Much has been written of Aimee Mann. She dropped out of Berklee College of Music and then went on to build one of the most intellectual music careers to date. She first rose to fame as the platinum-haired front woman of ‘80s pop-band ‘Til Tuesday, only to reject the world of big labels and top-40 hits in favor of creative control and an alt-country-meets-urban-folk sound. But watch a video of Mann performing her new-wave anthem, "Voices Carry" in 1985, her speaking voice aloof in contrast to her dynamic vocal, and there's the sense that she always was who she is now (and, indeed, Mann seems to have aged little in the last two-and-a-half decades).
What has changed is the music industry. "Right when I got into it was when MTV was really taking off," Mann recalls. "People didn't really pay attention to image. … When I was in my early 20s I was kind of aware that was at least a factor that was going to be more paid attention to. Then it got totally out of hand. It was, 'Ugh, this is all image and no content and I feel ripped off.'"
On the contrary, Mann's work tends to be content-heavy. Her 2005 album, The Forgotten Arm, is an off-handedly poppy 12-song collection that plays well as individual tracks (and features the unmistakable guitar work by singer/songwriter-turned-producer Joe Henry). But the album is intended as a concept package, telling in vignettes the star-crossed romance between Vietnam vet/boxer Joe, who meets his girlfriend Caroline at a state fair, circa the 1970s. In Mann's signature style, this is not a ride-off-into-the-sunset love story, but rather a dark view of the tender emotion. Joe is an alcoholic; Caroline just can't quit him. Only, wait, maybe she can.
Two more albums followed Arm — One More Drifter in the Snow in 2006 and @#%&*! Smilers in 2008 — but it's Arm that Mann is returning to, with sights on a Broadway musical. "It's a learning curve and it’s a different approach," she says of the process. "It just takes forever because you do initial readings, and then you listen to actors say the words and sing the songs and then you go, 'Oh, I had no idea this was such a problem!' And then it's back to the drawing board, and you rewrite and change scenes and put whole new characters in. To go from the readings and initial staging to a real staging in a theatre somewhere takes years."
Plus Arm didn't originate with a musical in mind and Mann sees the irony in the project. "Especially big Broadway voices," she points out. "At the very least it will be amusing." In fact, a musical is a huge undertaking. New songs are in the works to flesh out the story line, because "Pop music in general is kind of amorphous, talking about how you feel about a thing instead of speaking like a conversation."
Mann does think she'll play a couple new songs from the musical on her current tour, "You know, 'cause why not. If there's a tour it's fun to have new stuff to play."
The singer/songwriter's most recent album is Smilers, the fill-in-the-blank expletive in the title comes, according to press for the album, "from a phrase Mann has long used to humorously lampoon the unrelentingly happy, shiny, smiley-faced pop culture that surrounds us all today." But the album itself is neither angry nor coarse. It's Mann's brand of thinking-man's pop, blending clever hooks with wry observations about life and the human condition. "You've got a lot of money but you can't afford the freeway," she sings on the lead track.
Asked if road-testing her material changes her relationship to her songs, Mann answers, "Not with [Smilers], certainly earlier. But you'd have to go back a long time."
"As I go along I try to really refine what I want to hear and the standards that I set myself," she explains. "I think they're probably not going to change that much. Hopefully you'll get better and better, but I think it's in your 20s or early 30s where there's drastic leads when you go, 'Oh! It never even occurred to me that I could write a song like that.' If you've done your job right, you've been trying to learn all along."
But as much as Mann maintains, the music industry — with which she was often at odds — has crumbled around her. And she’s not sorry. “The falling apart of the music business is kind of good news and bad news because nothing matters anymore,” she says. “In the old days, record companies would care about stuff like that. Nobody buys records anymore anyway, so it's kind of become a free-for-all that is just about music. You have these super-pop, completely manufactured songs-written-for-them, stylists-called-in, spokesmen-for-products-and-clothing-lines people, and then everybody else who can't make any money anyway, who are either doing it for attention or for fun.”
It doesn’t take more than the first couple notes of any Aimee Mann song to know where she fits into that equation.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Aimee Mann (Blake Hazard of the Submarines opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Sept. 24 (8 p.m., $23 advance/$25 doors. theorangepeel.net)