After dissolving her ’80s band, ‘Til Tuesday, and pursuing a solo career, Aimee Mann drew as much attention for her consistently troubled, often outright antagonistic relationship with labels in the mid-1990s as for her music. Then director P.T. Anderson released “Magnolia” in 1999, a film he said was inspired by Mann’s songs, and which also featured some of her best work. It managed to focus attention back on her music and expose her to a wider audience than ever before.
After that career boost, Mann steadfastly continued an independent career, releasing her last two records (“Bachelor No. 2″ in 2000 and “Lost in Space” in 2002) and her upcoming, much-anticipated concept album, “The Forgotten Arm” (available May 3), on her own Superego label. “The Forgotten Arm,” she says, is set in the early ’70s, and recounts the shaky relationship between John, a Vietnam vet and boxer, and Caroline as they meet, fall in love and set out on a cross-country road trip (go here to listen to a few sample tracks). Produced by Joe Henry and recorded over just nine days, it’s her most straight-ahead rock record to date, but the songwriting is as crafted and subtle as ever, a series of first-person accounts that delve into the psychological subtleties of the two characters with Mann’s customary grace.
That won’t surprise her fans; Mann is one of the best songwriters of her generation, unfailingly articulate and rarely abstract, but never overly wordy or self-consciously clever — which is quite a feat. She writes lovingly sculpted melodies that duck and weave and pirouette and double back on themselves with serpentine grace. She then pairs them with lyrics that offer richly detailed psychological portraits of broken lives. She clearly has a fascination with chronicling the lives of people who are falling apart, and her music often treads a delicate emotional line: Melancholy bordering on desperation, but simultaneously conveying a kind, motherly compassion and sense of comfort. She manages to be victim and savior at the same time, and the trick, I think, is in her voice, warm with intimacy but always somewhat detached from the stories she tells, touched with a chill of cynicism, unimpressed with her own emotional vulnerability. It sounds like a paradox, and it is, but that’s what makes her music so unusual and so moving. In her Grammy-nominated song “Save Me” (a rare instance of the Grammys singling out an artist’s best work), Mann is calling out for help, but she also sounds so wise and in control that you can’t imagine a better person to help her than herself.
I met with Mann on a Sunday afternoon, a day after she’d performed much of the new record to an appreciative crowd at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. She was hungry, and rejected in no uncertain terms the TGI Friday’s in her hotel, so we talked over barbecued brisket at local Austin restaurant Threadgill’s.
Did you start “The Forgotten Arm” with a story, or with the desire to make a concept album?
As I started writing I just liked more and more the idea of having a story, and I think writing songs for movies put this idea in my head — it was almost like writing songs for a nonexistent movie. I had some scenes from movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop,” or a scene from P.T. Anderson’s first movie, “Hard Eight,” when Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly run off together, in my head. Because I’d written this song “King of the Jailhouse,” which is about these two people running off together, and that’s just such a classic thing, to feel like you can leave all of your problems behind.
Was that the first song you wrote for the record?
No, not the first one. I had a couple others, but once I wrote that one and realized that I wanted the record to be about those two people I went back and rewrote other ones a little bit to make them fit. Having it be a concept album makes it more interesting for me, and it gives me permission to not have to make all the songs different. I had a couple of songs like “King of the Jailhouse” and “Goodbye Caroline,” and thought, What the hell is this about? It just seems to be such a specific scenario, but I didn’t know the back story. So it was interesting for me to say, What would the circumstances be? Who would these characters be?
Does the record unfold chronologically?
Loosely. They meet at the Virginia State Fair in the early ’70s. He’s a boxer and she’s dying to get out of town because she thinks she’ll be a different person if she’s in a different place. So they set off together, and he’s got a drug problem, which starts to get more apparent.
I don’t really have a specific one in mind. You know, alcohol and whatever else is around. The great thing about a concept album is that you can be as specific or unspecific as you want, choose which details you want to cover.
Why did you set it in the ’70s?
I had the image of these people meeting at the fair in the early ’70s because it’s this really perfectly white-trash image for me.
You have a thing for white trash?
Oh, I have a real weakness for white trash, a certain kind of rednecky thing.
You have become very interested in boxing. How did you get into it?
I don’t know. I just got interested in it and I had a friend who boxed and he gave me a couple of lessons. I really like fighting, sparring, that’s my favorite part. The fitness part doesn’t really appeal to me. I like competing but I’m not really about winning, necessarily. I like fighting with someone when we’re both doing our best, and when I get caught with a punch I’m just like, Good shot, way to go. It’s funny sparring with girls because we always apologize. I mean, yes, I’m trying to hit you in the head, but I’m sorry for succeeding. Sometimes we spar with guys, because if they’re bigger and more skilled they can work on defense while we throw punches at them. It’s very funny to see the girls smacking these guys around and apologizing for every punch.
The character of John is based on this friend of mine who is a drug addict, a semi-recovering drug addict, and he’s a boxer, and so that’s how I got interested in boxing. But my personal interaction with him was also my real education in real hardcore drug addiction.
Was he the source of the forgotten arm image?
Yeah, he’s a real character. That was his name for a move he made up. He just came up with it on the spot when he was explaining the move to me.
You also wrote quite a bit about drug addiction on your last record, “Lost in Space.”
But that was drug addiction more as a metaphor for other kinds of internal problems. Everybody knows what it’s like to be obsessed or preoccupied, and have behavior where you always think, Why do I do that? Every day I vow not to eat a doughnut in the morning and yet I can’t seem to stop. Everyone has their vices like that. But the thing with drug addiction is that it’s this sort of secret world. If you’re not a drug addict nobody else understands. On “Lost in Space,” it was a metaphor for those kinds of ideas, that kind of secret shame and alienation. I don’t think I really talk about addiction as much on this record, even though in a more serious direct way it is about it.
Why are you so intrigued with people whose lives are falling apart?
Well, there’s the question of why. How does this happen? How does it get so out of hand? It’s funny, the answer with drug addiction is the same as the answer for recovery: one step at a time. You keep taking steps further and further away from sanity, and you can wind up in a really, really fucking dark place. And I always think the more information you have the better, like maybe you can protect yourself from such bad choices.
Can you take me through a personal history of you as a music appreciator, what your tastes have been and how they developed?
There were always just a very, very few things that I liked when I was a kid. My parents had a couple of records I really liked. Peter, Paul and Mary, Glenn Campbell singing all those great Jimmy Webb songs, a couple of Beatles records. [A friend stops by our table and Mann says, "We're talking about my musical history of hating almost everything."] So there were a couple of Beatles records, and my baby sitter had Neil Young’s “Harvest.” It was almost always more singer-songwriter-y kind of people. Just real classic early ’70s, late ’60s pop rock.
Has that changed?
Not at all, it’s still the same.
And you still hate mostly everything?
Yeah. I always get asked what I’m listening to now. Nothing, really. In the ’60s and ’70s there weren’t a ton of people who had put records out, because people hadn’t yet figured out that you could make tons and tons of money. There weren’t so many people chasing after that the way there are now. I don’t know how people find music they really like! There aren’t any music magazines I really trust. And also I have a very, very specific taste in songwriting, because that’s what I do, and I try to write the kinds of songs that I really like. And I probably wouldn’t even care about doing that if there were a number of people writing songs that were exactly the kind of songs that I like.
How would you describe that specific kind of songwriting that you really like?
There’s a certain kind of melodic sense and a more old-school approach to songwriting, like a more crafted song. I’m not so excited about bands that are more about vibe than about good songwriting. But then again, the vibe has to be there too. And lyrics that are written to a certain standard, with the music married to the lyrics in a particular kind of way. When I write, I never write words first. I listen to the music and think, What does this sound like it’s about to me?
So who are some of the prime influences on your songwriting?
I spent a lot of time listening to Elvis Costello. At this point, though, I just need a little more emotional connection than Elvis often delivers. The wordplay is delicious and the love of language is fantastic, but I really need the emotional connection. What’s going on with you? What do you care about? What’s bothering you? It feels ungenerous to me otherwise. I want to know. I want to know what you’re thinking about. I definitely learned a lot of songwriting craft from him, though.
Yeah, I love Bacharach. Probably in “Bachelor No. 2″ that was really prevalent, and is a little bit less so right now.
Dylan? I hear his influence much less in your music than with most singer-songwriters.
I can’t say that I’m a Dylan fan, but I listened to “Blood on the Tracks” like 50 million times when I was a kid. There’s usually just one or two albums that I’ll get almost autistically attached to. You can’t pry it out of my fingers.
So “Blood on the Tracks” was your Dylan record; which was your Elvis Costello record?
“Imperial Bedroom” and “Get Happy.” Although really, I did listen to many of his records. More so than Dylan. You’d think I’d buy more Dylan, but I was happy with “Blood on the Tracks.”
Yeah, but he’s a little emotionally detached to me. I do like the way he writes from inside a character’s head. But I almost get the vibe of the kind of guy who can only be emotional when he’s really hammered. But yeah, he was a big influence. Especially with all the Southern stuff. I love that.
What about the super-literary types like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave?
Tom Waits is a great lyricist, but that kind of back-alley, whiskey-soaked thing is a bit too much for me. I like more melody than that. And that Leonard Cohen, bless his heart. Bless his little heart. I don’t really know Nick Cave’s stuff.
You don’t really reference the Bible or old blues lyrics enough to belong to that crowd.
I’ve got to start. You know what, that’ll be my next project. Or maybe I’ll just reference the A.A. Big Book instead.
Yeah, I think for earlier albums I listened to a lot of Nilsson. But he’s maybe a touch precious to be optimal. See! You see what a snob I am. If it’s not exactly what I do I’m not into it. Because I try to do exactly what I like.
Do the Beatles remain the gold standard for you?
You know, I think it’s just the state of mind I’m in now, but I can’t listen to the Beatles records anymore, I’ve just heard them too many times. I’m going to stay away from them for a few decades so I can hear them fresh again.
Are there any songwriters currently working whom you really admire, who write songs in the way that you like them to be written?
Well, Elliott [Smith], poor thing, until he died. I don’t know.
Were you ever concerned about becoming just a poster child for major label injustice?
Yeah, I got asked about that a lot. And the reality is, once I was off I just didn’t care, I just didn’t give it a second thought. It’s OK to complain for a bit but then you have to do something about it. And I felt like I’d done something about it, so I didn’t need to keep complaining.
If a label like Nonesuch or ANTI — one of the big labels that seems to be genuinely artist friendly — wanted to put out your next record, would you consider it?
No. I’d consider it if New West wanted to, but only because the owner is a friend of mine. I’d love to do a project with him, he’s awesome.
The press for your new record compares it repeatedly to a novella. Have you ever written fiction?
No, I’m a terrible, terrible writer.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Fitzgerald short stories, that’s my favorite stuff. Edith Wharton, Hemingway, J.D. Salinger. The old classics.
Unless there’s something else interesting you want to talk about I think we’re done.
The things that are interesting to me wouldn’t be interesting to anyone else. I could talk for another half-hour about boxing. There’s nothing more boring than someone who’s got a hobby and just keeps going on and on about it. Dylan boxes! I’d love to spar with Dylan.
I think he’d be mean.
I bet he wouldn’t be so mean in the ring, though. That’s a really interesting thing about boxing. You can’t be mad. You can’t be mad at someone if they hit you. You can’t bring anger into it. When we all spar, you have such respect for each other, and you know how hard everybody’s working. It’s a lot of camaraderie. Like emotionally you’re more careful with each other because physically you’re less careful.
Last question, other than music, what are the things you love most in the world?
Just boxing. Right now, that’s it. Music and boxing.