In today’s contemporary music industry, a few blockbuster acts enjoy the rock star lifestyle while thousands of good bands with no name recognition toil with little reward on the thin margins of an increasingly brittle trade.
Then, there are a few musicians like Aimee Mann who attain plenty of critical acclaim and modest commercial success, but still fly under the pop culture radar. The former ‘Til Tuesday singer and now longtime solo artist has steadily cultivated a career that now boasts deep, durable roots despite a lack of radio airplay or a lot of mainstream magazine covers. Mann, a native of Richmond, VA, brings her eclectic mix of folk and rock to the Birchmere on Jan. 25.
She said the old Alexandria roadhouse – a staple for nationally-known singer songwriters – is a favorite stop on her near annual tours.
“The Birchmere always treats me well,” Mann said in an interview with On Tap. “Some people don’t like playing at a dinner club, but I kind of like it. I like when people are sitting down and not running around. I feel like a lot of times it’s easier for people to enjoy what’s going on if they’re not worried about juggling a beer and trying to clap with one hand. I’m looking forward to being back at my home away from home.”
Fans are likely to hear cuts from her new record, “Charmer,” expected for release sometime this spring. But those accustomed to Mann’s sometimes beautifully depressing lyrics and arrangements could be in for a surprise.
“I was in the mood to make a really pop record,” she said. “Not in the sense of Justin Bieber, but I was listening to stuff like Abba and the Cars, sort of 70s and 80s pop. That’s where I was coming from while making it.”
In the late 1990s, creatively stifled by the marketing suits at her record label, Mann left Interscope and struck out on her own. She formed SuperEgo records and started selling her next record, “Bachelor No. 2” on the internet. Solid sales, rave reviews and sold-out shows followed. Mann, whose battles with record labels are something of a legend in the music industry, certainly seems satisfied with her decision.
“I think (record labels) are even more about marketing now,” she said. “Labels are practically non-existent and that system barely works. There are some labels, but they’ve all merged into each other.”
She said at major record companies and even publishing houses, business considerations are now driving the earliest decisions in the creative process.
“It’s always marketing before content,” she said. “A friend of mine who is a comedy writer was pitching a script to a studio and struggling with it and it’s over her title. They want you to come up with a title, and if they like the title then they will have you write a movie around that title. It’s just crazy. People attempt to try to control the outcome, and to think of creative stuff is just not that easy.”
She said she has no regrets about leaving Interscope a dozen years ago and would encourage other up-and-coming musicians to think twice before striking a deal with record labels, as well.
“It’s completely worth it (now),” she said. “If you were just starting out and nobody knew you, there wasn’t really another way to get your name out there before. But now the internet has so many different ways to get your name out. You don’t really need a label.”
Speaking of the internet, Mann has gained notice there, as well. Buzzfeed – an aggregator of all that’s cutting-edge on the internet – last month named her Twitter feed one of the best of 2011. Her simultaneously warm but cool demeanor shimmers on the feed, giving fans occasional insights into her life.
“I think twitter is valuable to keep in touch with people – to let people know what you’re doing and also it’s this fun goofy thing,” she said. “It’s fun to get into it and go back and forth with some people. But I’m not really sure what to do with it or what it is.”
Mann was very publicly reminded of Twitter’s precarious and sometimes volatile nature last year when she cracked wise about legendary rapper Ice-T’s acting chops on the hit television show “Law and Order.”
The rapper-actor got wind of Mann’s tweet and issued several scathing and profane retorts, much to Mann’s dismay. Mann apologized to “Mr. T” via Twitter but said she never met him or talked to him about the incident. Meanwhile, the snarky website Gawker had a field day with the random celebrity feud.
“Twitter feels so casual, but at the same time it’s on the internet and if you say something wrong or say it in an awkward way it gives the wrong impression,” Mann said. “It’s really easy to hit send before you’re ready to do it. If you say one thing wrong it could turn into a real disaster.”
And what about Mann’s delightfully strange little cameo in “The Big Lebowski” when she played a German nihilist who sacrificed her green polished little right toe? How’d that come about?
“It was a weird kind of accidental thing where a friend of mine was one of the casting directors and my name came up,” Mann explained. “I think acting is terrifying and I don’t know how people do it. I think it’s insane. And almost because it’s something that I don’t want to do, I was like yeah, I’ll do it – why not? Just for the experience. Also, it was in a different language and I was playing a nihilist and I thought well they don’t have any expressions so that’s good. It was really an accidental part, but it was interesting to be thrust into that environment.”
Mann’s insistence on taking chances whether with her music, on the internet or even in front of a movie camera should keep paying dividends for her fans.