‘Til Today: 25 Years After Her Solo Debut, Aimee Mann Looks Back
Before she had no luck at all, Aimee Mann had beginner’s luck. She hit it big at the age of 24 with one of the first songs she ever wrote, “Voices Carry,” a top-10 hit for her band ‘Til Tuesday. Despite its superficial new-wave signifiers, “Voices Carry” wasn’t merely a vacuous byproduct of the Me Generation. Riding a slick, close-picked groove in a smoky atmosphere, it told a harrowing, finely detailed story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.
“Voices Carry” fit within the confines of pop storytelling while sacrificing none of its protagonist’s all-too-real torment — a rare feat for even the most accomplished songwriters. Its well-directed (if heavy-handed) music video was an MTV staple, and its omnipresence in the summer of 1985 was a unique picture of defiance in the age of David Lee Roth. Additionally, it was an early indicator of Mann’s penchant for character study, drawing outside the lines of boy-meets-girl love songs.
Despite ‘Til Tuesday’s quick jump to stardom with their first album (also titled Voices Carry) and a respectable showing with their second, 1986’s Welcome Home (which included the top 40 hit “What About Love”), the band soon thereafter fell out of favor with then-label, Epic Records, following a reshuffling of personnel on the executive end. Mann found herself derailed. Everything’s Different Now, ‘Til Tuesday’s aptly titled third and final album, was dead on arrival in 1988, even though it showcased a tremendous development in Mann’s songwriting palette and evinced a prescient understanding of where power pop and alternative music were headed. Everything’s Different Now kicked off a decade-plus of frustration and stasis that Mann would suffer at the hands of her label. She was a few years into her 30s by the time she got back on track.
Mann’s debut solo album, Whatever, came out 25 years ago this year, but its release on Imago Records in 1993 wasn’t so much a new beginning as a crucial step in an uphill climb. Fortunately, Mann had the confidence and commitment to continue, and she’d inspired enough faith in her talents that a handful of people were able to hear her work not in relation to “Voices Carry,” but on its own merits.
Together with former ‘Til Tuesday touring member Jon Brion, Mann would lay the groundwork for a sound that became synonymous with a strain of notable alternative acts at the turn of the century. Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, and Eels all worked with Brion in the late ’90s, and the albums they released featured an aesthetic that Brion had first workshopped with Mann on Whatever and its followup, I’m With Stupid.
Back in the early ’90s, though, the pair were non-starters, also-rans, never-weres: Mann an ’80s pop casualty, Brion a virtual unknown. Mann spent most of the decade dealing with more label bullshit (including ill-fated stints with Imago and Geffen).
Her perseverance paid off, though. Mann’s music was famously and prominently featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, for which she earned an Oscar nomination. In 2000, she and former ‘Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausman started the label SuperEgo, on which she released Bachelor No. 2 Or, The Last Remains Of The Dodo later that same year. It was a legitimate breakout success, firmly establishing Mann as a career artist who could operate free of the major-label system. Finally. Mann has built for herself a faithful following that’s only grown larger over the last two and a half decades, and she can now focus on expanding a body of work that stands alongside the very best of its generation.
These days, among other things, she’s writing songs for two musicals. She’s also making a podcast with friend and collaborator Ted Leo. “[It’s] about people’s artistic processes,” reveals Mann. “We’re not sure where the home [for that] is yet, but we’ve recorded a bunch.”
On the event of her 25th year as a solo artist, Aimee Mann and I spoke about the trials from her last days with ‘Til Tuesday through her years as a major label outcast. More importantly though — we talked about the music itself, an often overlooked detail when discussing Mann’s ’90s efforts. While claiming to have a poor memory, her recollections are sharp, colorful, and can be incidentally very funny.
STEREOGUM: When did it become clear that ‘Til Tuesday was essentially not going to be a thing anymore? Did you basically kind of know when Everything’s Different Now was released that it was gonna be the end or was it a bit more down the line?
MANN: I was really young when ‘Til Tuesday started [and] we were sort of doing, like, post-new-wave dance-pop stuff. I did some of that and then I started to feel like it was not really my thing. Acoustic guitar music was what I was more influenced by and what came naturally to me, but the ’80s production was very hard to get away from, because record companies were like, “No. New wave, Duran Duran, come on!” I [was] kind of in the mood for this abrupt switch. Everything’s Different Now still kind of has a sort of ’80s thing, but you can tell that the songs are more acoustic-guitar oriented.
STEREOGUM: I’ve come across interviews with you before and where you’ve been more or less dismissive of your ‘Til Tuesday work, which I could understand with some of the material on the first two records, but I feel like the third one is kind of where the sound of your solo career begins. What are your opinions of Everything’s Different Now today?
MANN: I haven’t heard it in years and years — I almost don’t know if I could even tell you what was on it. I mean, I know a few songs. But I agree, I felt like my songwriting was getting better. I mean “Voices Carry” was like the first or second or third song I ever wrote by myself, except [for] a couple terrible garbage-y things when I was 16.
Like anything, you get better with practice, and I think there were things on that record — little bits of melody, a couple of lines — that I do think were better. I’m sure I would listen to everything [now] and go like, “oh why did I write this?” Or I’d write a different bridge or [think] like, “that line’s embarrassing.” But I do think I was getting better. I think I probably would have liked it to sound a little different — a little less ’80s — but, once again, it was hard to get away from that sound. And it was hard for me to articulate what I wanted because I didn’t really know anything about production.
STEREOGUM: I found a clip of you guys performing on Late Night With David Letterman, and Jon Brion was playing guitar and singing. Afterward, Letterman interviewed you and Michael Hausman where you say the band was basically just the two of you at that point. It seems to me like the band was already kind of falling apart at that point, yes?
MANN: The record company was wildly uninterested because, in a kind of classic form, a new A&R had come in. He didn’t like anything the other A&R guys did and he was like, “there’s a new sheriff in town.” And he just immediately scuttled the record — the record was scuttled instantly. I remember we suggested to the record company, we were like, “it’s kind of all acoustic guitar songs. Why don’t we go around to radio stations and play songs with the acoustic guitar?” They were like, “no, nobody does that, that’s unheard of.” And of course, like, you know…
Stereogum: This was literally one year before Unplugged launched and everyone was doing acoustic performances all the time.
MANN:: We couldn’t get [the label] to do anything. They were really uninterested. I remember talking to radio stations and they were like, “oh, you have a new record out? [The record company] didn’t even send it to us.” They really wouldn’t even put it in the fucking mail!
STEREOGUM: It seems so crazy, considering “Voices Carry” was a top 10 hit, and “What About Love?” was also a Top 40 hit. So after all that, you decided to officially go solo, but you were still stuck in a contract with Epic. Can you explain what happened that stalled the release of your solo debut?
MANN: This is what happened: I met Jon Brion. We started writing together and we started recording together and I was trying to get off of Epic. So we were trying to get off Epic and they wouldn’t release us. And they were like, “we think you should make another record.” And we we were like, “Everything’s Different Now came out a fucking month ago. Why aren’t you promoting that record?” And they were like, “we just want to know that you’re willing to write with other people.” And of course they meant like hit-doctor people.
STEREOGUM: And that’s funny because on the record you’d just put out, you wrote a song with Elvis Costello, who was doing extremely well at that point in time.
MANN: Yeah, he’s unbelievable. He’s a fucking legend and he’s wildly talented and I was over the moon to be able to write with him. I mean, I couldn’t believe that he even paid me any attention, and then the record company is like, “no, we need some other thing.” Like a new guy came in and he had this system and he’d worked with Heart. [I need to] be friends with somebody or get a spark from them in some way.
STEREOGUM: And when you were doing that, was it supposed to be Aimee Mann solo? Or was it ever considered to be the next ‘Til Tuesday record?
MANN: At that point it was just gonna be a solo record. And at a certain point, this new label — Brian Koppelman was the A&R guy for this new label that became Giant that was one of Irving Azoff’s labels. And I was gonna be the first person they signed. But Irving Azoff was like, “I want her, but who’s this Jon Brion guy? I want her to work with a real producer.” So we came out to LA and did some songs for Tony Berg, and that’s why Jon didn’t produce the whole record. Otherwise I think he might have just done the whole thing.
STEREOGUM: I think only one Tony Berg song made the cut.
MANN: I think it’s called “I Could Hurt You Now.”
STEREOGUM: Yes, that one.
MANN: So I remember coming out and working with him because Giant was nervous about it. The record was almost finished but I signed the contract, put it in the mail, and then I got a call [saying] that Irving changed his mind, he doesn’t wanna do the deal after all. Irving was gonna do a buyout, [he’d] worked out a deal with Epic.
STEREOGUM: Oh jeez, Epic again.
MANN: So then we were just like, fuck it, we’re just gonna finish it ourselves. God bless [then-manager] Patrick Rains — what an incredible person to just shell out like, what, a hundred thousand dollars or whatever it took to make that record. And then eventually we wound up on Imago Records.
STEREOGUM: At this point, you were in your early 30s. During this arduous process of trying to reboot as a solo artist, did you ever think to yourself, “shit, can I even do this?”
MANN: I think I probably did. Back then, it did feel like there were no options except a major label. And Epic was really determined to wait. They specifically said, “we’re afraid she’s gonna go to another label and have a hit.” And of course I was like, “if you think there’s such danger of me having a hit, then why didn’t you support my record?”
I waited three years [for them] to make sure that my career was dead until they let me go. So I definitely felt just trapped, like time was flying by. But at the same time, working with Jon was really just very musically exciting and interesting — just watching how creative he was in the studio. And I felt like I was writing better songs and learning a lot from him, learning more about making records, because we did have some time to experiment a little bit.
STEREOGUM: The stuff that you guys did on Whatever, I’m With Stupid, and Bachelor No. 2 very much has a sound. Even though most of Whatever was made in Massachusetts, it has this sound that I usually think of as “LA Alternative,” because it became prominent on records that Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith made there, and you had moved there in 1995. It’s kind of funny to me to think of the A&R being skeptical of Jon Brion, because the sound the two of you originated really got taken to the bank just a few years after your debut.
MANN: It was totally a sound. A lot of this stemmed from Jon. The two of us got excited about delving back into stuff we had liked but hadn’t listened to in a while, with all this great writing, great melodies, and interesting sounds.
STEREOGUM: So the record gets made, it gets put out… What was it like when it came out?
MANN: You know, I don’t ever look at numbers. I don’t know what [my albums] sold. I know how much Bachelor No.2 sold, and that’s really the only thing I ever paid attention to or remembered. I mean, somebody probably told me, but you can’t think about numbers, because then, you know…
STEREOGUM: It’ll fuck you up.
MANN: Yeah, because I can’t change [anything]. Can I change how many people buy the record? What am I gonna do, play one extra show and push it over the edge? But my impression was that it did pretty well. I mean, I played shows and people came to see them and I spent some time in England [with] the record company there. That’s where I met up with Squeeze. We went on tour just playing shows together — not me opening for them, me actually playing in their band. And that was super exciting.
STEREOGUM: So you were playing bass with Squeeze?
MANN: I must have played bass, yeah. I played something. And they backed me up. We would do a set that was half my songs and half their songs.
STEREOGUM: Wow, I never knew that.
MANN: It’s crazy. It was a weird idea. I think the booking agents were like, “what?” about as much as they would be today.
STEREOGUM: How was it making music videos for Whatever?
MANN: Oh God, you have to remind me. There was “I Should’ve Known” right?
STEREOGUM: “I Should’ve Known” was first, I think. And then “Stupid Thing” was second and “Say Anything” was third.
MANN: I literally don’t even remember doing videos for these. That’s hilarious. First of all, I hate doing videos.
STEREOGUM: I feel like most artists hate doing them.
MANN: It’s always like — you look at somebody’s reel, and you’re like, “I don’t know, I guess.” And then they do a treatment and you’re like, “I don’t know.” So when you see shitty videos it’s because it’s like that. “Say Anything” — was that the one in the black and white?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s black and white, and it has a bunch of shots on a boat dock. It seems to have some sort of plot maybe, but it’s not very obvious.
MANN: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that since we did it. I don’t even know if I saw the finished version. It did have a concept. It’s funny, I wonder if it’s on YouTube. I need to see it.
STEREOGUM: It is! They pretty much all are. Do you remember “Stupid Thing”? That one seemed to have a vague concept too. And it was in color!
MANN: I’m gonna look this up on YouTube.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, check it out, because there seems to be a concept there, but it’s really not very clear at all.
MANN: This is hilarious. I have not thought about these videos since I made them.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you’re in a taxi cab and there are other people that are just sort of in and out of it while you’re playing guitar.
MANN: Ah, I do remember that, because we were in England. The idea was just to ride in a cab. It was supposed to be one shot — but of course that never happens. [The concept was] I’m riding in the cab and I’m playing this song and different people get in, and they have their own different experiences and different things are going on. I thought there was something very sweet about that. If it had been one shot, that would have been great, but then you’re like cutting it, like, now it’s night. You know that didn’t really happen. So I remember working really hard with the editor to try to get shots that sort of made sense with what was happening in the verses. I loved the guy with the ventriloquist dummy.
STEREOGUM: I love videos, but most musicians I read about from this era tend to hate them.
MANN: There was a big trend — ugh, and this took forever to go away — this trend where they were just really fast cuts. Every video, every song, it didn’t matter. It’s not always appropriate for the song. So I’m now I’m like sad over this dumb video where a bunch of dumb shit happened.
STEREOGUM: At least none of those are embarrassing or anything. And obviously, going back, the “Voices Carry” video is a classic. It’s funny, I did a party once where we watched this old MTV countdown of the 500 greatest videos of all time. “Voices Carry” was number 500.
MANN: Oh my God, come on! It couldn’t at least make 400?
STEREOGUM: Well, it was a good way to start it all off, at least.
MANN: I mean, that was way early in [the history of] MTV. Way early. The idea was [to make] a three-minute movie. Which, in retrospect, it was a fresh idea, you know?
STEREOGUM: Right, like, it’s not the first video with dialogue or anything, but it was still a very new concept. And it also looks really good. It’s shot on film.
MANN: Yeah, it was shot on 35mm.
STEREOGUM: I think “What About Love” had a cool-looking video, even though it was a bit cheesy. And the other one I can remember is “(Believed You Were) Lucky.”
MANN: Oh yeah, that one was super dumb.
STEREOGUM: I remember there were a lot of shots of key words from the song. Like “Believe” and “Life” or something.
MANN: Ew, I hate it. Maybe that’s the evolution of my hatred of that kind of stuff. It was supposed to look like the Twilight Zone opening. I think that was the concept.
STEREOGUM: You looked great in it, at least.
MANN: Ninety percent of a video’s purpose is to make the artist look reasonably attractive. It’s like, at least give me that.
STEREOGUM: So let’s talk Whatever. Do you have a favorite song?
MANN: I think “4th Of July” is probably the best song on that record. I cycle it in and out [of the live set]. I’ve played it this whole last year. I hate to say that this is a factor but: It’s easy to play. Some of the older songs are just not. “I Should’ve Known” is just fucking impossible to play. [For “4th Of July”], I could not come up with a bridge for it. That’s why it doesn’t have a bridge. I just couldn’t write one. I think it probably could use one, but whatever, that’s the way it is.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about “Mr. Harris” and the inspiration for it.
MANN: Stylistically or thematically?
MANN: I was trying to do chords that I don’t usually use; I think there’s some diminished chords [in that song]. And that’s Jon Brion’s influence. I was just trying to expand my palette. My guess is that there was also a Zombies or Colin Blunstone influence.
STEREOGUM: And lyrically?
MANN: I was in my neighborhood and I saw this old guy raking leaves in his front yard and he was like wearing a suit and hat, and I was just sort of imagining [life with] this single or depressed older man. I thought it was a cute idea at the time. I don’t think that song was very well-written. I mean, I’m trying to tell a story, but it’s I definitely think it’s pretty clumsy.
STEREOGUM: As much as I like Whatever, I feel like I’m With Stupid has much more clarity in the songwriting and production. It’s definitely your most electric record and seems to fit the indie-rock aesthetic of the mid ’90s. Was that something you were personally into at the time?
MANN: When I wrote the bulk of it, I was living in England, and there were four records that I was listening to. One was — Jon Brion had started a band with some other friends of mine: Buddy Judge, Jason Falkner, and Dan McCarroll. They were called the Grays, which is a terrible name, but whatever. I listened to the Posies’ Frosting On The Beater a lot. There was a record by the Loud Family called Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, which was a major influence on me. Scott Miller’s songwriting is so so great. The other record was the first Liz Phair record [Exile In Guyville]. That was a huge influence.
STEREOGUM: OK, wow, that is very revealing, I feel, in terms of the sound of I’m With Stupid. The Posies and Liz Phair especially. And the Grays, obviously, given the personnel. I don’t know the Loud Family.
MANN: That record is fucking fantastic. The main writer is Scott Miller who committed suicide about three years ago. So fucking tragic. And he’s got a song called “Slit My Wrist” and like he just … he was such a sweet, quiet [person], of course. So that’s horrible. That record was so — just from beginning to end — it was so great. The songs were connected with little bits and pieces of music, which is another thing that I did [on I’m With Stupid]. That was a direct influence. I think that Jon, or somebody we knew, bought a reel-to-reel player and there was a tape on it that had some guy recording stuff off the radio and recording himself talking.
STEREOGUM: So that was your first and only record for DGC, the Geffen imprint.
MANN: Right. So between those two records — Imago didn’t exactly go out of business, but it really collapsed; it was sort of down to like one guy in a closet. So they needed to make a deal with another label for my contract. And I was mad because I was like, “I don’t get a say at all.” You can find yourself on a label where no one cares about you. So I wound up on Geffen.
STEREOGUM: Geffen was very hot at the time.
MANN: They were. The record was already done, and once again … I think this is the case with every label, probably for every artist, from the dawn of time. They gave me the “we don’t hear a single” kind of thing. And my response was like, “you’ve had this record for months, so I don’t know why suddenly you’re like that now.” And also, “That’s Just What You Are” is pretty catchy.
STEREOGUM: Oh, it’s a total jam.
MANN: Yeah, if that’s not a single, then … you’re not gonna get any more commercial than that.
STEREOGUM: To my ear, that one is a total Buzz Bin-level rocker.
MANN: It’s like just a constant failure of imagination on the parts of record labels, I think. Because I thought that was a very poppy song. The idea that everyone continually has this charge levied against me that I wasn’t commercial enough was so crazy. And then like Alanis Morissette comes around a few years later, and it’s like “goddamnit.” Like pop songs with loops and grungy guitars.
STEREOGUM: As far as I know, “That’s Just What You Are” was the only song off the record that got a video, so it seems like they kind of did the same thing Epic did to you when Everything’s Different came out.
MANN: I think still there was a lot of this thing: “We already have female singer-songwriters that we’re promoting right now.” Like, God forbid there’d be a glut on the market of two or three. I just think there was something about me that didn’t inspire confidence that I could have a hit.
STEREOGUM: And meanwhile, you toured a lot for this record, right?
MANN: Yeah, but I just remember touring for this record and just getting more and more exhausted. There was a lot of pressure from Geffen to stay on the road. And every day would be filled up. I think our contact at Geffen was very cavalier, because we would really fill up [our] days off with stuff — like, “you have to go play this free show for radio.” I remember doing like 30 days in a row with no days off.
STEREOGUM: So non-stop touring, but no real push for radio or MTV play. It’s ridiculous considering how great this album was. Mind if we run through some of the songs?
MANN: Sure. I will say my least favorite song is “Frankenstein” and that’s only because I don’t like the chorus. The chorus is kind of a line that’s thrown on the end, and it never really felt like it gelled to me.
STEREOGUM: Lyrically? Or more just in general?
MANN: Musically and lyrically … it didn’t feel super original. The song “You’re With Stupid Now” is very different. It’s got a real acoustic sound. It almost has this very fluid, almost jazz guitar [that] I think Jon is playing, which really ties everything together. His sense of melody is so fantastic. His solos are fantastic. He plays four separate solos [on “All Over Now”] that are all so great. I remember teaching myself how to play them because I was trying to become a better guitar player.
STEREOGUM: Funny you should say that because I have the liner notes of I’m With Stupid right here and they are super specific. It specifies who plays what solos, and it says the last one on that song is you.
MANN: Oh my God that’s hilarious. Well Jon was always trying to get me to play more guitar, and on “Par For The Course,” I think I played everything. He was very encouraging in that way.
STEREOGUM: Ah yes, it says that right here as well. And then it says in parentheses, “The new bunny.”
MANN: Oh yeah, that was [Jon’s] nickname, Bunny.
STEREOGUM: Oh, and over here on “It’s Not Safe,” there’s a solo by [Aimee Mann’s future husband] Michael Penn.
MANN: I do remember doing some recording in Los Angeles, and I remember Michael coming and playing. I just remember he was trying something and he kept making a mistake and he got really mad, so that’s mainly what I remember. He was so hard on himself. That was my main memory, but I mean Michael’s a fantastic guitar player.
STEREOGUM: What other songs stick out for you?
MANN: “You Could Make A Killing” I wrote about Noel Gallagher from Oasis.
STEREOGUM: Ha! Really?
MANN: I had seen him when I was in England. I saw him play, just this acoustic thing. He was part of a show with a bunch of people. And he came out and he played their very first single. People were just starting to talk about them a little bit in England. His sense of melody, I felt, was very much like mine. So, of course, I — because I was living in England alone and I was lonely — I developed a big crush on him.
STEREOGUM: On the Britpop note, how did you end up working with Bernard Butler on “Sugarcoated”?
MANN: Somebody suggested that I write with him, so he and I got together. He played guitar on that song, too. It was right after he quit Suede. I made the lyrics about that. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I think he was getting bad-mouthed because he left Suede. I can’t really remember what the situation was, but I do remember that I used that as a jumping-off point for the lyrics. People were calling him difficult. I didn’t find him remotely difficult, but that’s just my two cents. Who knows?
STEREOGUM: There was a lot of time between this record and your next record. What happened between I’m With Stupid and Paul Thomas Anderson getting you involved with the Magnolia soundtrack?
MANN: Well, once again, there was a label thing. A bunch of labels were being acquired by Interscope.
STEREOGUM: I remember that.
MANN: I had finished Bachelor No.2, and once again, the label was like “we’re going out of business!” So Interscope suddenly had all of these artists, and they actually said to me, “you know, if you want to leave, you can leave.” I even had one meeting with Jimmy Iovine — that he was late to — and when I told him [the record] was finished, he was like “it’s not finished till I say it’s finished.” And I was like, “I’m outta here.”
STEREOGUM: I can totally picture him saying that.
MANN: He was talking about Sheryl Crow and how her last record was a big disappointment that sold a million and a half records.
STEREOGUM: If it was her self-titled, then it sold even more than that, probably.
MANN: So I’m like, “fuck this.” At that point I just didn’t fucking care what happened. I was like, “I’ll sell this out of the back of a van. I don’t give a shit. I don’t wanna do this anymore.” So that’s what happened, that’s why it took so long to come out. It had been been finished for a while.
STEREOGUM: So Bachelor No. 2 could have come out as early as, what, 1998?
STEREOGUM: That makes a lot of sense, because it just sounds so much of that year. My brother saw you at Lilith Fair in 1999 and he bought an early version of the record that was like seven-track EP.
MANN: That was a real DIY fuck-you-record-company-I’m-selling-it-myself [move]. We had just printed up an EP, and the Magnolia thing was happening. The Magnolia soundtrack came out on Warner Bros. and I think they wanted us to delay releasing Bachelor No. 2. I [originally] wanted to put “Save Me” on it. So they were like, “let us have [that song], and let us take some time selling the soundtrack.” I wrote the song while [Paul Thomas Anderson] was writing the movie. It was written at the same — Paul and I were friends and we were just writing stuff together. I would write something playful, and then he would talk to me about the movie, and I would write stuff. We were influenced by the same things.
STEREOGUM: Paul has said that the songs you were working on directly influenced the way he was writing the film. “Wise Up,” of course, soundtracks a very surreal moment in the film where every character begins singing a lyric to the song in a montage. Previously the song appeared on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, but did it actually even appear in the movie?
MANN: It’s funny, [Cameron Crowe] was gonna use it, and then he decided not to, and then he heard it again and he was like, “why didn’t I put that in?” I think he put it back in for the DVD or something.
STEREOGUM: Kind of serendipitous when you think about it, though. It’s possible that Paul Thomas Anderson might not have written the Magnolia scene like that if the song had already been used cinematically.
MANN: I think the thing about Paul is … part of what he was influenced by, in general, is that people are not recognizing things that he thinks are good. And I think he felt like that was kind of an underdog situation and it made him kind of mad, maybe. He wanted “Momentum.” I didn’t think it was the greatest song I’d ever written, but he was like, “‘Momentum’ is great! Why didn’t this get more attention?”
STEREOGUM: That song is used prominently in the movie as well. It was in every commercial for it.
MANN: He wants to be the champion of the underdog.
STEREOGUM: A few of my friends and I have major connections with “Wise Up,” and it definitely has a bit to do with the song being used as it was in the film. On paper, though, that scene might read a bit strangely.
MANN: So weird. It’s so weird.
STEREOGUM: What did you think when you became aware of how it was going to be used in the film?
MANN: When I read it in the script I was like, “I don’t know, this sounds dumb.” Like, how could you pull this off, really? I just couldn’t [picture it]. When I saw it, though, it was so stirring. He’s the filmmaker, he can picture it. He knows what he’s doing.
STEREOGUM: It still gives me chills. And I think part of why it works is how far in it you are when watching that movie. I think it’s at the two-hour mark.
MANN: You’re in it. You’re emotionally exhausted. One of the things that movie does really well is it makes the real seem surreal and the surreal seem normal.
STEREOGUM: Would you say that this was the point of your career where you finally felt unstuck and on a path? Getting an Oscar nomination for “Save Me” definitely provides a bump.
MANN: It’s hard to say. I had always toured a lot. I had always played — and continued to play — shows, and I think it just felt like … I definitely felt an increase in how people took me more seriously instead of [seeing me as] one of a number of singer-songwriters. “Save Me” really gave a blood transfusion to my career. But it wasn’t like I went from playing to five people to 5,000 people. It was just a real influx of energy.
STEREOGUM: When you finally did release Bachelor, you put it out yourself on SuperEgo.
MANN: That was my most successful record because I was able to sell it myself and not have to try to get the record label to do its job. My manager and I just hired PR and hired radio people and that record did really well. And Paul’s attention helped a lot, Paul’s video helped a lot. I think that was a substitute for having a record label that cared.
STEREOGUM: Obviously so much has happened since then, but it’s been really great touching on these years. As tumultuous as they were, the music you made in this period is really seminal and influential. Since we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Whatever, can you tell me about “I’ve Had It”? I think that’s my favorite song on the album.
MANN: Aw, thank you. That would be the Simon & Garfunkel-influenced one. Wildly influenced. I guarantee that was about record company stuff, like the ongoing mistreatment and [their] continuing to not release me from my contract. But also, at the same time, it was about this show that we played. We never played many shows in New York, but for some reason, me and Jon and some other friends played a little show. I think it was at the China Club. There was something about it — I don’t know, I think the PA went out or something, and there was just like a row of people in front of us, and then the rest of the club was going crazy in the distance, but they were weirdly listening to the music. And we just had this really nice musical experience. Like, that was the upshot. I was 28 or something, and I said to [music executive] Dan [McCarroll], like, “Dan, are we in our prime?” And he’s like, “God I hope not.”