© 2001 The Washington Post Company

The Washington Post

Sunday, February 18, 2001; Page G01


LENGTH: 1,855 words


HEADLINE: Her Own Mann: Independent-Minded Singer Sheds Labels

BYLINE: Teresa Wilz


Her Own Mann: Independent-Minded Singer Sheds Labels


As far as road food goes, chicken Caesar salad rules. It's the old reliable of takeout: Quick. Nutritious. Almost virtuous. Just so long as you watch out for land mines in the lettuce.

Which is why Aimee Mann is sitting at the Kampo Recording Studios in NoHo, armed with a fork and muttering something about "they're always trying to [expletive] me up" as she hunts for signs of the enemy: Croutons. Croutons are bread; bread is wheat. And Mann is now allergic to wheat. You don't want to know the details.

The vibe is, shall we say, decidedly low-key. Mann is tired. Beat-down tired. Last night she did Letterman. Today she's laying down tracks for her new CD. Tonight she boards a plane -- something she hates -- for a six-city European tour to do the other thing she hates: talk to reporters. Now that she's been nominated for three Grammys for the "Magnolia" soundtrack, she'll probably be doing a lot more talking to reporters.

And when Mann, 40, opens up, she really opens up. She is not, she will tell you, an established artist. Yet wherever she performs, whether solo or alongside her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn (and a comedian friend so they don't have to make stage patter), it's standing room only. Then there's her penchant for thumbing her elegant nose at the musical establishment, even to the point of buying back her songs from her last record label, Interscope, and striking out on her own. Mann vs. the Machine.

Still, almost in spite of herself, she's feeling the embrace of the powers that be.

Last year she was nominated for an Oscar for her music from "Magnolia," Paul Thomas Anderson's episodic drama starring Tom Cruise and Jason Robards. And Wednesday she's up for three Grammy awards, also for "Magnolia," with nods for best compilation soundtrack album, song written for a motion picture and female pop vocal, for "Save Me." (The latter should prove to be the slugfest of Grammy night as Mann dukes it out with Madonna, Macy Gray, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.)

This amazes her.

"They're megastars," she says, "I don't know who could possibly have voted for me. I can't even believe it. Who knows me?"

If you were paying attention in 1985 -- and if you had MTV -- you know her. Before Gwen Stefani, before Alanis Morissette, before Fiona Apple or even Liz Phair, there was Aimee Mann of 'Til Tuesday. She was a neo-punk pop princess, a New Wave glamour girl, all doe eyes, gangly limbs and spiky bleached hair with that long, braided tail snaking out from underneath (this was, after all, the '80s). Her group struck gold with "Voices Carry," a you're-not-the-boss-of-me anthem for any young woman stuck with an overbearing beau. But the focus was on the made-for-MTV Mann as she wailed, "He wants me / But only part of the time / He wants me / If he can keep me in line."

And then, as overnight pop stars often do, she faded from the spotlight. First she went solo, releasing two folk-flavored albums, "Whatever" and "I'm With Stupid," to critical acclaim but disappointing sales. Then, after wrestling with three major labels, she decided to form her own, Superego Records. Last year she released her first indie effort, "Bachelor No. 2." The onetime MTV darling now relies on her friends to shoot videos for her.

She says she likes it this way, she really does.

Because, as she sees it, record label execs are just like the domineering dude she sang about in her first hit.

"Listen, I'm out of this system, man, I'm out," says Mann. "I'm doing better than ever. I couldn't be more happy.

"And here's the big shock: [Being on my own] is four thousand million times more lucrative. It's unbelievable."


Finding Her Voice

Hey, kids -- look at this

it's the fall of the world's own optimist

I could get back up if you insist

but you'll have to ask politely

cause the eggshells I've been treading

couldn't spare me a beheading . . .

-- Aimee Mann,

"The Fall of the World's Own Optimist"

There was a time when she wasn't so happy. And if artists mine the past for new material, there is rich territory in Mann's Richmond upbringing.

When she was 4, her mother kidnapped her and took her to England. It would be a year before she was returned to her father and brothers in Virginia. Many years would pass before she saw her mother again. Mann has since reconciled with her mother, and of her experience in England will say only this: "There was clearly a not particularly amicable divorce with a lot of confusion and anger on both sides."

Back at home, she grew up surrounded by boys: two brothers and two stepbrothers. Which suited her just fine, because she wasn't, as she puts it, "a girly girl." Still isn't. Her publicity shots portray her as the thinking man's babe: intelligent, to be sure, but also lean, leggy, busty and blond. But in real life she's more likely to hide behind a pair of horn rims, her face scrubbed clean, obscuring her curves under nondescript jeans.

It wasn't so easy to hide in junior high. She and her brothers were bused to an inner-city school, white kids sticking out in an almost all-black environment. The experience seems to have shaped her left-of-center politics, focusing on overcrowded classrooms and beleaguered teachers, kids who don't get a chance to learn.

She retreated to the school library, burying herself in her books.

Eventually her family moved to the suburbs. But not before she took a few licks.

"Of course, a lot of it was pretty racially motivated," she says. "I definitely got a lot of 'Your grandfather made my grandfather a slave,' wham. It's like, 'Actually, we fought for the Union, but thanks for the slug.' "

By the time she graduated from Midlothian High School in 1978, Mann was casting about for a direction. After trying her hand at painting and drawing she took up music. No matter that she knew how to play only a couple of Neil Young songs on her acoustic guitar.

So she moved to Boston, and after a seven-week summer course at the Berklee College of Music she enrolled at the highly selective school, where she studied guitar and bass and discovered that yes, you could learn to be a musician. She embraced the discipline of a musical monk, living on $25 a week, running in the morning and spending the rest of her days practicing, practicing, practicing.

"I'm always shocked when I hear about people going to college and it was one big toga party," she says. "I tell you, going to a bad school really makes you appreciate what a privilege it is to be educated."

Still, she didn't stay at Berklee long enough to graduate. She dropped out to perform around Boston in the early '80s, playing first with the Young Snakes, and then signing up with 'Til Tuesday, a band that included her then-beau, drummer Michael Hausman.

'Til Tuesday brought fame; it also brought her pressure. The band broke up, and by 1990 Mann had struck out on her own. (She and Hausman split as a couple, but remained friends. Today he serves as her manager, a highly protective one.)

She looks back on that Aimee Mann as if she were another creature.

"I was no Fiona Apple springing fully formed at the age of 15 as a great lyricist and songwriter," she says. "There's a lot of flailing around."

It doesn't help when the flailing about is done against the background noise of record label execs clamoring for your attention. People who she says looked at her and saw a pop music diva.

She balked.


Looking for a Fight

And though you pay for the hands they're shaking

The speeches and the mistakes they're making

As they struggle with the undertaking of

Simple thought . . .

You're with stupid now

-- Aimee Mann,

"You're With Stupid Now"

Balking doesn't win you many friends in the music industry. Mann struggled with three major labels: Imago, Geffen and Interscope. She bought back "Bachelor No. 2" at a sum she describes as being "in the low six figures" -- and considers herself blessed to be able to do so.

It is worth noting that now that she's out on her own, "Bachelor No. 2," which became her first indie endeavor, has sold 150,000 records thus far, according to Soundscan, a very respectable figure for an independent artist. This is particularly true when you consider that her other, critically acclaimed solo albums, released by major labels with deep marketing pockets, sold about the same: 123,000 for "I'm With Stupid" (1993); 170,000 combined sales for two releases of "Whatever" (1993 and 1995), and 410,000 units for the "Magnolia" soundtrack.

Much has been made of her balking. She relishes a good fight. Witness her current battle with Hip-O Records. The label, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, recently released a compilation called "The Ultimate Aimee Mann Collection" that she saw as anything but ultimate; she says she tried to get the label to let her participate in its production but was refused any input. (Hip-O did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this article.)

Says Hausman: "The great thing about Aimee is she's free. And she can sue them."

To Mann, the music industry is little more than a modern-day equivalent of sharecropping.

"I think I'm one of the few people fed up enough to start talking about the industry in really honest terms. Which is pretty dangerous. It is really dangerous."

This is how she sees it: If you're rich and famous, like, say, George Michael, and you complain about the industry, then it's like, " 'Oh, stop whining, you big rock star.' As if that's a really big perk." And if you're small, independent and you rail against the industry, then you're labeled a sore loser. Sour grapes. "No one liked your record. Get over it."

Her rebel stance has earned her some critics, like rock historian and former Rolling Stone editor Dave Marsh, who says, "Her portrayal of herself as oppressed is so aggravating given how many people in the world really are oppressed.

"She doesn't even seem particularly depressed to me, just bratty. She just doesn't get what she wants, so she complains about it."

Naturally, Mann sees things differently.

"They want you to be grateful for what they perceive is your good fortune. . . . So what if people think I'm complaining. It's true, I am. It's something to complain about."

She is not, however, complaining about the Grammys. And yes, she's planning to be there.

Not that she thinks she's going to win.

"It's always more fun to win," Mann says. "As soon as you're nominated for something, you want to win. But I won't be crushed to lose. I expect to lose."

An expectation pretty much in line with a woman who dubs herself the world's fallen optimist.