Aimee Mann is not a household name in this country – or, to be honest, most other countries – but there’s a decent chance that you’re familiar with her work. Seen Magnolia? Paul Thomas Anderson was so in love with her music that he wrote the film around several of her songs and commissioned her to flesh out the rest of the sound-track. Every couple of years she releases another album of gloriously songwriterly, sweetly melodic, lyrically deft pop music that so few people seem to create these days. She also appears to operate within a little community of like-minded creative souls in California.
And that’s where this interview begins: the author, publisher and essayist Dave Eggers (A Heart-breaking Work Of Staggering Genius) has lent his whistling talents to a track on her most recent album, Smilers. Which means that Mann is part of the same literary New Camelot that seems to emanate out of Eggers’ publishing house McSweeneys. I confess that I have an image of Mann sitting at a table discussing art and politics with the likes of Stephin Merritt, Neil Gaiman, Beck, Sarah Vowell, Alan Moore and Jon Stewart, piling up bon mot after bon mot...
‘Wow. I feel I would love to be that person who could really fit into that round table. That makes me feel super-important. I love that idea,’ she laughs. ‘I mean, I do know Dave Eggers and I’ve had dinner with him and his friends before and they’re all lovely and smart and erudite, but I kinda feel like a chucklehead next to them. I mean, they’re well informed and they talk about world events and books and literature and I’m…’ she trails off. ‘I mean, I’m not exactly watching America’s Next Top Model, but I have seen a few episodes, you know? I’m not above it either.’
Despite her modesty it’s clear that Mann’s no ‘chucklehead’, as the record industry discovered in the mid-’90s: tired of losing creative control to suits, she split from then-label Geffen. ‘Yeah, but I was lucky enough to have an opening to get out,’ she counters. ‘I’m kinda stubborn, but I think mostly I just don’t get it. There was just this kind of logic that appeared to be being defied in the music industry, at least to me: I’d make a record and I would have a producer and these musicians and I wrote songs – you know, the music part, that was my job. And then a guy who was not a musician, not even really music fan, didn’t know anything about music: then he would come in and tell me how to make records and what songs to put on them. And I’d just be like, “Not to be rude, but I don’t understand why you’re here.” And that kind of forces artists to develop strategies about how to look like you’re playing along but not, so you’re getting really manipulative, and I was just like, “I can’t stand that anymore,” just in having to develop this skill set. And it doesn’t make any sense: all this effort is put into trying to get other people to do their jobs. So it was bad enough being told what to do musically – then they wouldn’t even be doing the job that they were actually supposed to be doing, like to sell the records. And even then I could only leave because they said that I could leave.’
Even so, Mann actually developed a solution: going indie, forming her own label (SuperEgo) and putting her money where her mouth is.
‘We didn’t have any idea what we were going to do,’ she points out. ‘Then as soon as the internet offered a glimmer of hope that you were able to possibly sell records over a website, it was: “Great, I’m going to do that – and if we can’t do that, I’ll sell records out of the back of my station wagon, I don’t care. I can’t stand these people anymore.”’ She laughs heartily. ‘So I think it was more despair than anything positive.’
Smilers is available to buy online.