I'm always trying to figure out the difficult questions of human behavior, you know, like why people do the bizarre and often inexplicable things that they do," supposes Aimee Mann, from her Los Angeles studio. "Why can you feel one way, but act another? I just think people are totally fascinating. There's an endless array of interesting things to study about them."
Likewise Aimee offers quite an array of interesting things for public study: a 16-year career, for instance, in which she has countered repeated music-industry subterfuge with some of the most revered songwriting in American pop music. Stirring through her nine albums (three with '80s outfit 'Til Tuesday, five solo) is a sympathetic realism on subjects of love and life, pain and loss, and getting by. She stuck around through rough times, and she has emerged victorious.
Enter "Lost in Space" (coming Aug. 27 on her own SuperEgo imprint), a natural successor to "Bachelor No. 2" (2000) and its detailed concern and guitar-crunch, if only a bit darker. It's an accomplished record -- razor-sharp ruminations on life in apparent failure floating in the depths of hopeless space. But bear in mind, it's a study of darkness and not a retelling of it.
"It really is that kind of lonely, totally out-of-touch, totally unable-to-communicate-with-anybody kind of album," she says. "Whereas some of the other records were records you would listen to after breaking up with somebody, this is more the record you would listen to after your three-day coke binge in a Holiday Inn."
It's that good.
"There are a couple of topics that run one into another -- disassociation which kind of goes into addiction, which kind of goes into, I don't know -- I really should just make a list," she jokes.
In a sense, she already has. Kicking off the disc with the wide-eyed "Humpty Dumpty," Mann laments that "All of the drugs and the superheros couldn't bring me back to zero." On "This Is How It Goes," she rattles into a rallying call of "It's all about drugs/ It's all about shame."
"That's my shorthand: drugs, whether or not they're actual drugs," she clarifies, noting that this album is not autobiographical but empathetic immersion. "It's all about feeling needy and being ashamed of being needy -- like where people confuse sadness for hunger and make it up with food. Or try to use drugs to mask it."
"OK, it really is all about drugs and all about shame," she thinks again. Well, not exactly. It's also about separation, as on the buoyant song "Guys Like Me."
"That's about detachment. There's my third topic," she laughs. "There's like two or three friends I have that are detached. ... Underneath the sort of ostensible warmth and friendliness, they're clearly uncomfortable with anything emotional. When I write a song about someone like that, I try to put myself in their place," she says, obviously not a "guy."
"I think empathy is important, certainly in any kind of artistic endeavor. It's a really important thing to make an effort to understand people and understand yourself, because one is the other. It's all part of the same continuum."
There was a time when such empathy didn't come so easy to Mann. When Epic released her former band 'Til Tuesday's debut, "Voices Carry," in 1986, they instantly had a hit, and Mann instantly had a problem. Forever to be remembered as the girl on MTV with the tucked-away new-wave braid and the outstretched elbows of "He said shut up!/ He said shut up!/ Oh, God can't you keep it down!" Mann suffered the boardroom stares of label expectations. The relative commercial failures of the two succeeding, more ruminative 'Til Tuesday releases sent Mann into a mad spiral of having to defend her own relevance to suits of an uncaring business. They said, "Shut up."
"They kept coming up to me with this thing that `the music was` not accessible enough. And I was, like, 'What about Tracy Chapman? She's having an enormous hit.' And they'd say, 'That's totally different.' And then I would say, 'What about 10,000 Maniacs?' And they would say, 'Oh, their circumstance is totally different.' So everybody's situations are totally different but mine, and that was really too much. I lost my fucking mind on that. It had been presented to me as a problem and I was trying to come up with solutions."
"My theory about it was that they thought I was almost pretty enough to be sort of like a diva-y pretty girl, kind of like Taylor Dayne," she says. "I think that they just couldn't get fucking off of that. Because they wanted to make 'Til Tuesday like Heart."
Her solo career thereafter proved even more tumultuous when her first record, "Whatever," faded in its label's (Imago) folding. When Geffen set out to release her sophomore effort, "I'm With Stupid," they confronted her with similar commerciality issues and decided not to promote it. Then came "Bachelor No. 2." With Geffen swept up into Universal (and thereby Seagrams), the record didn't stand a chance with the tastemakers, and Mann walked out. Fortunately, the New York Times Magazine had been planning a feature on Mann and her place in the industry and were able to witness -- and report -- just how bad things had gotten.
Simultaneously, the film "Magnolia's" writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson, long a fan of Mann's, set out to set things right in his own way, wrapping much of that movie's plot around a soundtrack of almost completely Mann material -- right down to Tom Cruise mouthing the words to "Wise Up" in the movie's climax. She was nominated for an Oscar.
"He wanted to show these people that they were a bunch of buffoons who didn't know what they were talking about," laughs Mann. "He wanted to get revenge on my behalf."
But revenge was never the goal of Mann, who spent most of her time in major-label wranglings playing the nice guy -- and making superior music. She finally released "Bachelor No. 2" on her own terms, first through her website and then with a national distribution agreement, garnering her best reviews and sales yet.
"Lost in Space" caps a saga of too much drama for Mann's introspective tastes. Fortunately, she's still crafting these humble stories of hope and hopelessness just beneath the radar, and smiling more than she ever has had the right to.
Along with husband Michael Penn (also a victim of the quick-hit/quick-fall major-label syndrome), she spent last year on "The Acoustic Vaudeville Tour," telling jokes in between songs and returning a sense of spontaneity to her career. They've also formed (with Pete Droge and Bob Mould) United Musicians (unitedmusicians.com), a company to aid musicians in areas of promotion and distribution apart from the crapshoot of major-label soul-submission.
Finally, then, it can all be about the artist and the artistry. And Aimee can get on with what she does best.
"I just want to be good," says Mann. "I think that's the kind of pressure every artist should have -- to just be good."