PREVIEW: A Mann apart: Pop songstress Aimee Mann likes her privacy

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Bryn Evans, FFWD Weekly, July 24, 2008

Aimee Mann’s latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, is being called a return to form, a further refinement on the pop sensibilities — wry and ironic lyrics set against bouncy, folky rock — that characterized her earliest post-’Til Tuesday efforts, I’m With Stupid and Bachelor No. 2.

It’s a solid collection of songs, with the lingering sound of producer Jon Brion glossed over the tracks (although he hasn’t worked on her last two albums). It’s a marked contrast to her last few albums, The Forgotten Arm (a concept album about a drug-addled Vietnam vet), the sleepy Lost in Space and the popular Magnolia soundtrack. For a catchy collection of songs, the title kicks things off on what seems to be a decidedly cynical note, although Mann doesn’t see it that way. “Fucking smilers — it was a private joke with a friend of mine, who was irate about being told to smile by a stranger,” she says. “It’s kind of inappropriate — it’s none of your business whether I’m smiling or not.”

The seemingly grumpy comment belies a protective privacy and control over her music and career. When asked if she dips into the ’Til Tuesday catalogue when on tour, she says no; it’s part of her “moving on,” a well-deserved freedom from the record label woes that plagued her in the past. When her old label Imago tanked, she was stuck in limbo trying to get her second album, I’m With Stupid, released. Now, she produces and distributes her own records. “I’m my own record label — I only hand [my albums in to] myself. I think it’s less work, too. The thing is, now, I only have to make a record and worry about the musical aspect of it. Before, I had to try to get something past a whole row of people, and have the energy to try and protect the record.”

While running her label, SuperEgo Records, has afforded her more freedom in recording and distributing her records, Mann isn’t immune to the industry’s woes of declining sales and downloading. “I don’t think [moving to an independent label] makes a difference — so many people download and burn albums for their friends, whether you’re on a major label or not,” she says. “That kind of takes 50 per cent of your income away. For an indie, it hurts more because I have to pay for everything myself. Record stores are closing; sales from four years ago are half of what they were before. It’s a giant problem.”

Business concerns aside, Mann is known as a songwriter’s songwriter, adept at spinning tales of lovelorn slackers and relationship woes. “With writing, you gather. If it’s about somebody else, you relate to it from your own experience,” she says. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was inspired, in part, by songs of Mann’s that later showed up on the film’s soundtrack (Melora Walters’s cocaine-addled character’s line, “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” was lifted from the song “Deathly”). Despite being, as Anderson calls her, “a great articulator of the biggest things we think about,” Mann says there isn’t anything autobiographical about her songs. “When I do interviews,” she says, “I don’t know what people find interesting.”