- 08 Sep 20
Happy Birthday, Aimee Mann! To celebrate, we're revisiting Colm O'Hare's classic interview with the iconic singer-songwriter – originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
Few albums have had such a troubled journey from studio to record store as Aimee Mann's third solo album, the cryptically titled (or The Last Remains Of The Dodo). Recorded almost three years ago and drip-released in a variety of stages and formats, it finally receives a full official release this month through Virgin subsidiary, V2 Records. (Prior to this it has been available only via Mann's web-site or as an expensive import).
The fact that it is one of the finest albums in the singer-songwriter genre to have emerged in recent years makes the shoddy treatment it has received on the part of her former record company all the more baffling. Songs such as the sublime, 'Nothing Is Good Enough' and 'The World's Own Optimist' (co written with Elvis Costello) are among her best compositions in years. The album was recently described by the New York Times as a stellar collection of, "clever, disappointed love songs that can also be read as damnations of the music industry."
Arguably the most melodically gifted and lyrically articulate female songwriter of the past decade, the former 'Til Tuesday vocalist’s first two solo albums, Whatever and I'm With Stupid garnered huge critical and commercial acclaim. But the well-worn industry cliché "difficult third album" had an altogether different resonance for Mann, as she discovered when she delivered the completed master tapes of Bachelor No 2 to her record company, Interscope. They were, to put it mildly, not impressed and refused to release it unless she made it more "radio friendly". To make matters more complicated she had also been unwittingly caught up in the Universal/PolyGram merger, which saw the demise of her original label Geffen transferring her to the less receptive Interscope.
"That's just the name of the game in the music industry these days," Mann explains on the phone line from her home in Los Angeles. "Even if you're on a major label and you've had a certain amount of success, you can never be certain how anything you do will be received."
According to Mann the record company wanted "hits" at all costs, despite her hard-won reputation as a serious artist with an already established following.
"They certainly made it known to me that they didn't want to release the album as it was. But nobody in the record company was all that clear what the problem was. They intimated to me that if I changed it somehow, put some drum machines or some more up-tempo rhythms on it they'd be happier to release it."
To add insult to injury one record company honcho even suggested that she get together with songwriter-to-the stars Diane Warren, presumably to increase the commercial potential of her songs.
"To be honest I really didn't understand what they were getting at," Mann sighs wearily. "It's not about writing a song as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I can finish the songs on my own thank you very much. But in the end they intimated to me that they would only support my record if I co-operated."
Mann had already experienced pop stardom of sorts when 'Til Tuesday, the band she formed in the early 1980s hit the top forty with the Cars-like 'Voices Carry' which benefited from the early popularity of MTV.
"It's so not for me, that whole pop star thing," she says. "It takes a special skill to be a big star and I just don't have those skills, so there isn't much point in me pretending."
Unwilling to compromise on Bachelor No 2, Mann left the label and after much contractual wrangling managed to win back control of the album, initially releasing a 6-track EP for sale at gigs. She soon put out the album on her own SuperEgo label selling it via mail-order through her web-site before scoring a distribution deal that made it available in some territories, albeit on import only.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this personal and corporate turmoil she was asked by film director Paul Thomas Anderson to write the music for Magnolia, his follow-up to the hugely successful Boogie Nights.
"That had been in the works for a while although Bachelor… was ready before Magnolia," Mann explains. "I think that Paul was listening to the music while he was writing and found some kind of inspiration from it. He also knew the problems I'd been experiencing with record companies - he likes to take on difficult challenges."
Mann included some of the songs that would eventually appear on Bachelor No 2 on the Magnolia soundtrack. The film, which starred Tom Cruise and the late Jason Robards, was a critical and commercial success, while the album won rave reviews. In an ironic twist that must have resulted in at least a few red faces at her former record company, the song 'Save Me' written specially for the film was nominated not only for an Oscar, but a Golden Globe and in the past month, a Grammy Award!
"The first thing you think is that someone has made a mistake," she relates, still clearly reeling at the improbability of it all. "To be told by someone that you're not commercial and then to be nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy just seemed bizarre to me. I know these awards are industry things but the fact that I was nominated means that at least some people on the Academy are trying to change things."
Alas, Mann's troubles with record companies are far from over, it would appear. She has recently spoken out against the release of a compilation called Aimee Mann - the Ultimate Collection, which she claims has been put out without her permission.
"I have a contract right here that states that the record company does not have a right to couple together my songs without my agreement," she states. "But they just fucking went ahead and did it. They even compiled pieces of interviews I had done in the past and printed them on the sleeve which gives the impression that I had some involvement with it.
"The thing that annoys me most is that when we heard about it we - myself and my manager offered our services, so that the record could be one I was proud of, even if it wasn't something I wanted out in the first place. I even offered to do the artwork and be involved in song selection. This offer was flatly refused - we were barred from being involved in any way on a project that had my name on it.
"Even the title The Ultimate Collection implies at the very least a comprehensive collection, when it doesn't contain anything from Bachelor No. 2 and only one song from Magnolia (and not the Oscar-nominated song). Yet it has things I personally consider to be absolute crap, including a rough mix of one song from just one of two reels of tracks, a song recorded live off the radio 10 years ago and never authorised by me to be recorded at all, much less released. It also has a song I recorded for a movie as a favour to a producer friend that I didn't even write. None of the great B-sides or demos that I was actually proud of and thought would be perfect for this kind of collection are on it.
"Basically I'm asking people to give it a miss until such time as I put together a proper collection which is a true representation of my work. I'm talking to litigators at the moment so hopefully it'll eventually be resolved."
These days Mann performs jointly with husband Michael Penn under the banner of the Acoustic Vaudeville tour. Is it strange going out on the road and performing with her partner?
"It hasn't been difficult so far. The shows we do live is just as two songwriters on a tour. I'd like to do it with other people and I probably will at some point. We're mostly on the same wavelength musically but we don't work closely when writing stuff at home. We bounce off each other occasionally but I'm used to keeping my music separate. I don't tend to bring songs to anybody unless they're pretty much finished."
Would she like to see her songs covered by other artists, or are does she feel that they're too personal lyrically?
"I don't really think that other people could do my songs. Don't get me wrong I'm happy for anyone to take them if they want them! Elvis Costello is someone I've collaborated with before back in the 'Til Tuesday days. We wrote a song called 'The Other End Of the Telescope' which he has also recorded. I haven't seen him for a few years but with 'The Fall of The World's Own Optimist' I sent him a tape of a song that I couldn't finish and he added a new bit. Basically I had a problem with a song and he fixed it - it was as simple as that. I don't think I could work with someone like him face to face. It's difficult to sit in a room with someone who you admire so much - I know it would be too intimidating for me."
Meanwhile, following her Grammy and Oscar nominations Mann's star continues to rise. One of the songs from Bachelor No 2, 'Calling It Quits' has been included on the soundtrack of the hit TV series Sex & The City while she and Michael Penn collaborated on Badlands the recent tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, contributing 'Reason To Believe'.
Last year Mann, always popular in this neck of the woods, filled Vicar Street for three consecutive nights and hopes to return later this year. "We have some vague plans of touring Europe in the summer though there's nothing definite yet. I've been on the road for the best part of the past year so I haven't had much time to write any new songs.
"I certainly wouldn't be expecting to have another album out in the near future. I like to take time with these things."