuesday, and the subsequent three-year contractual hassle with Epic which she felt was out of touch with her aspirations, signing a contract as a solo artist with the then Geffen-linked Imago Records and releasing a cirtically and publically hailed debut, Whatever, only to watch in disbelief as Imago went bust leaving her to crawl from the contractual wreckage a second time. Geffen finally released her second solo set I'm With Stupid and that was that.
In 2000 she resurfaced with her the soundtrack to the film Magnolia in which her song acted as counterpart to the chaos in the film, but it's only now that with yet another record set-up - as an independent - that Aimee Mann has released Bachelor No.2, comprised of songs written for and around the film. But it is in this context that she wanted these beautiful songs heard. And before we go any further, let it be said that Bachelor No.2 is one of the great records of 2000/2001.
Most people would have given up long ago: not Aimee Mann. From the seductive, perfectly pitched, blonde-bombshell lead singer that fronted 'Til Tuesday, Mann has grown into a woman of an immense poise, recognised as one of the few genuinely great female singer/songwriters of her time. A woman who could easily claim to have reached a level nearing that of one of her inspirations Elvis Costello while her vocal adroitness is now on a par with the conversational style of her singing idol, Colin Bluntstoone of The Zombies.
Not that you'll get Aimee to admit to that she still sees lots of room for growth. She just hopes that her circumstances will stay a little less complicated.
On a very hot and dry, nearing 32C, day in Los Angeles, Mann is closely watching a grey cat who has entered her apartment after she opened the door to let some air in. "If you hear something miaowing loudly it's not me," she says. "It's not mine, but he comes around a lot and he's very cranky. I like cats but he makes my eyes water. My manager has a cat, an Abyssinian, that's beautiful and also distinctive. Apparently, if you are allergic to cats this the type of cat you can have."
Remind her that she's now been making records for nearly two decades and she laughs, "That's horrifying. No wonder I'm so tired. It's bizarre to have done anything for 20 years. I gues though within it there are several different chunks. You feel like you are different person though to the one that started out.
"The person who began 'Til Tuesday was so bold and so light to the point I can barely recognise her. Those records [Voices Carry, Welcome Home, Everything's Different Now] don't hold up for me - there's a couple of good melodies on the second one and a lot fo the third one I quite like."
So how the hell have you managed to survive the wars you've been through?
"I've had more battles than I care to think about," she says. "I've been on a lot of different labels. I think between my husband, [singer/songwriter] Michael Penn [brother of Sean], and myself we've nearly covered all the majors.
"It has made me more determined to do this though. Definitely. I don't think I would have if it hadn't turned out the way it did. I think major labels made me come fully to the end of my rope and I'm not the sort of person to be independent or go out on my own. I'm not a 'do it myself' kind of person, I'm the 'I'm going to get somebody else to do it' kind, so for me to be in this position is a measure of how unworkable the major label situation is."
Remarkably, the worse it got, the better Mann's albums seemed to get. She giggles. "It's sort of a function of you're forced to figure out what you want and that's part of writing songs. In fact, that's a cornerstone for me in writing. Because I care about lyrics and if I'm working on a song and I have one-and-a-half verses, some chords, and I need another verse and have to figure what I'm going to to do with the bridge, you're forced to ... I have this exercise I do where I write a paragraph about what each verse is supposed to be saying so it forces you to know what you want, to know what you want to say.
"I apply that process of songwriting to my life: what do I want? What do I want to get out of this situation? What's possible. I think in doing that I've learnt to deal with situations. Like Geffen merging with Interscope was like ... you know when you're in a situation and you don't really want to be there but you go 'Well, I'll give it another try. There's a new person coming in. I don't want to be hasty. I want to be a team player. I'll show them I'm willing to work with him. I willing to listen to other ideas.' If you do that you kind of go out fo your way to be agreeable but it's not getting anything done and if it all comes part you're left with nothing. I mean, in that situation it's not good; in general, it's a good policy.
"In the end I realised I was spending a lot of time listening to people tell me what to do or make suggestions about what to do and really I just wanted to make a record. I wanted to make the records I wanted to make. And whether or not that's selfish or self-indulgent or whatever, what negative spin people want to put on it, it's still what I wanted to do.
"I just got to the point where once Geffen did merge with Interscope and I could see there was anotehr whole new bunch of people to deal with and they weren't really that interested it was like 'Why am I doing this?' They don't care about me. I should just go.' So that's what I did. And that kind of attitude you can apply to songwriting, as well."
Mann's drawn, probably unknowingly, a perfect circle, and described better than most songwriters the inter-relation between the individual, the real world and their craft. Something born of experience and an understanding few might have considered Aimee Mann would have reached when in the enfant '80s she worked in a band called the Young Snakes - with Al Jourgenson who went on to form Ministry and become one of rock's most celebrated drug addicts and thunderous musical forces. Later, she became involved with the brilliant but erratic singer/songwriter Jules Shear, a relationship that inspired much of 'Til Tuesday's final album and also became a stepping stone to her solo work.
Her principled stand for what she believes in - quality songwriting - was also a factor in her leaving Interscope, just as the new staff who were listening to - and fans of - a music that bore little semblance or had any common ground with Mann's own hand-crafted pop gems.
"I ended up at the home of Eminem, " he says. "What possible interest could those people have in me. And the fact that it was the home of Eminem - don't think that wasn't a factor. I remember walking into the office and there were posters on the wall of a woman's body coming out of the car trunk. It was like 'I don't want to support this in any way. I don't want to ahve anything to do with it.' That was a factor.
"What it showed me was something I guess I'd always known. When it comes to money, and people - who as individuals aren't neccessarily like this - hide behind a corporation, greed goes out of control because you aren't held accountable for any moral issues - well, actually, you aren't expected to have any moral standards.
"It's the history of the world. People do things for money that are unconscionable. American companies supplied stuff to Germany during World War II that helped killed the Jews and it's "Well, we don't care, we're making a buck.' People will do anything. I think Americans have this pride about 'I don't let anything stand in my way of making money.' Like if that's a moral standard in itself. Well, 'Whoa, good for you!'" She doesn't mock gently.
'I just read this book Fast Food Nation about how companies like McDonalds and other fast food chains have taken over the world and things that have changed in their wake. And they are many and varied."
Interestingly, Aimee doesn't see Magnolia as film that depicts a fringe element of American society with all the less unusual but still chilling obsessiveness that haunts it. "That's an intrestsing observation because I don't really see Magnolia as strange because there are people like that here. There's coke addicts - know one of those; there's the dumb guy with the good heart - we know the that guy; there's Tom Cruise's character - seen plenty of those. They are all quintessentially American - and quintessentially Los Angeles which is more the director's thing because he grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I think a lot of American culture has had it's origin in Los Angeles.
"Certainly, culture in America now comes right off the TV. There isn't a whole lot of culture that's outside television because the kids watch so much TV - six to eight hours a day on average. It's, as such, a broadcast and manufactured culture."
"That also means that, as you alluded to, it is impossible for music to be as signficant today to youth as it was 20 or 30 years ago because because culture amd product is manufactured to what will appeal - not by kids for kids but by what a 42-year-old thinks will appeal to kids. You now, 'Bright colours, make it sexy' - and if you argue but they are kids and they don't neccessarily think about that, it's 'well, make it sexy, anyway'.
"They are all second guessing. I have that problem with the music business, period. They have people who are not music fans divining what an audience wants. The problem is that what they are doing is supposing what the people want without having any idea what that audience really does want. And that goes some way to explaining why they throw so much stuff at the wall."
Magnolia was the first soundtrack offer Mann took up - because it allowed her to stay true to the art form she reveres and also because it wasn't a soundtrack in the usual sense of being little more than incidental or accompanying music. Her songs played a dramatic role in the film. "Usually, people come to me and say 'Write the big song at the end - and make it uplifting!" she laughs. And I usually reply, "Maybe, you haven't really heard my music." You haven't got a power ballad in you then? "Oh, I don't think so. I stay away from them. You know, I could probably write that but I wouldn't. I think it would bore me, immediately, so I would change it into something that I liked and by then it would be the big song at the end anymore."
It's been written about Aimee: "Her project has never been to push the frontiers of invention - rather, her work is more concerned above all with perfecting the modern pop song." Does he think that is a reasonable conclusion. "I think that's one of the goals," she says thoughtfully. "because I do want it to be as good as it can be but I don't think I'm that good at it. I don't have a million brilliant metaphors at my fingertips like Elvis Costello. And sometimes your brain isn't working that well. I think I'm mostly concerned with producing the same kind of emotional atmosphere that I myself like to write about. Songs that have the combination of chorus, melody and words that make it more human, of the world we're in; to be make it more active and alive. That's my main thing."
That she succeeds wonderfully, to the point where her songs ache of the realities she draws, says much of Aimee Mann:the woman who wouldn't go away. Thank your deity, she didn't.