Aimee Mann’s work is filled with lyrics about junkies, manic-depressives, jilted lovers and disgruntled artists set against haunting music reminiscent of a David Lynch soundtrack.
It’s not exactly an “Up With People” repertoire.
But Mann’s fans might be surprised to know that underneath that brooding exterior lies a silly persona itching to get out.
“Believe it or not, I have friends who think I am very funny,” Mann, 42, said recently from a friend’s home in Los Angeles. “I think there’s a bit of irony in my lyrics that people don’t necessarily get, but it goes along the lines of gallows humor, too. There is a certain humor in finding the truth in something.
“I can’t really impart to you my offstage personality. This isn’t a conversation, this is an interview with me answering questions … I can only offer the testimony of comedian friends who think I am really funny.”
It’s not hard to see why Mann’s name doesn’t conjure comedic images. She was introduced to the world in the mid-’80s as lead vocalist of ‘Til Tuesday, which scored a Top 10 hit out of the starting gate with “Voices Carry,” a tale of a woman breaking free of an abusive relationship. When ‘Til Tuesday disintegrated in 1988 after three albums, Mann went into seclusion for five years before emerging with the critically acclaimed CD “Whatever,” an angry missive aimed at former lovers and the music business.
It proved to be prophetic: Imago, the independent label that issued “Whatever,” went bankrupt, and Mann signed with mega-label Geffen for the 1995 follow-up, “I’m With Stupid.” Then Geffen was absorbed into mega-mega label Seagram/Universal, and she was reassigned to Interscope Records – which promptly refused to release her third album, “Bachelor No. 2,” unless she made it more radio-friendly.
Thankfully for Mann, the dispute coincided with her work on the film soundtrack “Magnolia,” which gave her enough money to buy back the master tapes and release “Bachelor No. 2” on her own label, SuperEgo. The disc quickly became one of the best-selling indie albums of 2000, and her contributions to “Magnolia” garnered her nominations for several Grammys and an Oscar. Mann was vindicated.
Still, when asked if she felt like calling the honchos at Interscope and give them a big ol’ raspberry, she said no.
“I don’t care about them,” she said. “I just wanted to get away from them.”
Mann’s latest release, “Lost in Space,” seems to validate her claim that she’s gotten over the bitterness of dealing with record labels. Instead of the diatribes against corporate machines that dotted earlier releases, “Lost” works on a more personal label by examining addiction, depression and obsession.
On the surface, it’s easy to assume that lyrics such as “All the perfect drugs and superheroes wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero” are autobiographical, but Mann insists that’s not the case. People are naturally drawn to the dark side of human behavior, she said, and like artists since time immemorial, she explores that fascination through her work.
“I think that’s sort of the way the subconscious works,” she said. “It has various ways of telling a story, and if you don’t pay attention to it and help it tell its story through art or words or in some way, then in comes out in other ways. I think being an artist is a way to give the subconscious a voice.”
Mann’s success has made her a champion for artists’ rights. While she doesn’t thrust herself into the fray like Don Henley’s Recording Artists’ Coalition, she’s happy to talk about the subject when asked.
“I think most artists are still tied to the idea of staying with a major label, but the word will get out that if you’re somewhat already established, you’re going to earn 10 times the amount of money, and you are going to be in complete control of your output,” she said.