Aimee Mann: Fighting talk

Aimee Mann tells Kevin Harley why she's happy to be slugging it out in the ring - and not with stupid record companies
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Anyone who saw Aimee Mann play live at the House of Blues in Anaheim recently might have felt cause to worry. Where did the tall, thin American singer-songwriter who often gets written about as "waifish" get that shiner? Had she been mugged? Turns out it was nothing to fret over: she'd just been clocked while boxing, and her opponent was in the house, watching the gig. Boxing is Mann's current passion, and she takes to it with all the enthusiasm that she approaches a richly layered song.

"Part of what's interesting about boxing is that it's not what it appears to be," she says, lounging in a swanky enclave of a London hotel, looking at least 10 years younger than her mid-forties and sporting no visible bruising. "It looks really simple and brutal but it's actually very complicated, strategy-oriented and physically demanding. When you spar with somebody, too, you're likely to respect them because they're helping you learn. You can't really go into it with the thinking of, 'I'm gonna prove that I can kick this person's ass', because that's where you can get into trouble. Anybody who gets angry when they're punched is usually in trouble because they're losing their head, not staying focused. Anyway, I find those contradictions really interesting."

But how does boxing square with someone whose day job consists of dissecting dysfunctional relationships in song? "Well, there is something about boxing for me that simplifies the dysfunctional relationship," she laughs. "I don't think I can deny that there is something a little twisted about the appeal of a sport which is essentially two people respectfully pounding each other. I mean, isn't that the ultimate dysfunctional relationship? So yeah, of course I'm not playing tennis! Tennis is fun, it's leisurely, you're out in the fresh air! Of course that wouldn't be my sport!"

At any rate, Mann has learnt how to keep her head and box clever over the course of her career. Those who've been following her songwriting through the past 12 years - or back to the 1980s, even, when she fronted the folk-pop band Til Tuesday - will know that she charts the ducks, feints and upper cuts of choppy relationships with more precision than most. Sure, Mann wears her 1970s influences openly: "Put together Peter, Paul & Mary, Glen Cambell, The Beatles, Elton John and Neil Young and you pretty much have my music," she says, modestly: "I'm just sort of a modified folkie at heart." But she marries them to a distinctly articulate style of songwriting that has earned her critical acclaim and a loyal following, as well as fans and collaborators ranging from Elvis Costello and Squeeze, to film-maker Paul Thomas Anderson, who used Mann's songs to brilliantly bittersweet effect in Magnolia.

The reason for meeting Mann is not to have a dust-up, then, but to talk about her fifth album, The Forgotten Arm. It's that most unfashionably 1970s-flavoured of things: a concept album, which follows the fraught relationship between a boxer returning from Vietnam and a woman working at the State Fair in the 1970s. The title is a piece of boxing terminology itself, referring to the punch you didn't expect while you were worrying about your opponent's other fist.

With a similar flair for deception, the album sticks to Mann's template while smuggling in some of her most assured songs yet. Like much of her recent work, too, particularly her deep-blue 2003 album, Lost in Space, it hones in on themes of addiction and compulsion, riding the turmoil of its boxer's attempts to kick drugs. It's a characteristically anti-anthemic album from Mann in that sense, solidifying her status as the kind of writer who charts the flipside of the all-American "believer".

"I'm fascinated with the idea of addiction because it's so counter-intuitive," she says. "Surely your behaviour should be one of those things that you really can control? But I started going to open AA meetings a few years ago, to listen to people talk, and just had this realisation of, 'Oh - they really can't stop.' Even if you know alcoholism's a disease, you sort of think, 'Well, if they really tried to stop...'

"But they truly can't. It's a real paradox that in the 12-step programme, the first step is that you're supposed to admit that you're powerless over it. Western society is based on the idea of will power, even in a Polly Anna-ish sort of way: the idea that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything! And it just isn't true. You aren't that powerful and it's self-aggrandizing to think you are. As soon as you stop thinking that you are, you start to have a better chance."

Despite including a lyric on the album that goes "I can't write this story with a happy ending", though, Mann does manage to take it to a tentative closing note of optimism on the track "Beautiful". It's an intelligent one, mind - much in the vein of, say, Magnolia's ending, it's the subtlest of "up" notes. "It does have a happy ending," she says, "but I couldn't figure out how to get from the low point to there. I couldn't write that song! And it isn't 100 per cent happy, but it's close enough. They're friends at the end. Are they 'together' friends? Doesn't matter. It's not about the big romance. It's about both people being alive and well enough to care for each other. That's happy for me."

Still, Mann can engineer happy endings when she really needs to. In her own career Mann's literate songcraft hasn't always endeared her to the record industry. During the decline of Til Tuesday, she had to fight to extricate herself from her Epic Records contracts; from 1994-5, the buzz whipped up by the acclaim for her debut solo album, Whatever, was somewhat curtailed when her second album, I'm with Stupid, sat in limbo for a year after her record company, Imago, folded. She then signed to Geffen, who were bought out by Polygram and later subsumed by Interscope, who refused to release her third album, Bachelor No. 2.

She wasn't out of the ring for long, though. The success of Magnolia brought Grammy nominations her way. "I think Magnolia changed things a lot," Mann says. "It took what reputation I had and solidified it for people so that they took me more seriously."

Having then negotiated her freedom from the Geffen contract and bought back Bachelor No. 2, Mann set up her own label, SuperEgo Records, to release it independently in 2001. Like Wilco, with their underdogs'-triumph record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Mann streamed her album online, consolidating her audience by word-of-mouth. And it worked. "I am an idealist because I believe that if you are creating music that you believe in at least and you care about it and make it available then people will listen to it and respond to it. The record company's approach is to try and trick you into it just on the basis of one song. They're terrified of people listening to the whole thing! I like the idea of people listening. If they listen and think, 'Well, it's not for me', at least you've risen or fallen on your own merits."

There's no doubt that Mann's stock has risen since the 1990s - not least because the first half of this decade has seen her release three albums and a live DVD compared to her two albums in the 1990s. "I definitely sell more records than I did when I was on a major label. The funny thing you discover is that it's not that hard. I mean, I had a built-in audience."

From Mann's viewpoint, record companies are like a character in one of her songs: hobbled by a fundamental inability to change, and certainly not for an artist whose sales don't reach the two-million figure. "They have a formula that works for a while," she says, sighing heavily, "but isn't it overdone? They won't get out of bed for anything under two million. On their terms, too, I'm still not right - what does 200,000 records mean to them?" She sighs: "The industry is collapsing under its own weight, anyway. It's like one of those houses in California where the land under it keeps eroding, until it's not standing on anything and starts sliding down the hill...."

Anyone of a similarly cynical mindset about the record industry might look on that metaphor with some glee: after all, the David-and-Goliath success stories - even on their own modest terms - of Wilco and Mann have suggested ways of undercutting the business. Not surprisingly, in either of the kinds of scraps she's been in, Mann isn't remotely ambivalent about which of her sparring partners she would rather be hit by. "Oh, God, I'd much rather take a punch in the ring. You know why? You never get an apology from the record company. It's always kind of personal rejection, because you're sort of never measuring up to whatever standard there is that isn't even well-defined enough for there to ever be a standard for you to measure up to. When you're boxing, there's no hostility from whoever punches you. You're taking a punch, but you get an apology.

"And also," she says, "when you're working with the record company, the whole kind of hostility is difficult to avoid altogether. You can say, 'I'm just gonna stay away from those people', but you're then forced to deal with them. And then you're forced into trying to be manipulative to get what you want, if what you want is just to have your album put out the way it is. And then you and your manager have to start to play games, and I hate being forced into those situations."

She sighs. "Those days are over! Oh, thank God, I'm so glad. So glad that I don't even want to just look back and go, 'See, I was right after all.'" Even with a black eye, it's a happy-enough conclusion: these days, Aimee Mann is in a position to pick her own fights.

'The Forgotten Arm' is out on Monday