Copyright 1996 Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

January 31, 1996

LENGTH: 890 words

HEADLINE: Singer-songwriter Mann was muted by inability to write a new record deal

BYLINE: Tom Moon



Today's lesson on the vicissitudes of life in the music business comes from acerbic singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, whose world since 1993 has been a roller-coaster of record deals signed, then canceled; albums prepared, then gutted; and hopes raised, then dashed.

The story of Mann's return to active duty and her pointedly titled new album, ``I'm With Stupid'' (DGC/Geffen), is a tale of an artist who discovered that she had virtually no power over her destiny. It's enough to lead an aspiring musician to consider another line of work -- or to take a few courses in contract law.

It goes like this: Mann's last album, 1993's ``Whatever,'' marked the return of one of the more intelligent songwriters of the '80s--who, ironically, had been out of commission for a few years clearing up legal problems with a former record company.

Though praised by critics, ``Whatever'' didn't receive much of a promotional push from Imago, Mann's label. The following year, Imago folded. You'd expect this to be good news, because it would free Mann to take her services to another label.

``You think in any field, when your company goes out of business, you're allowed to look for another job,'' Mann, 34, said last week at a sound check for a homecoming show in Boston.

`But it didn't work like that.''

Seems Mann's deal was with Terry Ellis, Imago's founder, not his label. And Ellis intended to hold her and a few other Imago artists to their contracts.

Meanwhile, Mann was recording a follow-up to ``Whatever''; an early track, ``That's Just What You Are,'' became a hit for the ``Melrose Place'' soundtrack album. With that success as bait, Ellis aligned himself with Reprise Records, which prepared to issue Mann's work in mid-1995. Advance promotional cassettes were sent out, and the marketing wheels were beginning to turn. Then came more legal wrangling and, by midsummer, the Reprise deal was off.

``It's not only frustrating, it's demoralizing,'' Mann says of the months she spent in limbo.

``You start to think that the only way you can have control ... is to get out of the (music) business entirely, which is what I decided to do. You see no other possible solution." says Mann. ``I'm With Stupid,'' which was completed well over a year ago, is being released by Geffen this week.

For Mann, it was a bittersweet victory. While happy that her recent songs are finally being heard, she says that her new deal isn't as favorable as it could be, and offers her experience as a cautionary tale: ``Clearly, I could have made a better deal with Geffen on my own if I didn't have an intermediary,'' she says.

Mann knows that some people will hear ``I'm With Stupid'' and think that its tart, tightly compressed songs -- some venomous, some resigned -- were inspired by her business struggles. That's not quite accurate: Most of the record was written before things got ugly.

``When I write, I'm usually talking about relationships, and those can be business or personal. Some of these are songs that comment on other people's difficulties -- friends who have had disagreements with the industry. I've been able to observe a lot of that kind of thing these past few years.''

Yet from the opening epithet to the final curtain, the songs of ``I'm With Stupid'' can be appreciated as the soundtrack to Mann's wrangle.

``You leave me no choice in the matter,'' she sings with an icy chill that could be directed at a lover or a business associate. Even more derisive is ``Par for the Course,'' which inventories a number of stupid male decisions and, again, applies to all sorts of relationships.

There are songs that decry greed (``You Could Make a Killing'') and songs that proclaim ``It's all over now, and I'm free from your interference'' without a hint of celebration. Dotted with graceful melodies and adventurous chord sequences, these compositions are the emotional outlet for a poised woman who has encountered extraordinary obstacles, but refuses to consider herself a victim. The fact that she's able to channel this experience into barbed, brutally honest songs is, for her, a triumph.

Mann says her goal as a lyric writer is to sketch even the most tangled emotional situations in clear, simple language.

``I try to make the lyrics conversational and report the facts,'' she says. ``The other thing that's to my taste is very clever lyrics, but I'm not so good at those.''

Mann's plan for the future is to pay as little attention as possible to the business side in order to concentrate on her craft.

``I don't feel like the industry game is a game I'm interested in being qualified to play. That's a particular beast,'' she says. But the ability to make music, ``no matter what they do, cannot be touched.''

As she talks about picking up the pieces and gearing up for another tour, she reports that the relationship with Geffen, known for staying out of the creative process, has been encouraging.

So far.

She doesn't expect to be best buddies with the industry types. But, she says, her needs are few: ``All I ever wanted was to be at a label that didn't feel like an asylum.''