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Aimee Mann has a knack for writing soundtracks--both for our lives and for the silver screen. It was her song "Deathly" that inspired filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson as he wrote his sprawling 1999 film Magnolia, for which Mann contributed most of the music. He was so moved by one line--"Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?"--that he put it in the mouth of Claudia, played by Melora Walters, the emotional center of the movie. The line is vintage Aimee Mann: fascinating in its fenced-off intimacy.
Mann never expected her songs to spark a three-hour film. But she's familiar with the curious, accidental nature of creativity. "I understand how that works, where the thing already exists in your head but listening to something or seeing something can jump-start it for you." Her last album, Lost in Space, inspired the upcoming The Forgotten Arm, to be released on her own SuperEgo Records in May. "On Lost in Space, a lot of songs were thematically connected, and I thought, why not have [The Forgotten Arm] be a full concept album and write songs about two characters and develop a bit of a story?"
That story follows a boxer who falls in love on the state fair midway and traces his life through a demanding career, marital transgressions and eventual acceptance. The album boasts lush instrumentation despite its modest production, and the tale is complete while remaining exquisitely subtle, each poignant song standing on its own. Arm is not some overambitious epic to alienate Mann fans, a la Styx, and it's no rock opera like The Who's Tommy. Says Mann, "I didn't want it to sound like a musical, where every song advances the plot. It was more like songs for the soundtrack of the imaginary movie."
Mann has long been providing the music to a kind of imaginary movie--at least in the minds of her fans. Much like early Elton John and Rod Stewart songs became her soundtrack during the creation of Arm (the piano is a nod to John circa Tumbleweed Connection), Mann's songs--with their stories of alcoholism and rejection, hope and reluctant romance--have been embraced by listeners as practically their own tales. Part of this is because Mann's lyrics are so personal, although she's quick to point out they aren't autobiographical. She takes her cues from "people I hear about, stuff I read, scenes in movies." So not only does Mann inspire films, but she pulls inspiration from them, too. That's not odd, considering cinema was a bit of a saving grace for Mann.
"Obviously, record companies never thought I was accessible, which I just thought was insane," she says about her early solo career. Throughout the '90s, Mann struggled to avoid has-been status after the disbanding of 'Til Tuesday. Her albums, like 1993's Whatever and 1996's I'm With Stupid, were artistic triumphs but commercial flops, filled with songs that speak of failing relationships and failing record deals in the same breath: "The writing was upon the stall," she sings on her serenade to major-label suits, "I Should've Known." "I should've known 'cause Rome was starting to fall." Yet, to sing about leaving is one thing; to do it is much harder. "When I started thinking about leaving major labels, I started thinking about movies as a way to make a living." Indeed the commercial breakthrough came with Magnolia, which brilliantly showcased not only her unique songwriting but also her lovely sense of pop melody. ("Pop is what I like," she explains simply. "I like classic pop music.") Since then, her rather intimate fan base has exploded. "I have rabid fans," she says, "but I don't have people following me around. They express it in creative or useful ways, like Web sites and things." And, of course, the occasional epic screenplay.
Because of her struggles and her honesty, Mann has become a new sort of role model--a serious songwriter and alto singer with none of the Top 40 trappings. But she remains humble. "I think I just sound the way I sound, and there's nothing I can really do about it," she says. "I don't think I can really get away from it. I play just enough [guitar and bass] to allow me to write and play live. I feel like I don't have a good range. I think that just singing in the studio I can get away with singing stuff that's out of my range because I can take more time on it." She downplays her talent, yet she deftly folds so many things into her songs--a catchy hook, witty and sometimes somber lyrics and, most important, those feelings we had but never could put into words.
With The Forgotten Arm, Mann has crafted yet another soundtrack, full of reflection and wonder. There may not be film to feed into a projector, but as the music plays, you can practically hear the reels roll along with each song.
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