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HEADLINE: Songwriter Aimee Mann enjoys sweet rewards of freedom, solitude
BYLINE: Timothy Finn
Songwriter Aimee Mann enjoys sweet rewards of freedom, solitude
By TIMOTHY FINN
The Kansas City Star
For nearly 10 years, singer/songwriter Aimee Mann lived a common but
Critics loved her. So did a cult of loyal fans. But radio ignored her, and her record label, she says, neglected her, which is why she never sold lots of records.
What's not so typical: Since she left the Universal Music Group, Mann, an Oscar nominee two years ago, has been more successful than ever, selling more than 200,000 albums on her own.
"Getting out was the smartest thing I've ever done," she told The Star recently from Los Angeles. "Everything is a lot more fun now."
Mann's history with record labels has been pocked with disappointment since she broke onto the music scene in the mid-1980s as the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday.
That band released three albums on Epic Records but had only one hit, "Voices Carry." Back then, said Mann, 42, she was naive and unpolished as a songwriter and a businesswoman.
"I don't think the 'Til Tuesday stuff was very good," she said. "We had the look you had to have back then -- eye-grabbing big hair -- but I was trying to figure out how to write good songs. Plus we were completely naive about the music industry."
'Til Tuesday disbanded in 1989. Four years later Mann released "Whatever," her first solo record. By then she'd figured out how to write good songs, mostly smart, melodic pop tunes that were, as one writer put it, "highly personal and easy on the ears."
Critics often put her in company with people like Paul McCartney, Elton John and Elvis Costello and bands like Squeeze or Crowded House -- high praise that didn't translate into record sales or lots of financial support from her label.
In 1995 Mann married another pop singer/songwriter, Michael Penn, brother of actor Sean Penn. That same year she released "I'm With Stupid," an aggressive pop-rock record that again earned high praise from critics but little more than shrugs of indifference from her label. That reaction, she said, nearly drove her berserk.
"That album came out at the same time Alanis Morissette was ruling the airwaves," she said. "I said, `Are you (bleeping) telling me it's impossible to imagine one of my songs next to hers on the radio? Really? Because I kind of disagree with that. How could it not be compatible with Alanis or Tracy Bonham or Sheryl Crow?'
"I'm not tooting my own horn or saying I'm great, but my songs were certainly compatible sonically with that kind of music. It was insane."
She admits her music isn't standard Top 40 material: Her lyrics are arch and literary; and her melodies, though inviting, can be somewhat unpredictable. Yet, as she says, "I'm not Tom Waits."
"That's what I never understood," she said. "No one at the label said, `Oh, I like these songs but, you know, maybe it's too this or that for radio.' All I heard was, `Uh, I don't hear a single.' My music isn't that crazy or `out there' or left of center. It's pop music."
In 1997, after years of disappointing record sales and sustained discouragement from her label, Mann fell into a deep, dark funk: "I started to close down. At some level I decided the only way to avoid the aggravation and disappointment was to close shop -- stop writing and stop making records."
She drifted through a trying, aimless sabbatical -- "I did some voice-overs for commercials, anything as long as it had nothing to do with music" -- before realizing she needed to perform live, to reconnect with her audience and rediscover her old songs.
Her loyal, enduring fans responded warmly and loudly. She felt rejuvenated. The songs, then the accolades, started coming again.
In late 1999 Mann earned heaps of praise and publicity for her music on the soundtrack to the film "Magnolia," for which she received an Academy Award nomination. (Phil Collins won that year for the theme to "Tarzan.")
About that time the honchos at Interscope Records (which is owned by Universal) told Mann that the solo record she'd just completed, "Bachelor No. 2," wasn't commercial enough. They asked her to remake parts of it.
Instead, Mann took some of the money she made from "Magnolia," bought "Bachelor" back from the label and released the album herself. It has since become one of the best-selling records of her career. Things have only gotten better since. By 2000 she was a free agent -- indebted to no label -- and a critics' darling once more.
Still she faced one more battle over "The Ultimate Collection: Aimee Mann," which Universal released without her input or consent in September 2000 -- and not by whim or mere coincidence.
"(Universal) owns everything I recorded before I got out of my contract," she said. "Now they can't legally do whatever they want with my music, but they do it anyway. Their attitude seems to be, `We have more money and more lawyers than you. Go ahead and sue us. We'll take our chances.' It's all very contemptuous.
"What Universal had to gain by putting out something called the `Ultimate Collection' was to take business away from the record I was putting out and divert it to them. They know people hearing me for the first time on the `Magnolia' soundtrack would want to buy whatever Aimee Mann's new record is. A title like `Ultimate Collection' implies that it's a sampler of the best I've done, which it isn't. It's a hodgepodge of stuff thrown together."
All that contempt is behind her, for now. She and Universal settled their dispute over "Ultimate" earlier this year. In July, Mann released "Lost in Space," her fourth solo album and the second on her own label, Super-Ego Records.
The reviews have been glowing. So have sales. The first week of its release, "Space" came in at No. 35 on the Billboard 200 chart -- a remarkable figure for an independent album.
She's not completely without big-label help. Mann has a licensing deal with V2 Records in Great Britain and Europe. Otherwise, she's free to do what she wants, as an artist and a businesswoman. Even better, she said, she doesn't have to listen to people tell her there's something wrong with her music.
"All I heard was that my music didn't fit with radio," she said. "I heard it when radio played the kind of music I made. I heard it when radio wasn't playing the kind of music I made. So the lunatics really are running the asylum. That's why you get the music you hear on the radio.
"What have I learned? You know, I've learned it's not that hard to sell records. I've sold more than 200,000 records -- with a staff of two! How hard can it be?"
To reach Timothy Finn, pop music writer, call (816) 234-4781 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.