Six months ago, Aimee Mann nearly gave up on the music business. Now she's back and she's better than ever. By Nick Hornby
The first time I met Aimee Mann, back in the summer, she was a bitter, frustrated woman, someone who talked repeatedly of giving up the music business altogether. She had finished making an album six months earlier, but her record label had gone bust, and a chapter of unfortunate contractual complications meant that she was unable to take her work elsewhere. Her last record, the critically acclaimed Whatever, was released three long years ago, and there had been an equivalent, and equally frustrating, three-year gap before that. One album in six years, in a business that is reputed to have the memory of a goldfish ... things looked bad - so bad, in fact, that her friend and fan Tony Banks MP was, he says, going to "do what I'm good at - make a fuss" about restraints of trade in Parliament. (The pop singer from LA and the Labour MP for Newham would, on the face of it, seem an unlikely pair of pals, but she sees him whenever she is in London, and "You're with Stupid Now", a lovely, haunting, melancholy song "about tilting at windmills" from the new album, was partly inspired by him.)

"Three years in the life of a pop singer is a really long time," she said. "I'm not sure if I can wait any more. Why am I doing this? Not for fame, that's for sure, and certainly not for money. For ego? My ego is satisfied by writing good songs and making good records, but not, you know, slick records, so I could make them at home and hand out tapes to friends. So I've run out of reasons to keep going. Because I can't do anything else? Well... Maybe that's it."

In a perfect world, Aimee Mann shouldn't have had to spend any time trying to justify her persistence. Everything's Different Now, the record she made with her group 'Til Tuesday in 1989, was the best pop-rock album of the Eighties (the venerable rock critic Richard Williams was moved to remark in the Times that if the first four tracks were released as an EP, then it would be one of the greatest ever); Whatever was an effortlessly melodic and lyrically acute collection of songs that recalled the songwriting good guys - Lennon/McCartney (in the world of Women with Guitars, Mann is Paul to Chrissie Hynde's John), Costello (who co-wrote a song on Everything's Different Now), the youthful Tom Petty, Ray Davies et al - without ever sounding like anything other than itself. The trouble is that Mann simply writes, arranges and records songs, just like the Beatles did; and, as Private Eye's Peter McLie might ask, who is interested in them any more? You need ears to hear songs, and that happens to be exactly the anatomical area in which today's executives are deficient.

Mann's story, thankfully, has a happyish ending. After articulating her desire to quit to her chief musicbiz tormentor, the contractual problems were finally resolved, and her terrific new album, I'm with Stupid, comes out in a couple of weeks' time. She is relieved, but not exactly ecstatic. "I'm completely devoid of optimism, but in the most cheerful way. It's all such a struggle, such a nightmare..."

The nightmare is given plenty of bed-room on I'm with Stupid; there are any number of dark couplets that make striking use of her anger, although such are Mann's skills as a lyricist that you don't have to be locked into a dodgy recording contract to find her words resonant - there is something here for anyone who has tried and been thwarted. The gloriously, magnificently self-pitying "It's Not Safe" ("All you want to do is something good / So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood / 'Cos don't you know you're a fucking freak in this world") gives a fair indication of the tone of the album. So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? Well, think again.

"There's this attitude, you know, you're a pop star, you have everything you want, stop whining - like with Kurt Cobain. It seems amazing to me that people haven't caught on. Suicide after suicide... Two people in Badfinger killed themselves because their business partners betrayed them. How horrible is that? Being famous and having huge expectations placed on you, being the engine pulling this huge train of people making money off you, is incredibly stressful and depressing." It should be pointed out at this point that although Mann may not have been troubled by Sting-type accountancy problems recently, 'Til Tuesday's first album, the insipid Voices Carry - recorded 10 years ago, in the days before Mann started writing songs, and, depressingly, the only example of her work you can buy in HMV Oxford Street - sold squillions in the States, so she knows something whereof she speaks.

Her experience, her talent and, one suspects, a fierce, nagging introspection ("I completely, wholeheartedly recommend therapy to everyone on the planet") have provided her with all sorts of plausible and refreshingly bleak insights into the musical process. "Being a musician or an artist is a way of compensating for an enormous lack in other respects. Songwriting is compensating for an inability to communicate in any other way, so you come up with this private, secretive way of saying things. I don't think people understand how dysfunctional that is. To expect Kurt Cobain to be normal, when the whole reason he did what he did is not normal, is absurd. This is not a fun thing."

And yet Mann does not strike one as a dysfunctional person. She may be tall and thin and pale and intense, but she is also coherent, and she laughs a lot, and in any case there is a sweetness and a melancholy in her music that one might not have expected had one listened only to her conversation. Despite her use of Kurt Cobain as a reference point, Whatever and I'm with Stupid don't sound much like In Utero, and the special guests on her two solo albums - Roger McGuinn on Whatever, Juliana Hatfield, Squeeze's Difford and Tilbrook, and Suede's Bernard Butler on the new one - are the kind of people who can spot a cracking pop tune from a long way off.

All this suggests a commercial potential that has thus far remained unfulfilled. Mann shrugs. "To quote Alex Chilton, 'All my songs sound like hits to me.' It's pop music. Melodically it's up there with the best stuff around, and lyrically ... at least I try hard." She recalls with horror a doomed record- company attempt to team her up with some of the songwriting big- hitters, the kind of people who are happy to pad out an album with a handful of soundtrack-friendly wind machine ballads, and the recollection usefully isolates what she is so good at. "Their songs say nothing, they have no real personal viewpoint, there's no cleverness, no truthfulness." If you want any of that stuff, then you know where to go.

n 'I'm with Stupid' (Geffen) is released on 30 October

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