Aimee Mann talks about being a music-biz rebel. The Oscar- and Grammy-nominated ''Magnolia'' singer/songwriter explains her new album and her feelings about ''American Idol''
Aimee Mann
Credit: Aimee Mann: Dennis Van Tine/London Features

Lost in Space (Music - Aimee Mann)

Aimee Mann is still bummed out. Yes, she ultimately won the record company battles that stoked the melancholic fires of 1999’s ”Magnolia” soundtrack and the 2000 album ”Bachelor No. 2.” But judging from Mann’s new release, ”Lost in Space,” it’ll take more than creative freedom to lift the 42-year-old singer/songwriter’s spirits — which is good news for those who treasure her sardonic, melody-suffused pessimism.

On the lilting, Bacharach-like new track ”This Is How It Goes,” Mann sings, ”It’s all about drugs/ It’s all about shame” — which she acknowledges is an accurate description of her new album. ”Space” is Mann’s second release on her own Superego Records label, and it’s her first album recorded without any corporate input (”Bachelor” was rejected for release by Interscope Records). The singer, who launches an American tour Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C., tells about her new creative freedom, as well as her thoughts on ”American Idol” and the record industry’s sales woes.

How do you think a big label would have reacted when you turned in ”Lost in Space”?
My guess is that they probably would feel nervous at being presented with a record that had so many songs that were not particularly up-tempo or chirpy. There were some other songs that were [happier], but they didn’t get included at the end of the day. When I was sequencing the record, I couldn’t make them fit.

If a band like Wilco can find a home in the major-label system, doesn’t that inspire you to give it another try?
No, because I don’t need it anymore. We have a tiny little staff [at Superego], but everybody’s really good and they get the job done. And I do have a deal for overseas with V2 Records in England. But things are different in England — it’s a lot less manufactured; they’re more appalled at having albums that are clearly interfered with, except for their boy bands. Here there’s interference even with people where you’re supposed to assume it’s coming from the artist.

Speaking of pop, what did you make of ”American Idol”?
I was aware of it. To me it sounds like a viewing nightmare: some crabby guy who insults everyone? Didn’t I get enough of that in the last 20 years? But if I was 20 years younger, 20 years better-looking, could dance, and had a stronger voice (I sing very softly)… If I had all that and I really liked mainstream pop music, it would be a different story. These are entertainers; I consider myself more of a songwriter than an entertainer. I’m sure most people don’t really find me that entertaining.

So you can’t blame the kids for competing, right?
I probably would have done something like that. When you’re really young, you want to feel special and important — you want to make something of yourself. You want to have a career, but you don’t understand what that means. You just sort of feel like, ”Well, I’ll get in there and figure it out later.” Which is what I did — I mean, I started out in ‘Til Tuesday, which was not the optimum scenario for someone like me by any means. But it takes a long time to figure out what you want to do. For me, playing with that mainstream pop thing was a phase, just like I went through the punk rock, new-wave phase before that.

Ending up on the ”Magnolia” soundtrack — even seeing Tom Cruise sing part of ”Wise Up,” — must have been a big event for you. How did it affect you?
I don’t think it affected me artistically. I mean, I had the attitude that you never know what’s gonna happen — songs might get cut, scenes might get cut. Until the movie’s out, you don’t know. I thought it was great, but I sort of made an effort not to get too overwhelmed by it. If you start to think, ”Wow, I’m really something,” you’re just setting yourself up for a fall later when somebody else says you’re not that great.

In the time since you left the major-label system, there’s been a lot of talk about how it’s falling apart, because sales and profits are down. How would you fix it?
You’re talking to the rat who left the sinking ship. But you know, what’s really f—ing stupid is alienating all your artists. And it’s hard for me not to feel that the industry itself has contributed to its own downfall. It’s because of the kind of artists that they believe in, that they create. They’ve completely turned away from any long-term thinking or from developing artists over a period of time. They’ve started to put their eggs in one basket. They make these $2 million records where they spend an enormous amount of money double-thinking everything — ”Let’s mix it and remix it with the special guy who had that hit” — and the people making decisions don’t listen to music, don’t like music, don’t know anything about music, and aren’t musicians. That can work for a while, but eventually it collapses — and that’s what’s happening.

Lost in Space (Music - Aimee Mann)
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