The Evolution of Aimee Mann

Music Features Aimee Mann
The Evolution of Aimee Mann

PasteCover-75.jpgThis story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.


Aimee Mann is not the sort of person who dwells on the past with self-defeating bitterness or crippling regret. Whether it’s the natural resilience of her psyche or merely the emotional callous that she’s accumulated after years of being used as a corporate speed bag by the music industry, she’s managed to let go of her battles in the past.

Mann’s well-documented battles with labels both major and minor could very easily have left her with an intense spirit of recrimination and malice, but she has wisely chosen to take the higher road by beating the system at its own game with the creation of her own label, Super Ego Records, and the self-releases of Bachelor #2 in 2000—an album Interscope rejected as commercially unworthy—as well as her latest studio foray, the evocative and brilliant Lost in Space.

Unfortunately, even as Mann forgives her trespassers and moves ahead, there are days when the business pulls her unwillingly back in, like a pop music version of Michael Corleone. Today, for instance; Mann has just spent the morning in court for the depositions in her pending lawsuit against the Universal Music Group over the release of The Aimee Mann Collection, a greatest-hits compilation that Mann contends was completely unauthorized and rife with sub-par bonus tracks that she would never have okayed had she been given the opportunity. The case is an unpleasant reminder of skirmishes fought long ago and a preview of events yet to unfold; the wounds Mann has suffered at the hands of the music industry’s corporate vampires are still healing and lie just below the surface of her cool, willowy exterior.

“They are horrible, horrible people,” says Mann, with a pause for composure. “Horrible. But the bitterness passes.”

After the emotional roller coaster of her experiences with Interscope over the non-release of Bachelor #2, it could have been tempting for Mann to do a highly personal album on the perils of being swallowed by the voracious maw of the music industry. Instead, she opted for more universal subjects with which Mann is most familiar: alienation, heartbreak, loss, obsession, addiction.

“I seemed to be writing songs in a certain vein,” says Mann of her latest release. “Then I realized there were songs that weren’t in that vein, so I thought, ‘I’d really like to have a consistent tone,’ so I gradually wrote more songs that went along with the theme and threw out the ones that didn’t go with it.”

As Mann began assembling the pieces of her next recorded work, it came with the blissful knowledge that she had no one to answer to, although that scenario could have been just as intimidating for a songwriter who has been looking over her shoulder for most of her career. Mann was more than equal to the challenge.

“It’s a subtle thing; it’s the feeling of freedom to make whatever decisions I needed to make in service of the record,” says Mann. “Whatever I felt was going to make a better record. Not necessarily a more commercial record or a record I thought they would like, but a record that I felt was good, according to what I think is good. That’s the most you can ask for. If you at least think you’ve done your best, that’s a pretty good standard to shoot for.”

Mann stops just short of labeling Lost in Space as a concept album. Although it features a string of songs loosely threaded together by a theme, Mann makes it clear that no more should be read into that than necessary.

“It seemed to me that after I gathered the songs together there were themes that kept cropping up,” she says. “I just got the feeling that these songs belonged together. I don’t think it could be more thematic than it is. For instance, there are several songs that, to me, seem to be about addiction. I don’t know if I have that much to say about addiction. An entire record about addiction might get a little old; maybe two or three songs, but not 11. Obsession, compulsion, loneliness, and despair, those I could stretch out over a whole record.”

Lost in Space is another marvelous collection of Mann’s intimate portraits of lost love and broken people, all set to a wry pop soundtrack that often lilts at the precise moment that one would expect dour melancholy. It is the ecstatic tension Mann creates between her often downbeat lyrics and her sprightly pop melodicism that informs her uniqueness and has thus far made her inexplicably impossible for major labels to classify and market.

“My goals were never to be particularly outlandish or left of center or avant-garde,” Mann says with a dry laugh. “My tastes harmonically really run to classic ’70s chord progressions and melodies, and my ideas are pretty simple. None of that is crazy or experimental. From a record company viewpoint, everybody’s so worried about ‘Can this be turned into a million-selling record?’ and what’s required to turn it into a million-selling record is usually to remove everything that’s interesting. Their idea of commercial is so much more bland than mine. My music is not going to sell outside a certain audience, so why not leave it alone so you don’t alienate the people who actually like it?”

That’s a slightly more than rhetorical question Mann must certainly have asked all of her labels along the troubled arc of her career. After the windfall success of ‘Til Tuesday’s debut Voices Carry in 1985, Epic Records tried tinkering with the band’s dynamic on its two subsequent albums in hopes of revisiting that initial commercial accomplishment. When the label couldn’t “fix” Mann’s unbroken musical creation and reached an impasse on the next ’Til Tuesday album, they stonewalled the band, tangentially causing its demise and ultimately making it legally impossible for Mann to record for nearly five years.

Once she was freed from the yoke of her first major label deal, she felt as though she had learned a valuable lesson and signed with independent Imago for her astonishing 1993 solo debut, Whatever. The album’s title was a double-edged sword that revealed the indifference she felt for the machinery of the music industry as well as her determination to make music by any available means. Although the album garnered glowing reviews and exposure, Mann’s solo comeback was undermined by the collapse of Imago, who in turn blocked Mann’s move to Reprise and also enjoined her from recording for the better part of two years. After settling that mess, Mann perhaps rashly signed with Geffen, which tossed her squarely back into the major label lion’s den.

Geffen released Mann’s sophomore solo disc, I’m With Stupid, in 1995, but not until after a titanic tug-of-war over every detail. Again the album generated great notices, and the single, “That’s Just What You Are,” wound up on the soundtrack to TV’s highly successful Melrose Place, but Geffen remained unconvinced that Mann had achieved her potential on the album. From Mann’s perspective, she was always doing more with less on Geffen’s stringent budget. [Au: okay?]

“Geffen had a policy of not having more than a little slip of paper and not even a booklet in the CD,” says Mann. “‘No 8-page booklet for you, that would break the bank.’ Or, ‘Only black and white printing, no color. That’s too crazy for you.’ That was super cheapo and just not good value for money.”

Before Mann’s next album could even be imagined, Geffen was itself absorbed in the Seagram/Universal deal; when Geffen was dissolved as a label, Mann was reassigned to Interscope Records. In 1998, Mann delivered Bachelor #2 to Interscope and was promptly told that some changes would have to be implemented to make the album release-ready. Mann insisted that the album was done, and the label insisted that Bachelor #2 would never come out in the form that Mann had delivered it.

Interscope’s refusal to release Bachelor #2 coincided nicely with Mann’s unexpected (and Academy Award-nominated) success with her songs for the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia in 1999. Flush with the royalties generated by the Magnolia soundtrack, Mann was able to buy back her album from the label and made the momentous decision to release it herself. Although not considered among the best of her career work, Bachelor #2 was a rousing success for an independently released and promoted album. More importantly, it was her vindication, a success achieved without label support or interference.

Freedom from label restraint can itself be a poorly navigated two-way street if the unshackled artist doesn’t impose some appropriate boundaries on his or her own work. If there is a positive side to label meddling, it is that a critical and creatively removed viewpoint can sometimes correct the trajectory of a project spinning dangerously toward self-indulgent twaddle. Mann has yet to fall victim to that particular pitfall in the recording process; while she may load up on the emotion of the moment, she works with an economy of sound as the perfect counterpoint. In the recording of both Bachelor #2 and Lost in Space, Mann encountered no significant obstacles that could have caused her to rethink her label-less journey.

“I’ve been making records long enough that it’s not a big surprise,” says Mann. “I produced a lot of the last record myself. It wasn’t a big surprise that, at the end of the day, I found it to be a little more work than I wanted to take on. I was going to co-produce [Lost in Space] with Michael Lockwood, who’s played guitar with me for a long time, but he turned out to be this great producer, this great hidden gem. He was so good, I was like, ‘Dude, you’re the producer, take over.’ He did a great job. I would definitely work on the next record with him.”

With Lost in Space just barely out of the box, it seems odd to think in terms of the next record, but Mann’s new freedom from label timetables makes it easier for her to entertain such thoughts. And the new home studio she shares with husband Michael Penn makes it easier to facilitate the songwriting process.

“The way I like to work is if I have a song, I like to go in and record it while it’s fresh and interesting, rather than waiting for two years and recording everything at once, which is not really an optimum way to work,” says Mann. “You have no time to listen to things and get a perspective, where if you need to rerecord something, you can. If you record it all in one lump, you’re sort of stuck with it.”

The artwork accompanying Lost in Space is just as important to Mann as the music that it houses, and she has spared no expense in creating a fabulous package for her music. Renowned illustrator/graphic novelist Seth drew the cover art and the accompanying illustrations for each lyric page in the CD booklet, as well as a wry and melancholy panel cartoon that tells an oblique story every bit as compelling as Mann’s own songs. The way the booklet unfolds from the interior and the mechanics of the digipak’s gatefold come as close to the vinyl album cover design as we’re likely to experience in the CD era. All of that additional planning and decision making, usually the jurisdiction of a label’s art department, falls on Mann’s shoulders. It’s a responsibility she relishes—particularly the ability to spend more and give her audience a nicer product without worrying solely about the bottom line.

“The package is a very heavily thought-out thing that really goes with the music well, and so I’m very concerned with making sure it looks good,” Mann says. “I usually come up with a design, and I have an art director that I’ve worked with for the past three records or so (Gail Marowitz), and she’s a really good friend of mine and she helps out tremendously.”

This is an expensive and time-consuming element of Lost in Space’s presentation, and one that a major label would never have considered for a mid-level artist like Mann. That may well be the reason she has so adamantly pursued more elaborate and aesthetic settings for her gem-like albums, even when that luxury has come at considerable expense to her own profit. It may also represent the only real expectation that she harbors for the actual release.

“I think most of my work is done, and whatever expectations I have are pretty much satisfied at the point where the record comes out,” explains Mann. “I’m anxious to see it manufactured and make sure it looks good and make sure that the artwork came out well. I hope that some people appreciate that. I appreciate good art direction.”

This mantle of extra responsibility is the natural by-product of launching a label. Most of Super Ego’s details are handled by Mann’s manager Michael Hausman (who was also her drummer in ‘Til Tuesday) and his assistant, but Mann doesn’t envision a time when Super Ego becomes a real functioning label.

“Any income is just from the sales of my record, and I don’t know if my record can sell enough to both finance another record of mine and somebody else’s,” says Mann honestly. “There is one smaller project that I want to do—we’ve started it but now I don’t know when we’ll be able to finish it—which is an acoustic record by Scott Miller of the Loud Family. I think he’s really great and he’s been a huge influence on me. But that comes out of my own pocket, and we’re trying to do it as cheaply as possible. I’m just not such a huge seller that I can finance a lot of other records. I’m not setting up to be a business maven.”

Instead, Mann has helped to set up United Musicians, a collective of artists who network to share methods of distribution and promotion as an alternative to the indentured servitude of the major label system. The other members of UM at this point are former Hüsker Dü/Sugar guitarist Bob Mould, singer/songwriter Pete Droge, and Michael Penn.

Mould’s recent Modulate was the first UM release; the album came out on his own Granary label and was disseminated through the collective’s distribution arrangement with RED. Mould already has two more complete albums in the can awaiting release in the coming months, making three separate Bob Mould albums in the space of a year—something that no major label would attempt in the best of times. The fact that UM endorses this kind of expansive thinking is indicative of their belief that the labels have mismanaged themselves into a precarious position, and that music itself is in no danger of falling out of fashion. It’s merely changing its paradigm in a dramatic manner, and UM stands at the cusp of that change with a brand-new way for artists to think about their work and how to expose it. Even so, Mann has no illusions about the challenge that looms ahead of her and the other artists in the UM co-op.

“It’s hard to market a record, it’s hard to get people’s attention when there’s so much other stuff out there, not just music but TV, computers, video games,” says Mann realistically. “Even people who want to buy the record; sometimes it’s hard to get the word out to them that there’s a record available, should they be interested. And that was the experience I had on major labels, too.”

With her label experience standing as the anvil on which the United Musician mission statement was forged, Mann has become something of a reluctant activist in the cause of artist’s rights. Her reluctance doesn’t spring from a hesitation to get involved, but merely from the standpoint that she and many others are fighting for rights that shouldn’t require so much effort to retrieve; they should have been inherent in the system from the very start. Although Mann understands the need for substantive change in the label/artist relationship, she’s content to leave that particular fight to Don Henley and his Recording Artists Coalition and use United Musician to show artists a way to avoid the major label debacle altogether.

“It’s basically a conduit to distribution for other people like us who want to put out their own records,” says Mann of UM’s role in the artist’s process. “And whatever other marketing and promotion help we can offer, but that is generated by Michael [Hausman], and it’s on a very small scale.”

When it comes to the issue of artists’ rights, Mann has very definite opinions about the things that need to be addressed first and foremost.

“The main thing that Henley is involved in is the repeal of the seven-year law exemption; there’s a law where you can’t have a personal service contract for more than seven years because it becomes more like indentured servitude,” Mann explains. “But the music business had lobbied for an exemption to that, which they successfully acquired. So musicians are not afforded rights like any other worker in California.

“The other one that is really appalling is the idea that [though] a musician may pay back the money owed from an advance to make his record, at no point will he ever own it. I think that has to be addressed. If you pay off a mortgage, you own the house. When you pay off this mortgage, you don’t own the record.”

Thankfully, Mann has shed the constricting corporate coils that threatened to suffocate her. While she realistically realizes that she will likely never own the rights to her first two solo albums for the very reasons she just detailed, she has gotten past that and remains content in the knowledge that, from here on out, she can finally create from a position of pure creative control. Of course, now that she is the head of her own label, she has to start thinking about the bottom line, but all of her experiences have taught her the positive way to consider her options.

“I was very happy that I was able to finance another record, but I should probably learn to make records that are less expensive because I did spend some money on this one; thank God for Pro Tools,” says Mann with a laugh. “Live and learn.”

Live and learn—two things that Aimee Mann has always done pretty damn well.

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