Copyright 1996 The Richmond Times Dispatch

The Richmond Times Dispatch

March 24, 1996, Sunday, CITY EDITION


LENGTH: 1192 words



BYLINE: Harriet McLeod; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer


Smart pop singer-songwriter Aimee Mann has been through such a record label nightmare that last summer she considered dropping out of the music business altogether.

The platinum-blond, ethereal-looking hit songmaker of the 1980s Boston pop band 'Til Tuesday is so respected by peers that Elvis Costello recognized her in a London street. The two wrote a song together.

Not achieving commercial success since 1984's multigold hit ''Voices Carry,'' Mann had a three-year impasse with Epic Records. The label wouldn't release her solo material and wouldn't allow her to record elsewhere.

Finally she escaped her contract to release ''Whatever,'' her critically acclaimed first solo album, in 1993 on Imago.

Imago went bust, and she was left without a functioning label but with a follow-up record in the can. Imago worked a deal with Reprise, but last summer, executives there admitted they hadn't even listened to it. ''I'm With Stupid,'' recorded two years ago, was finally released in January by Geffen, her new label home.

The title was a T-shirt slogan from the 1970s worn mostly by women.

For Mann, it's a personal examination of moronic behavior in personal and professional relationships. ''It's about being forced to be with stupid for whatever reason,'' Mann said by phone from Los Angeles. Her voice is quiet, almost languorous, and honest.

With melodic sweetness and elegant vocals, she sets frank, clever lyrics to spare rock arrangements. Her vibrato-filled soprano hovers over these songs, calmly spreading cool but pointed blame, thick with observant sarcasm. Mann knows more about anger and resilience than Alanis Morissette has yet imagined.

She sings in ''You're With Stupid Now,'' ''And though you pay for the hands they're shaking, The speeches and the mistakes they're making. As they struggle with the undertaking. Of simple thought. What you want, you don't know. You're with stupid now.''

In the song ''It's Not Safe,'' she warns against sharing your creativity:

''All you want to do is something good. So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood . . . Keep it to yourself, 'cause God knows, it's not safe with anybody else.''

''I like to think of myself as being intelligently, logically annoyed, generally cranky at everything that comes down the pike,'' she said. 'The typical life of an artist, it's so up and down, and you don't have much control over it.

''I thought about trying to do something else, like writing music for movies . . . I'm sure that has its own political issues. I'm sure the wool industry is as fraught with backbiting and infighting as anything.

''I think that creative people by nature are unstable . . . You don't have the ability to get along with the rest of the world like other people do. They're the people least equipped to deal with the often bizarre and surreal situations that arise.

''For a while, you try to figure out how to fit in. For a lot of the songwriters I know there's always a turning point, where you realize it was so impossible that you went off and formed your own world.''

Mann's alienation began in Richmond, where she grew up with her father after her parents were divorced.

''For me, a lot of it was gender stuff,'' she said. ''Oh, that's how women are supposed to be. Gee, I really don't feel that. I don't feel feminine.

''You hear how women are talked about, and if it's men talking about women, or if it's other women talking about women . . . there's always an assumption that women are just that way. They're manipulative, they're coy and flirtatious and weak and emotional. All the stuff that women are supposed to be, first of all, never seemed attractive to me. What woman would want to sign up for that? I was really into football when I was a kid. I wanted to learn to box. I wanted to learn to fence.

''I read books about stuff. I wanted to learn to surf. Every sort of interest or hobby was greeted with gales of laughter. I wanted to learn the bass guitar. My family thought that was hilarious. I gave that idea up immediately! I couldn't deal with the ridicule factor. 'You're a girl!' Clearly I thought I must be kind of a mutant girl form because I want to do all these things that girls don't do. I don't feel comfortable in dresses. I never wanted to play with dolls. You kind of think you're a freak.''

She taught herself guitar, listened to Devo and the Sex Pistols and hung out with a punk/art crowd of other misunderstood teen-agers at Open High School.

A summer stint at Berklee School of Music in Boston led to four semesters there, where she studied bass. In 1982, she formed 'Til Tuesday.

The song ''Frankenstein'' concerns the modern dilemma of creating a monster relationship -- ''jerrybuilt love'' -- out of bits and pieces.

''I won't find it fantastic or think it absurd. When the gun in the first act goes off in the third. 'Cause it's rare that you ever know what to expect. From a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck.''

''The best part of a relationship for most people is when it's just beginning, and they can make this person in their own mind into this creature that doesn't exist,'' she said.

''The other person becomes this construction of desires and fears and aspirations and ways that you want to be treated, or ways that you're afraid you're going to be treated.''

In ''That's Just What You Are,'' she lets fly at a jerk who passes off his bad behavior as part of his personality. The single was a hit after being included on ''Melrose Place -- The Music.''

She is not writing from a female perspective, she said. ''Do men write from a male perspective? I'm not writing about my period . . . The way I judge whether a song of mine is good or not is I play it for my friends. Among my male songwriting friends, there's nothing that I would write that they haven't written.

''Just the fact that there are a lot of women out there, makes it easier for everybody else . . . The larger the numbers, the harder it is to pigeonhole people. Liz Phair's point of view is quite masculine. There's a casual, almost brutal, approach to sex. The guys I know write like me.''

Does it bother her that her voice is so pretty? ''It's probably just as well. I have a tendency to be so sarcastic,'' she said. ''It could be off-putting otherwise. I swear to God, a male counterpart would be (considered) funny and sharp. From a woman, the same amount of sarcasm is really bad.''

She has never played in Richmond. ''I don't think I know anybody (there),'' she said. She has left Boston to live under sunnier Los Angeles skies.

''There are 10,000 snowstorms in Boston that I'm really glad I missed,'' she said.

Touring behind this record will be a matter of ''out for a month, come back for a couple of weeks,'' she said.

There's talk of her opening for Bob Dylan at colleges starting in mid-April. Dylan is famous for avoiding his opening acts.

''I don't care if he talks as long as he gives me a soundcheck,'' she said. ''Bob, you don't have to talk to me as long as my monitors work.

It will be an interesting bill:

''I'll be goofy, and he'll be insane.''