fb-pixel Skip to main content

Aimee Mann on ‘Bachelor No. 2,’ her Berklee and Boston days, and why record labels are stupid

Aimee Mann performed at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston in 2017.
Aimee Mann performed at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston in 2017.Ben Stas for The Boston Globe

Anniversary tours are a popular trend. Bands play a string of shows to celebrate the birthday of one of their beloved albums. But with the world locked indoors for the foreseeable future, Aimee Mann can’t do much to commemorate the release of “Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo,” a monumentally great record that turns 20 this year. One thing she is doing: reissuing “Bachelor No. 2” on colored vinyl, remastered and restored from the original session tapes, with five additional tracks from Mann’s soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film “Magnolia.”

Mann first came to most people’s attention as the spiky-haired singer of ‘Til Tuesday, a Boston band whose hit “Voices Carry” is celebrating its — gasp! — 35th anniversary. But she soon left for Los Angeles, where she’s made records — nine, with a 10th due soon — characterized by exquisite, often sumptuous melodies and keen lyrics that can be agonizingly melancholic.


To the extent that she’s enjoyed any commercial success, Mann has done so in spite of record companies, which never seemed to know what to make of her. Labels used to demand she write songs that were more radio-friendly, and when she didn’t, they refused to release her music. Fed up, Mann and her manager formed their own label, SuperEgo Records, and the first release was “Bachelor No. 2,” which was her breakthrough LP.

Since we can’t go out to see her perform “Deathly” or “Calling It Quits” or any of the other gems on “Bachelor No. 2,” we phoned Mann last week to talk about the record, and to find out what she’s been up to while waiting for the pandemic to end.

Q. I have an intense relationship with this record because my daughter was born in 2000, and I listened to it over and over as I tried to get her to sleep.


A. Whoa.

Q. Twenty years later, the songs all sound like terrifying lullabies to me.

A. [Laughs] Lullabies for the inconsolable.

Q. You showed up in Boston in the late ’70s to go to Berklee, yes?

A. I had graduated high school when I was 17 and I really didn’t know what to do. So I worked for a year. I played acoustic guitar, sort of, and I tried to write songs. They were terrible. I was waiting tables at the Richmond [Virginia] Holiday Inn. They had cover bands, and I met this bass player. He told me about a music school you didn’t have to audition for, the Berklee College of Music. I investigated. I don’t think it was true that you didn’t have to audition, but they did have a seven-week summer session, and if you did well in that, you could go to the regular school. So I went. I liked music, obviously, but I didn’t feel like I had that much talent. I wasn’t a very good singer. And besides a few chords, I didn’t really play guitar. I’d always wanted to play bass, actually, but I was discouraged from doing that because people kept saying girls don’t play bass.

Q. We should pause here to say you’re quite a good bass player now.

A. Thank you. I love bass. I feel like it’s my main instrument — even though I have a great bass player live and I mostly play acoustic guitar. At Berklee, I felt like if I learned about music, maybe I’d know if I had any talent. I was just a believer in learning. I practiced like a crazy person and I got better, and I was able to go join the regular program.


Q. Do you think school was important or was it more about playing and practicing?

A. It’s different kinds of learning. The thing I learned that was a big surprise was ear training. It never occurred to me that that was a thing you could practice. Before, when I’d listen to music, it was somebody singing and a wash of music. I couldn’t pick out anything. I didn’t have the kind of natural talent that I hear about with other musicians I know. Like my husband, Michael Penn, talks about how he learned to play Beatles songs by ear, and not in a million years could I do that. But there came a time when playing live shows was a thing I needed to learn about. So I started a punky art-rock band called the Young Snakes. We played all the time. We’d hire a Checker cab and load our equipment and ourselves into the cab. I felt like that was another part of my education. I told myself I’ll keep going until it’s obvious I can’t go any further.

Q. How long were you at Berklee?

A. I did the summer session and then three semesters. I had so little confidence in myself as a musician that I was going to study engineering.


Q. You viewed engineering as a skill that might be transferable?

A. Yeah, but Berklee had just started an engineering program. When I realized the teacher wasn’t very good, I knew I wasn’t going to learn much, so I dropped out.

Q. I don’t want to dwell on ‘Til Tuesday. But I do wonder if that success prepared you for the rest of your career. Or not. It looked almost too easy. You wrote a great song and benefited from MTV. The future was wide open. But that isn’t really the way it works. Was it too . . . easy?

A. [Sigh] Not really, I guess. Here’s why: ‘Til Tuesday was a good band. And the lesson from Berklee was that practice yields great results, so we practiced all the [expletive] time. We played a million shows up and down New England. I don’t think I’m cut out to be an arena-level artist, but . . . ”Voices Carry” was a song people responded to emotionally. One of the reasons it was a hit was because Cyndi Lauper had heard it and she wanted to record it, and that gave the record company confidence in promoting it.

Aimee Mann with 'Til Tuesday at the Channel in Boston in March 1987.
Aimee Mann with 'Til Tuesday at the Channel in Boston in March 1987. Jan Housewerth/Globe Staff

Q. Eventually you left Boston and went to Los Angeles. Did you feel like you had to leave?

A. Well, I came out here to work because my producer, Jon Brion, had moved here. We were trying to finish up a record and he was out here. And then I met my husband. It made sense on a bunch of levels. I also realized there were more career opportunities in California because of the TV and movie industries. Career-wise, in Boston, it was make and release records and tour. In LA, there was some hope that you’d meet people. Mostly, though, all my friends had moved out here and my husband was here.


Q. But he didn’t know he was your husband yet. You made him your husband.

A. [Laughs]

Q. In the mid ’90s, when you were making music that the label wouldn’t put out or promote, did you ever feel hopeless?

A. I felt hopeless a lot. There was always so much upheaval. I was signed to a label, Imago, and then Imago went out of business and they were going to transfer me to another label. But they weren’t going to let me be involved in that process. That made me feel really hopeless. Then I’m on Geffen and Geffen gets transferred to Interscope. And it’s always the same thing: You have a record you’re really proud of and the label’s like, well, we don’t hear a single. I’d say, what about this one? Just pick one you like and put it out. Or [expletive] drop me.

Q. Their concern was they’d do that, and then you’d have a hit with somebody else?

A. Exactly.

Q. That’s so stupid.

A. So stupid.

Q. I mean, your song “That’s Just What You Are” could have been a single, right?

A. They said it wasn’t a single. And then the next record, they said “We want something like ‘That’s Just What You Are.’” [Laughs]

Q. Oh my God.

A. I know! It just makes you crazy.

Q. Your records have such a California sound. Some of the songs on “Bachelor No. 2” were on the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “Magnolia,” which is also very California.

A. The first two solo records were produced by Jon Brion, and before the first one, we were listening to a lot of ’60s Britpop, but also the Byrds. You can hear the Byrds’ 12-stringy influence, and there’s a lot of Mellotron. The second record was influenced by the Loud Family’s “Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things,” Liz Phair’s first record, and the Posies’ “Frosting on the Beater.”

Q. You don’t write a lot of cheerful songs. Is that fair?

A. Well . . . [sigh] . . . There are a lot of lines that make me laugh, but I guess they fall into the black humor, it’s-funny-because-it’s-true category. And if it’s with music that’s melancholy, it’s not going to read as ironic or wry or whatever.

Q. But the rhymes are always excellent.

A. Thank you.

Q. There’s a lot of heartbreak on “Bachelor No. 2.” Did label execs ever say, “Aimee, we need cheerful”?

A. Maybe that’s what they meant by “single.” But why? You have other artists who do that. I don’t listen to Elliott Smith and say, “He’s great but I need one really uptempo number.” I never wanted a cheerful number from Elliott Smith because that wasn’t what I listened to him for.

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, who have recorded together as The Both, co-host a podcast called "The Art of Process."
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, who have recorded together as The Both, co-host a podcast called "The Art of Process."Christian Lantry

Q. You and Ted Leo have a great podcast called “The Art of Process.” I like it because I’m interested in how people work. Your songs are elegant and solidly constructed, but they don’t feel overwrought or like you labored and labored. Does it come easily and how does it begin?

A. Usually I just fool around with a piece of music until I hear myself play something that’s interesting to me. Sometimes it’ll sound like there’s a story in it, or there’s a vibe that suggests a line. Or maybe it suggests an emotional state that implies a story. Then I try to figure out what the story is.

Q. In terms of the shutdown and the time off the road, has it been productive?

A. I finished a record right before the pandemic. It’s pretty close to being ready to go. I’m also working on a graphic memoir. I kind of took a turn because I wrote so many songs in the last two years. I was working on two different musicals, and the new record is songs from one of them.

Q. They’re standalone songs?

A. Yeah, I was asked to write music for a stage production of “Girl, Interrupted,” so I got the book and wrote a bunch of songs. I don’t think it’s going to turn out to be a musical. It might be a play with some songs. But I wrote so many songs, I just ended up recording them myself.

Q. The music business being what it is these days, playing live is important. You can’t do it now.

A. I really miss playing with other people. It’s almost a spiritual experience. You’re sharing music with the audience. There’s something inspiring about being in a room with people who are all in the same head space.

Q. We should end with a shout-out to your husband, Michael, who just released a great new song [”A Revival”].

A. I love that song so much. I think he’s a [expletive] genius, and I’m constantly prodding him to make a record. I think he worries there’s not an audience for it, but I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of modern times and the world needs to have a Michael Penn record.

Q. Aw, good for you. Thank you so much for talking.

A. It’s been a pleasure.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.