"Ready for dinner"
People who pick up Aimee Mann’s new album “Lost in Space” expecting lighthearted references to June Lockhart and Will Robinson may be flabbergasted by the 11-song cycle exploring drugs and addiction. Even those familiar with Mann’s always cynical, metaphorically rich lyrics will be surprised to hear her voice pleading “Let me be your heroin” on “High on Sunday 51″ or, on “This Is How It Goes,” bluntly cutting to the chase in the chorus: “It’s all about drugs, it’s all about shame.”
Even the opening track and lead single offers this frightening existential dilemma: “Say you were split, you were split into fragments, and none of the pieces would talk to you …” While buoyed by an instrumental inventiveness that surpasses her work with Jon Brion, the material may still have people wondering if success has brought on some kind of Mariah breakdown.
Not likely. Mann is just capitalizing on her own long-standing fascination with psychology and the innate dysfunction of the human condition. Mann is the kind of person whose friends give her enormous encyclopedias of depression as gifts (though while touring, she’s more likely to tear through “lighter” fare, like a stack of Paul Theroux paperbacks).
“I pull from a few different places,” she says in a telephone interview, trying to articulate the mysterious space from which song lyrics come. “There’s always an element that is just from my own head. It’s often a combination of things that I’m reading about, and I always have an interest in anything that has to do with psychology. In the past few years I’ve been doing a lot of reading about addiction and alcoholism and that type of thing. Narcissistic personality disorder is another good one. The problem is that if I talk about where it comes from it sounds so dry and clinical.
“It’s more a drive to really understand people. People are pretty fucked up, and I’m right along there with them. If my songs give people the impression that I’m emotionally disturbed, well — yeah, you’re right! At the same time, what makes a great song is not necessarily a page straight from your diary. Whatever you write about, whatever brought you to write about that topic, you also always have to apply that to yourself. So it might as well be about me, even if it’s not.”
A part of Mann is wary of dissecting her work, preferring instead for people to take it for whatever they feel. Speaking of songwriters she admires, she explains, “If a song means a lot to me, I want it to mean a lot to the person who wrote it. I don’t really want the person to take a step back and say, ‘Oh, it has nothing to do with me, it was just an exercise. I read something in a book and thought, How intriguing.’ As an audience member, I feel a little let down when people back away from their own music. If I ever read an interview with Elliott Smith and he said, ‘Oh, it’s all totally fiction, I’m completely well-adjusted,’ I’d feel let down. I want to feel that he’s courageous enough to share things that are difficult and painful.”
Given the success of Mann’s contributions to the “Magnolia” soundtrack, and the fat sales of her self-distributed “Bachelor #2″ (which far exceeded any of her major-label releases), what would the labels think of “Lost in Space”?
“I think they would have a problem with a record that, first of all, has a consistent theme to it, and that the theme is, you know, obsession, compulsion, depression and addiction. Working with a big corporation, you always feel like someone is looking over your shoulder,” she says, and it sounds like it could be a lyric to one of her songs. In fact, her first album with her old band ‘Til Tuesday did feature a song called “Looking Over My Shoulder.”
Mann continues, “That always makes any artistic project the poorer. The labels are always second-guessing what people will buy and I was trying to second-guess what the label was guessing people would buy. This time, the only criterion was whether I thought it was good or not. I didn’t worry about singles, because we don’t have singles. We can’t get that happening.
“‘Lost in Space’ is a real old-fashioned long-player,” Mann says with a laugh. “It’s a Long-Playing Record Album! It’s not just because I grew up with that — records that were good from beginning to end, records that people cared about, rather than just a loose collection of songs or even worse, a bunch of crap with one or two singles. I think it’s a rip-off to the public, who pay a lot of money for a CD and should get something more for it. There were some songs that didn’t make it on the record, because I didn’t think they were good enough, that probably would have been more appealing to a label if I were still dealing with one. As it is, it has a really consistent flavor from song to song, and it is nice not to have to compromise that.”
The new album marks the first time Mann has worked with the same label for two consecutive discs, and the label — SuperEgo — is, not coincidentally, her own. Whether she’d be in this position if fate and bad timing hadn’t pushed her there is another question altogether. After ‘Til Tuesday disbanded in the late 1980s, Mann found herself contractually bound to their old label, Epic.
After several years of legal maneuvering, Mann released “Whatever” on Imago, which promptly lost its distribution deal with BMG. Though Imago existed only on paper, Mann had several more years of legal struggles before her second solo project, “I’m With Stupid,” was released on Geffen, which was ultimately absorbed by Universal. And so on.
Mann finds the conglomeration of the music industry frustrating even as a consumer. “I don’t really know how to find music anymore,” she says. “I’m pretty picky. There are records people play for me and I like them, but I don’t end up listening to them again. I think the Strokes were the last thing I played over and over again. Scott Miller gave me something by Ted Leo, and I really like that, but I don’t know where the hell he came from.”
Now she finds herself in the enviably complicated position of wearing two hats, creative on one side, businesswoman on the other. “I don’t mind making business decisions, and I understand that people have to compromise and that compromise has to happen, but it’s nice to make that decision myself.” One example is her decision to commission graphic novelist Seth to create a 38-page booklet to accompany “Lost in Space.” It is precisely the kind of decision that might be vetoed by bottom-line-obsessed money managers, but this time it is Mann’s bottom line and the money is coming out of her pocket.
“I make an effort to have really nice packages because I hate jewel cases,” she says. “But there are some places, like Wal-Mart, that will only stock CDs in jewel cases. So I need to make a decision about whether I have the record for sale in those places. How many copies would I sell in Wal-Mart anyway?”
Touring remains a bit of a sticking point for Mann, who is always happy to be onstage but doesn’t enjoy the physical logistics of hopscotching across the country from one gig to the next. Several years ago she proved herself a trooper by making it to a performance even after her van was rolled off a highway and totaled along the way. “I’ll do as much as I can,” she says of current tour plans, “which compared to other people, I guess, isn’t that much.”
Last time around, touring was made more palatable by creating a special “acoustic vaudeville” show in which Mann split the headlining duties with her husband, Michael Penn, and assigned between-song patter to a revolving roster of comedians. Occasionally they even found volunteer jugglers in the audience and invited them onstage. “Michael and I toured together for a year and a half,” she says. “It’s a really great show for me to do because I get to take a lot of breaks. I get to watch Michael perform. I get to watch the comedian perform. I kind of look at touring as it’s like going on military maneuvers. You have to gear yourself up, grit your teeth and plow through it.” Penn will be unavailable this year, stuck in a Los Angeles studio completing his own new album.
With all the music industry shenanigans behind her, Mann still feels the sting of the notion of creativity by committee, even if it no longer has a grasp on her career. “I felt my music was fairly accessible,” she says, “so I never really understood the extensive complaints about how I should be going in some other direction or the constant cry of ‘It’s not a single.’ It always seemed to me that it was, well, not commercial music, but I wasn’t out there on the edge. I think you sort of pick up on the kinds of things that make record labels nervous and you find yourself trying to avoid them, because you just don’t want the argument. I never really thought about it while writing songs, but it certainly was a factor in choosing which songs to record.
“But in 1984, when I was starting out, what other options did you have?” she asks, offering her own counterpoint. “You took a record deal or you didn’t have a career.”
Around the same time that “I’m With Stupid” was mired in corporate limbo, Mann made a move that surprised many of her East Coast fans: She moved to Los Angeles, a city that seems an odd match for a girl who came of age while working in Boston’s Newbury Comics. Mann became involved with Penn, a songwriter who matches her brilliance in chronicling the remains of disastrous relationships.
“I’m sort of surprised too,” she says of the geographic transplant. “A lot of my friends moved to L.A. from Boston. I think that one of the reasons I wound up here is that Boston — because there are so many colleges there, it’s like a constant string of 20-year-olds. When you start reaching your late 20s you feel out of place, there isn’t a peer group for you. Also, we were in a band and once that ran its course there was a question of what to do next. Los Angeles, creatively, offers a lot of possibilities for a musician, particularly for someone like me, whom people don’t automatically think of using because I’m not a big star. The fact that people were leaving Boston and I just didn’t know anyone there anymore made it easier.”
Listening to Mann describe her new hometown makes you realize how much inspiration she may draw from its peculiarities. “L.A. definitely has its problems,” she says. “But problems that you would anticipate because it’s an industry town and that industry is all about how things appear. And the core problem of narcissism is being more concerned with how things appear rather than the way things are.
“You can encounter a lot of people who are really misguided or really disturbed or really sort of awful. But you can also encounter people who are desperate to meet other people who are creative. There just aren’t a lot of natural meeting places. You can go run errands, go to the dentist even, and literally not see a single person. It’s a very weird feeling.” One can easily imagine Mann sitting in that Twilight Zone waiting room, jotting lyrics on a stack of blank appointment cards. Lost in space, indeed.
Ken Foster Ken Foster is the author of a memoir, "The Dogs Who Found Me," and a collection of stories, "The Kind I'm Likely to Get." His most recent book is "I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet."More Ken Foster.