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Mann in the Middle

After her career blossomed anew with Magnolia, Aimee Mann made a declaration of artistic independence.

The disc also includes choice cuts from the Magnolia soundtrack, including "Driving Sideways," "You Do" and "Deathly," a don't-work-on-me warning that brims with killer lines. "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" Mann sings, a line that director Anderson used verbatim in his script. As the guitars rise up behind her, the singer ponders the sunny possibilities of giving in: "You're on your honor, 'cause I'm a goner, and you haven't even begun," Mann seethes, "So do me a favor if I should waver, be my savior, get out the gun." Ouch. Bachelor also includes a number of lines that could as easily be aimed at pea-brained record execs as purloining lovers. But branding these songs business diatribes is something Mann warns against.

"I write about relationship dynamics that can be applied to a lot of different relationships," Mann says, "and I don't want people to think, 'This is about the record company,' because that limits your enjoyment of a song. My goal is to try to know how I feel about something, and it's really for my own benefit. I see an interesting situation that I find a friend in, a situation I was in once, and I want to know why it is and what motivated me when I was in the same situation. Why is it a problem to see the reality of it? Why can't it change?" Besides, she notes of any possible record-company connection in her songs, "there were a handful of people that I found to be really reprehensible. But there were many more who were creative, courageous and real believers. It's a pity, because we all get chewed up by the same things."

Now that she is out of the maw of the majors, Mann is securing her indie niche. (She has turned down a few offers from labels.) Mann and her new husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, have joined forces with Mann's manager, Michael Housman, to create United Musicians, a collective of support staff designed to allow fellow artist-owned labels to share marketing and management services. (Penn is now in the process of buying his own freedom back from his current label.) To make things work now, Mann says, "we have to have extra help and depend on the kindness of strangers in a lot of ways. And we have to come up with new ideas."

She's not with stupid anymore: Aimee Mann has taken an independent's route to recording and distributing her material.
She's not with stupid anymore: Aimee Mann has taken an independent's route to recording and distributing her material.

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Due to illness, Aimee Mann has canceled the Acoustic Vaudeville show at the Gothic Theatre.

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The couple's latest idea is Acoustic Vaudeville, which Mann and Penn bring to town this week. The concept arose from shows they performed at a small club in Los Angeles, during which they would trade songs and back each other up. The two now employ a comedian to handle the required stage banter and between-songs repartee fans expect at a show. The professional gabber, Mann says, offers wry comments and observations while allowing Mann, Penn and their supporting musicians to do what they do best.

"Once we started doing this it was so entertaining for us that we just couldn't go back," Mann says. "It makes for a really fun show and it also helps introduce the idea to people that even though we write songs that seem very serious, we do have a sense of humor. And it makes a nice counterpart. One of the benefits of being without the protection of a major label," she adds, "is that you can do whatever you want. We're trying to come up with different ideas that make it fun. There's an element of creativity that you can have when you're not on a label, to think of alternative ways to market yourself. You don't have to follow the same practices and rules of major labels." Mann says she is now considering creating a commercial for public-access television to push her product. She continues to market Bachelor over the Web with some success; the recording was just voted "Best Internet-Only" CD by a trade organization, beating out the Who and a few other acts for the honor.

But she's hardly through jousting with the powers that be. Mann has just added her name to a list of songwriters and performers alligned with Artists Against Piracy, which is fighting the royalty-free downloading of unauthorized material. "I was kind of on the fence and almost in favor of Napster," Mann says. "But when I start hearing people say that music ought to be free, that's a call for war. You're trying to take my living away from me. To you, it's just a record, it's some songs. To me, it's my living. The point where I started to get really angry was when I realized that not just singles here and there were showing up, but whole albums and live concerts of mine would appear. And that stuff is not for publication. I play a show, that's between me and the audience, that night. Do not take it out of context. In one way," she adds, "Napster is very good in helping people get exposure to new music. I just think that it should be at the artist's discretion."

Part of the dilemma with Napster, she figures, is that downloaders think their Web time hurts only the same record companies that have given Mann so much hell. But unauthorized downloads, she says, "hurt people like me. Name any giant artist -- Britney Spears, for example. She gets money up front from whatever label she's with. I don't get that. I have to dip into my savings account to make my record, to promote my record, to go on tour. And there is no other source of income for me. And I think it's obnoxious, the idea that, 'Well, you can just go do something else.' Or that somehow some people have too much money: 'We've decided to just end your income now, because you've earned enough.' Why do you get to decide that?"

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