On a major label there’s a lot of people who have very specific opinions that don’t have anything to do with musical opinions…and it’s very difficult to try to answer to all their concerns. Especially when you don’t respect the people giving their opinions.
story by Janine Schaults
photo by Carlos Serrao
She’s no million dollar baby, but Aimee Mann does possess an affinity for boxing that belies her 120-pound frame. The 44-year-old singer/songwriter, best known for her heart-wrenching observations about the fragility of human relationships, treads carefully around the boxing ring as her songs gingerly navigate matters of the heart. When on the road or at home, Mann trains extensively — but is short on sparring partners. Husband and fellow musician Michael Penn (brother of Sean) isn’t volunteering.
“So much of training is just getting in shape and practicing your punches,” Mann told Chicago Innerview from a studio in L.A. “[Boxing] is an unbelievably difficult sport. There’s a lot of work that you have to do to be even mediocre. And I can’t go in with a real fighter because I don’t know what I’m doing.”
This newfound passion infiltrates Mann’s latest album, The Forgotten Arm. The title refers to a surprise boxing move while the 12-song record follows the travails of a drug-addicted boxer and small-town girl through their ill-fated love affair. Always one to break the mold, Mann has successfully breathed life into an old-fashioned idea: the concept album.
“I kind of had this idea in my head and I just didn’t allow myself to do it and after awhile I was like, ‘I don’t have to really answer to anybody, I can do whatever I want’,” Mann said, sounding slightly hoarse from a cold in its final hurrah. “It would make it more fun for me if I could actually have it be these same characters and tell a little bit of a story…and really explore the topics more in-depth.”
Creating the Academy Award-nominated soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 ensemble drama Magnolia paved the way for Mann to populate her new songs with characters in a continuum. “I had such vivid pictures of what these two people were and what they were doing that it was sort of like writing for a movie,” Mann said.
Mired in the sounds of the ’70s, The Forgotten Arm is a departure from Mann’s previous outing, 2002′s Lost in Space. Producer Joe Henry conjured the ghosts of The Band and Rod Stewart in just five days as Mann and an eclectic assortment of musicians recorded live. “I just really wanted to make a record that was completely different from the one before it and I really wanted to work with Joe Henry,” Mann said. “And I knew that that’s how he works, which is to put great musicians together in a room and record live pretty much.”
Beginning in the ’80s when Mann first stepped into the spotlight as a member of ‘Til Tuesday (best known for their hit single “Voices Carry”), Mann has suffered consistent major record label woes. “It’s just so difficult to make a record. On a major label there’s a lot of people who have very specific opinions that don’t have anything to do with musical opinions…and it’s very difficult to try to answer to all their concerns. Especially when you don’t respect the people giving their opinions,” Mann said.
She understands having to think about selling records and getting songs played on the radio, and admits that she would like her songs to receive radio airplay, but says making a record besieged with concerns about what the label deems commercial is detrimental. “At the least it takes all the fun out of it and at worst, it makes you start changing what you’re doing almost always in a way that’s not going to be great,” Mann said.
Instead of caving in to the major labels’ demands, Mann releases her albums on her own label (Superego) and has created a co-operative, United Musicians, to handle all of the promotional and marketing aspects of putting out a record. Mann calls it the perfect system. “I mean, I’m basically lazy so it’s like I don’t want to be involved in everything, but this way I get to choose people that I really trust and believe in and delegate responsibility to them,” she said. “And I can concentrate on doing the things that I have to do.”
Like working on her uppercut…
Aimee Mann :: Park West :: February 1.