fter nearly seven years of record label roulette, Aimee Mann has found a home. I'm With Stupid, her second album as a solo artist and first for DGC Records, is a triumph of perseverance and a testament to Mann's conviction that honest, elegant songwriting is its own reward.
ann was the creative force behind the Boston band 'Til Tuesday, which scored in 1984 with the Top 10 hit "Voices Carry" and was an early MTV darling. But she's probably better known for "That's Just What You Are," an infectious, barbed riposte to a jerk who passes off his bad behavior as an essential part of his character. Thanks in part to the song's inclusion on Melrose Place - The Music, "That's Just What You Are" spent six weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart in early 1995. If Mann had had her way, she would have released I'm With Stupid on the heels of that success. The record was ready, but the record company wasn't.
hus continued the sorry tale of how "one of our premier songwriters" -- Rolling Stone's appellation -- has been consistently foiled by ill winds blowing through the music industry. "The title of the record sums up a certain amount of frustration I've felt in working with people whom I personally considered stupid," Mann explains. "All I want to do is something good. It doesn't seem like asking that much. In songs where I allude to record company troubles, you're right if you think I'm plenty pissed off. But I'm not always completely serious. That's also reflected in the title" (a reference to the ubiquitous '70s T-shirt emblazoned with that legend and an arrow).
n fact, one listen makes it clear that I'm With Stupid is no vengeful screed. The record is tougher-sounding than 1993's universally lauded Whatever, but it's marked by the same sonic buoyancy and playful sarcasm that landed that effort on the top of several critics' "Best of '93" lists. As on Whatever, Mann's longtime collaborator, singer / songwriter / multi-instrumentalist / producer Jon Brion, figures prominently. Mann and Brion make no secret of their fondness for records by the Beatles, the Kinks, the Zombies, and Elton John, but I'm With Stupid is hardly an homage to the British Invasion. More surprising, contemporary influences loom large.
here were a handful of records made in the last three years that I listened to over and over," says Mann. "Liz Phair and Beck were both an influence in helping me realize that every song does not have to be this elaborate construction -- that sometimes very simple songs or very short songs are equally enjoyable." Such liberation, however, in no way found Mann abandoning the attention to craft that has earned her a reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. These exacting standards extend to her choice of guest performers.
queeze'a inimitable Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook lend subtly distinctive backing vocals to "That's Just What You Are" and "Frankenstein"; Juliana Hatfield meshes her youthful tone with Mann's more folky voice to moving effect on "You Could Make a Killing" and "Amateur." Michael Penn offers baroque psychedelic solos on "It's Not Safe" and ex-Suede axman Bernard Butler lacerates "Sugarcoated" -- which he inspired and co-wrote -- with a decidedly glam edge.
'm With Stupid's examination of moronic behavior is further evidence of Mann's need to explore human interaction. "People say I only write about relationships," she ventures. "Yeah. But doesn't this have the ring of a relationship: You get into a situation where someone tries to completely make you over. You wonder why they chose you in the first place. That's the circumstance I've been in, but it doesn't mean I'm writing about some guy. It's my relationship with my former record company, my friend's relationship with his girlfriend, another friend's relationship with their father. It's all relationships."
ann's relationship with her father is particularly strong. He raised her in Richmond, Virginia after he and Mann's mother were divorced. He played piano by ear -- "probably only the white keys" -- though Mann's childhood was not especially musical. Looking back, she says, "I wasn't one of those kids who listened to the radio. I took piano lessons briefly when I was six, but I hated it because I just didn't get it. I did steal my brother's copy of Sgt. Pepper and take it to a friend's house once. We listened to it all day; it was the eight-year-old's Barney for 1967.
hen I was 12, I got mono and was out of school for six weeks. I had to amuse myself sitting in bed. One of my brothers had gotten a guitar for Christmas that he'd never played. So I got an Elton John songbook and a Neil Young songbook and started learning songs. But I had no ear."
n high school Mann began listening to Devo and the Sex Pistols. "I identified with this small misunderstood group," she laughs. As the gaping maw of adult life neared, however, the punks' anxiety began to find its way into her own life. "I was this 18-year-old in crisis," she remembers. "What was I going to do with my life? I didn't know anything about music -- that can't be stressed enough. My father was really supportive, and he suggested I try this seven-week summer course at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
nce I got the underlying structure down, music stopped being this huge mystery. I became more interested and much better at it. I did really well and eventually got accepted at Berklee. I went in as a vocal major but quickly realized that no once could teach me how to sing, so I switched to bass. I didn't want to become a bass player necessarily -- I wanted to learn how to read music. But guitar and piano didn't really interest me because it seemed that everybody else was just supposed to support those instruments. And I always liked the idea of how all the elements fit in with each other. Playing as one-fourth of a band was much more interesting to me."
fter four semesters, Mann left school to form "a little punk noise-art outfit called the Young Snakes, which was reasonably unlistenable." She recalls: "We got a bit of attention around Boston, and it was good experience; I got to the point where I didn't have to drink heavily before getting onstage. The rule back then was 'Break Every Rule.' Which meant no melody, no chord progression, no sweetness, nothing that sounded good. And the material had to be really avant-garde--no songs about relationships.
il Tuesday was a rebellion against that because after a while I realized that not following the rules was a rule in itself and more limiting than anything else. I wanted to hear some sweetness and some melody."
ann formed 'Til Tuesday in 1982. The band was signed in '83, released a record in '84 and six months later became a national sensation with Mann's composition "Voices Carry." She reflects: "In our youthful bravado we just took it for granted that we'd get a record deal. And if you get a record deal, that means you're gonna have a hit, right? As far as my songwriting, I had a similar kind of ill-placed confidence. I didn't think I was that good, but at the same time it didn't feel like an accident that I could write these songs."
y the time 'Til Tuesday collected their two gold records, Mann was heading in a new direction. But in steadfastly pursuing her muse, she set off a chain of events from which she has only just extricated herself. "I started writing songs that were based more on acoustic guitar than the drum machines and synthesizers we had started out with," she says. "The label and the band wanted to stick with this dance-funk thing and I was moving toward this folkie stuff."
hough the third (and final) 'Til Tuesday album featured "(The Other End of the) Telescope," a gorgeous collaboration with Elvis Costello -- who had passed Mann on the street in London and recognized HER -- the label deemed it insufficiently commercial and effectively killed it. "They didn't like what I was doing," says Mann. "I didn't want to work with the hit doctor they were pushing on me. I don't work that way. That's gross; that's music as product. They said, 'This acoustic guitar music. It will never happen.' Of course the next year Tracy Chapman sold like four thousand million records and the Indigo Girls record came out -- acoustic guitars everywhere."
nwilling to abandon the record, Mann took Brion and two other friends on the road. "We decided to keep it really simple," she says. "It was probably the best tour I've ever done because the combination of players was so good. We played shows as 'Til Tuesday, though by then 'Til Tuesday didn't really exist anymore, but they were my songs. And if you played as 'Til Tuesday in 1989, you got four times as much money. That's how we paid for the tour."
he label would not release the work Mann had developed with Brion, and it would not allow her to record elsewhere. This impasse lasted for three years. Mann stayed in Boston, recording bits and pieces and performing with Brion along the East Coast. Finally, the label released her. Another label stepped in, only to back out after four months of contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the bits and pieces became Whatever. The record was funded by Mann's manager.
third label released Whatever to rave reviews, ecstatic sighs from pop fans, and encouraging sales. A successful tour followed; things looked good. Mann spent the better part of 1994 in London working on the material that would become I'm With Stupid. She went into the studio in Boston late that year. But before the record could be released, the record company lost its distribution.
fter considerable struggle involving yet another label, Mann won the right to take the record where she knew it would be appreciated: "The people at DGC were saying, 'This is great. This is an achievement.'"
'm With Stupid finds Mann taking a more aggressive stance. The record is more stripped down than Whatever and notably more guitar-oriented. But Mann's unerring sense of melody and harmony remains. Brion's production is inventive -- the lonely tack piano on "Ray," the Nino Rota-esque effects on "Frankenstein" -- in imparting maximum impact to her eloquent observations of deception and control, her tender expressions of vulnerability and yearning. "Jon is phenomenal," she says. "He played 85 percent of the instruments on this record. There's this joke about him that anytime he's onstage, he can randomly pick up a beer bottle that somebody's been drinking from and blow into it, and it will be in tune with the song."
hen asked how she managed to persist in spite of the philistines lurking around every corner, Mann responds: "At one point, before Whatever came out, things were looking pretty grim and I was getting really depressed. I was talking to a friend and I said, 'I don't know how to get out of this hole.' He said, 'Your job is to write songs. So you just keep doing your job.' You do it because there are people who will get it. You do it for them. And you do it just to say it. Just telling the truth has power and value. Whether or not anyone understands, just tell it, just say it."
©1995 Geffen Records, Inc.