Photo: Sheryl Nields
Aimee Mann On 'Bachelor No. 2' Turning 20 & Launching An Indie Label In 1999
It took twenty years, but the ranks of the freaks are finally complete.
Arriving on Friday, Nov. 27, the new remastered vinyl edition of Aimee Mann's 2000 album Bachelor No. 2 (Or, The Last Remains of the Dodo) at last unites the singer/songwriter's Oscar- and GRAMMY-nominated "Save Me" with the body of work it was originally plucked from. Featuring new artwork and four additional songs, the limited release from SuperEgo Records also marks the first time the full array of songs Mann wrote during this time frame has been packaged together.
Consisting of songs that would ultimately be split between Bachelor No. 2 and 1999's Magnolia (Music from the Motion Picture)—the Paul Thomas Anderson film in which Mann's music played a major role—these releases coincided with a time period in which the artist found herself being shoved from label to label. Mann's frustration over these experiences, which would lead her to start her own label, SuperEgo Records, naturally bled into the music she was making as well.
"I think everybody has, at some point, been in a dynamic like that," Mann said, of being stuck in label purgatory for nearly five years. "It's a dynamic where you are trying to please somebody and you're told that this is the way you can please them, so you try to do that thing but nothing seems to work. And you feel crazy."
Speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, the "Avalanche" singer pulls no punches when it comes to sharing just how frustrating those experiences were for her.
It's a sentiment echoed in the thoughtful, incredibly informative liner notes from Mann that accompany this new edition. In addition to sharing some fantastic tidbits (for example, Dave Foley from "The Kids in the Hall" inspired a "Save Me" lyric), she also gets into the act of creation itself–territory she also regularly explores on her podcast co-hosted by Ted Leo.
In a wide-ranging conversation touching on everything from writing with Elvis Costello to her own musings on fame, Mann's self-proclaimed "terrible memory" fortunately didn't keep her from generously sharing what she remembers about making a record that would ultimately cement her status as one of the finest singer/songwriters working today.
In the liner notes for this new, remastered edition of Bachelor No. 2, you write that the record is "better than you remember." What do you mean by that?
I think it's just more of a function of not giving yourself enough credit when you first do something. It's not that I didn't think it was good. I think I just thought that other things I've done have been better. So, I guess that's why it surprised me, like, "Oh no, this really holds up."
In several places, the liner notes basically say "...and then Jon Brion just went crazy." Tell me more.
One of the reasons it was so great to work with him—well, it's twofold. On the one hand, I felt like we had a very similar melodic approach. But on the other hand, I could bring in something like "How Am I Different," where there's not a lot of change that happens from verse to chorus, but then he would tell us to go to this other chord. It's some harmonic place that I never would have thought to go and that just made it so exciting to me. That probably also goes to why I was surprised that the record held together.
Some of the songs I had started recording with Jon and then brought back into the studio to finish recording or maybe I still had to do mixing and adding. A thing that Jon is known for is having unlimited ideas for parts, which is a blessing and a curse because it's really hard to sort through everything.
Speaking of the timeline, it's difficult to know exactly what the chronology is when it comes to the songs you'd written before Paul Thomas Anderson started working on Magnolia and what came after. Is it true that he was listening to early demos when he was first writing the script?
I don't even know if we did demos. We definitely started recording between records [after 1995's I'm With Stupid] and then things just didn't get finished, or I wasn't happy with it, so I brought it back. For "How Am I Different," I may have recorded a different version with Jon, because I remember him coming into the studio and saying," Oh, you slowed it way down."
"Build That Wall" was a thing that we recorded, then I rewrote some words and added some stuff and trimmed some other things down. "Momentum" was 100 percent Jon just going crazy. The cover of [Harry Nilsson's] "One" was like an all-Jon orchestra.
Surveying the music landscape today, I see artists like Sadie Dupuis with her label, Wax Nine, and Phoebe Bridgers starting a label through Dead Oceans and I feel like SuperEgo was kind of a trailblazer in that regard. Would you agree?
It's interesting because, at the time, we tried to get other artists to join us. The whole idea was to share resources and nobody wanted to do it. I think the people who had record deals were like "better the devil you know" and thought it would be more difficult to self-release. I think it was the smartest thing I ever did. It was pure stubbornness. I found myself on a new label and I just didn't want to go through the same rigmarole that I always went through. You record an album, you have a history, and so presumably people know what you sound like and what you're going to bring.
Instead, it was these endless discussions about what is a single and what isn't a single. It's so tedious. Pick a f***ing song you like and promote it—or don't—but don't send people back into the studio to try to sound like a different artist. It's insulting and it's dumb. It's never going to work. People will see through it. Whoever likes my music doesn't like it because I'm trying to be super pop-y or super catchy or of the moment. I think artists should be allowed to do their own thing, and that should be self-evident, but it's absolutely not.
Another thing I've always found striking about the songs on Bachelor is the ambiguity you create in which the subject of scorn in many of these songs could really be either a lover or a label head.
I think everybody's had a relationship of some kind—whether it's a parent, sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend—where you just keep trying to please someone and then, at some point, you have to decide: "Do I keep bending myself into a pretzel, into a shape that does not look like me?" Oh also, by the way, for what?
It's not like people hand you a check. You get a budget to make a record, but it's not like, "If you record this song written by our hitmaker, we will give you a check for $10,000." You're doing it on spec. You're the one who's going to promote it by going on the road for months and months. You're literally doing all of the work and for what? The idea that you might be famous? I really do think that's what [the label executives] think: that people are going to be so enamored with this idea that they might become famous that they'll just say and do whatever. They don't care. Being famous is a mixed bag. Sure, a very low level of fame is nice, but it takes a certain person to enjoy it and I just wasn't really that person.
I think people who are super famous, who have seen the limelight, are really amazingly adept at handling people and interacting with them in a way that is almost supernatural. I have a terrible memory. I don't remember people's names. That already causes a lot of stress but then there are people like Taylor Swift, who likes to interact with her fans. She invites them over and knows their names but there are not enough hours in the day for the energy and the clear-headedness required for that. I also think there are people who are bottomless pits of need and they're always after any attention they can get. That's their main goal, to get lots of attention.
I totally agree, and yet, if there was an Aimee Mann fan club box-of-the-month or something, I'd need to know what the hell was inside of it.
I mean, that actually sounds kind of fun, now that you put it that way. Like, what can I put in my monthly grab bag? It would be five different items that have nothing to do with each other.
Maybe some little drawings?
I'm actually doing a graphic memoir. I mean, it'll take me two years to do it. But ultimately, that's my pandemic project. It's a lot of work but it's interesting.
Speaking of graphic works, was the song "Ghost World" directly inspired by the Dan Clowes book?
Yeah, absolutely. That book really killed me. I think it summed up that that feeling of being 17 or 18 and having no idea about what to do with your life, which is a real crisis. Nobody really gives you any advice and you just have this vague sense of needing to get out of this town, as if that's going to fix it. In any case, I really related to that. Well, I didn't relate to it but I think it made me go back in time and think about how I felt when I was 17. Yeah, that was a real piece of art, that graphic novel.
In reading about what you went through with various labels during the time you were working on these songs, I'm always surprised that, at bare minimum, no one was at least excited about the fact that you had a song ["The Other End of the Telescope"] co-written with freaking Elvis Costello.
Boy, I know. Nobody seemed to care about that. When the label was discussing when they would put the record out—or whether they would put it out—after I'd been told that they decide when it's done, [Interscope's] Jimmy Iovine said something about how Sheryl Crow's last record "only" sold a million and a half copies and how it was this big disappointment. So ungrateful. Selling a million and a half records? That's what you're sneering at? It was like, "OK well, I guess under these circumstances, you probably don't care that Elvis Costello co-wrote this song."
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Jumping from the past to the present, your husband, Michael Penn, also just released his first new song in fifteen years! Will there be more?
I hope so! I think he's a phenomenal songwriter. He hasn't put anything out in 15 years. I think he's a person who was never really a performer—that really wasn't his thing—so I think he felt like there wasn't really a place for him in the music business. He's been scoring TV and movies but he's starting to write songs again and I'm really trying to goad him into making a record because he's so f***ing good! He's a world-class songwriter.
And as for you?
We're doing a Lost In Space [her 2002 album] reissue next, so working on that. There's also a new album. We just mastered it. I have to listen to the masters and check it out. I just got it!
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