Aimee Mann knows a sinking ship when she sees one. And she saw the holes in the ballast back at the turn of the century when she asked for her release from her record company so that she could release “Bachelor No. 2 or, The Last Remains of the Dodo” herself. It’s not so much that the majors were going down (Interscope, the label she was signed to at the time, has soldiered on fine without her) so much as the marriages between these companies and a classic breed of singer/songwriters going down for the count. In asking for, and receiving, her exit, she was getting a few years’ head start on nearly every other significant artist of a similarly artisan ilk also looking to go independent, either out of choice or necessity.
It could hardly have worked out better: “Bachelor No. 2” not only became a landmark record on its own — with a little cross-promotional help from “Magnolia,” which employed several of its songs, among other Mann numbers Paul Thomas Anderson seeded throughout the movie — but it set the template for her subsequent career. As much acclaim as Mann had gotten in Til Tuesday and for her first couple of solo records, it was “Bachelor No. 2” that made Mann No. 1 in the hearts of critics and a significant coterie of followers who’ve hailed her, with plenty of justification, as the sharpest songwriter of her generation.
For the Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, Mann is reissuing “Bachelor No. 2” as a two-LP set, with extensive annotation, a new cover and five bonus tracks (including more “Magnolia” songs that weren’t previously a part of the album). Anyone who might hesitate in this dating game probably needs to wise up, as the limited edition of 5,000 copies is likely to go fast, although Mann is not averse to eventually pressing a second edition if the first goes as quickly as expected.
“It seems really fresh,” Mann said in a phone call with Variety. “It’s a very startling to realize it had been 20 years.” Our conversation about what fed into this classic album then, and how she reevaluates it now, follows.
VARIETY: Have you been actively thinking about releasing your catalog on vinyl, or was it just “Bachelor No. 2” in particular?
MANN: Well, we’re going to do a reissue of “Lost in Space,” too, because I think some of them just wanted to get better vinyl versions. In fact, I can’t even remember if we had a vinyl “Lost in Space” — I don’t think we did.
To refresh your memory, both of these albums only came out on vinyl in very limited Mobile Fidelity editions. And they command high prices on the collectors’ market. Looking them the going rate for them on Discogs, the lowest price for a sealed copy of “Bachelor No. 2” right now is about $300, and the lowest price for a sealed “Lost in Space” is about $365. So, you can probably sell a few of these new editions.
Good God! I don’t think I had anything to do with those. Or it was probably one of those things where I was on the road and my manager said, “Somebody wants to release it on vinyl,” and I’m like, “Fine.” That was probably my involvement at the time.
But I think with this one in particular, because I had recorded all of those “Magnolia” soundtrack songs at the same time, to me, it always felt like they should be on that record. And then some of (the bonus tracks), like “Momentum” and the cover of (Nilsson’s) “One,” had been done earlier, but I wanted to put them on this reissue. And I wanted to have a better package, because the package was done so hastily at that point, it didn’t really come out the way I wanted it to. And there are some liner notes, and it’s remastering by this great guy, Dave Cooley.
And the running order has changed.
Yeah, I resequenced it a little bit. I wanted it to flow from one side to the other, while still trying to keep most of the original sequencing. But it has been changed a little bit, because I didn’t want to just chuck the five new songs together on one side. That sort of bothered me. I wanted to incorporate them. So everything is a little different. The cover keeps the idea of the original cover, but expands it. It’s all just a little bit more. It’s “Bachelor No. 2 Plus.”
There are only 5,000 copies pressed, which seems low, looking at how instantly some Record Store Day titles have gone recently in quantities of about that size that have far less repute as a classic than this one. Is this a one-time pressing or will there be a separate edition later on that’s not limited?
I don’t know! Listen, if I thought people were really clamoring for it, I’m sure I would press up some more.
Will there be a CD of either of these albums in their remastered or expanded form, or is it vinyl only?
It’s vinyl-only right now. But I think a digital version will come.
Besides the bonus tracks and the fact that basically only a handful of people already have it on vinyl, one of the big draws of this is the extensive liner notes, which include track-by-track commentary. A general statement you make in the notes is: “This album is better than I remember.” Did you have a thought in your mind, like, “Well, that one was kind of mediocre by my standards”?
No. Well, I think it’s two things. First of all, you always think that your most recent thing is the best. And for me, there’s always a feeling of “Oh, I’ve improved so much.” I think that feeling that I’ve gotten better or the sound has gotten better, or whatever, on some level translates into that meaning the older stuff wasn’t as good. But that’s also compounded by not ever listening to your record once it’s done, so you retain an impression of what it was or what it was like to make it or what it sounded like. I think that’s just why I was surprised. Like: Oh, I just haven’t heard this. It actually is really good.
One of its lasting legacies, besides the fact that it is really good, is that you were legendarily ahead of the indie curve. Nowadays, probably anyone who makes anything sort of remotely like your kind of music is thinking, “Why would I want or need to be with a major label?” But in 1999-2000, it was a radical thought to go it alone.
Yeah. At the time (a major) was the only game in town, you know? I didn’t know anyone who put out their own records. The Internet wasn’t really a thing. I mean, it was a little bit of a thing, but you couldn’t really order it online. It was more like mail order; you could call a number or something — I’m not sure exactly what it was. But I know that the online store thing at that point didn’t really exist in the same form.
But that was the point where I found myself, along with a bunch of other artists, getting transferred to Interscope [which absorbed Geffen, her former label, and A&M, in a consolidation]. I had pretty much seen all that the major labels had to offer and realized it wasn’t really rocket science, and saw kind of a thin sliver of hope of a way to do it myself. Because you can hire independent record promoters to work at radio. Obviously you can continue to tour it and promote it yourself. You can hire a publicist. All the things that a record label does, you can provide for yourself. Distribution was the only thing that was missing. Eventually I was able to get distribution for my label, but at first we just went (self-released).
Mostly, it was stubbornness. I just didn’t want to work with the major labels anymore, and I felt like I don’t care if I have to sell this out of the back of a van. Because then at least you’re in charge of your own destiny. My reasoning was that if I wasn’t going to sell any records, at least I should be able to make the record I wanted to make — and I had already made it. It wasn’t a mystery as to what it was. It was already recorded. And I felt like it wasn’t a very good sign that Interscope, I think even without listening to it, assumed that they would have to go over it and make me record a bunch of extra songs and continue to work on it. I felt like it was finished. So I didn’t want to go through that again.
How did it pan out, commercially?
We sold 25,000 records, just from the website. And then once we got a distribution deal, we sold 275,000, which I think is the most sales that I’ve ever had.
It got a boost when people who probably didn’t know anything about Til Tuesday or your two previous solo records were discovering you from the “Magnolia” soundtrack, safe to say?
I do think I got a new audience with the “Magnolia” soundtrack, and those two things overlapped. I know that Interscope was offered the soundtrack, and they turned it down. I think the soundtrack was a gold record — but for Interscope, those numbers were really insignificant; a gold record didn’t really mean anything to them. So they passed on that, and I think that made it even easier for me to leave.
You’ve made it sound like you were bringing in material to the label before you left and were getting sort of a shrug. Were there any champions who were saying “No, no, this is great stuff,” or was it really just kind of uniformly “we don’t get this and you need to write a hit”?
With Interscope, I didn’t really have a relationship with them anyway. That lasted about five minutes and then I was out. But at Geffen, I didn’t really feel like I had (support). Jim Barber had signed me, but I think he was also fixated on a single. Which, in my experience, when you are listening to music to try to discern whether it’s going to be popular with other people, you just can’t hear it the same way. There’s no emotional response, which means you can’t really ascertain whether it would be a single, because music is all about having an emotional response. I mean, if something is catchy, that’s an emotional response. It’s not going to be catchy if you’re looking at it with a microscope.
The impression I got was that they thought that I was not commercial enough, which to me seemed crazy. Because I remember having a lot of conversations, like, “Well, what about like 10,000 Maniacs? They have a huge hit — how am I less commercial than that?” And, “What about Tracy Chapman?” That was more at Epic (Til Tuesday’s label). I would point to these other artists, and they would say, “Well, that’s a different story, because of these other reasons.” It was just very frustrating because I in no respect thought that I was a left-of-center or inaccessible artist.
You wrote the song “Nothing Is Good Enough,” which was provoked by those kinds of conversations, thinking back on situations that predated even being on Interscope, then?
Oh, yeah. A lot of that record was really hard to write, because I felt so completely demoralized by and discouraged by my interactions with people at Geffen. Because nobody ever listened to anything that I played for them and reacted with any kind of happiness. When you play a song for somebody, what you’re hoping for is that they smile and go, “Oh, I really like that,” or “It’s really pretty,” or “It really gets to me” — or something. And it’d just be sort of like nodding and then saying, “Well, I don’t hear a single.” You just feel like you’re failing all the time. The upshot of that is that I started to be unable to write because their reaction made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, and so I just started to have a lot of writer’s block.
Then you filtered those feelings you were having into some of the songs, which are great, more universal songs that certainly transcend being about the music business.
Yeah, I think the only way to deal with that kind of situation is just to write about what you’re feeling. And obviously everybody’s been in various relationships where they felt like they weren’t good enough for the other person, or they kept letting the other person down in some unknown way that was frustrating. I wanted the song (“Nothing Is Good Enough”) to not just be about the relationship with the record company, but be about that feeling.
In the liner notes you say that the “Dodo” part of the title reflected your feeling at the time that singer-songwriters were a dying breed. If you felt that way in 2000…
Oh my God. [Laughs.] Yeah. “The remains of the Dodo” — I came across that phrase because I was reading about the Dodo. It obviously became extinct ages ago, but they don’t even have a full stuffed Dodo. They just have a beak and a couple of feathers and a claw. There’s just these sad little remains! And I feel like that’s about where we are now. We’re at beak-and-claw stage.
To talk about “Magnolia” a little: Did Paul Thomas Anderson tell you how much of your music he was planning to use, or that he was quoting lyrics in the script, well before he shot it?
Yeah, he did. I have to confess that my reaction to a lot of the things that were in the movie … When he showed me the “Wise Up” sequence in the script, I just did not know how he could pull that off without seeming ridiculous, because it was such an audacious idea to have people suddenly start singing. But I didn’t realize that throughout that movie, there’s a kind of almost surrealism that makes everything take on a dreamlike state, without being mannered. To me, that’s almost like the state of PTSD where normal things feel surreal, but extraordinary circumstances feel commonplace.
It’s difficult to think of any other film that transforms itself into a movie musical — for just one number.
I know, it’s so strange. But it was such an amazing moment. But yeah, it was very hard for me to picture. And then I felt bad that I lectured him. [Laughs.] That I had doubted. I was like, “I don’t know, man. This seems pretty weird!”
Speaking of surrealism during that period, does performing on the Oscars still feel like a surreal experience? [Mann sang her Oscar-nominated “Save Me” on the 2000 telecast.]
Oh, yeah, that was very surreal. I really didn’t feel like I belonged there. It’s such a formal event. The focus on the women’s clothes… You know, from a distance it’s kind of entertaining. And then when you realize you have to be a part of it, you’re like, “I can’t do that! I’m not going to play in a gown. I can’t even wear those shoes.” That was just so far from my life. And I thought about Elliott Smith wearing that white suit [when performed his nominated song from “Good Will Hunting” two years earlier]. It was hard to bridge that gap. And then finally I found a stylist who found some clothes that looked fancy but still weren’t out of the realm of the kind of things that I would wear normally. But it felt like a whole different planet that I didn’t belong on.
Is it something that at least feels good on your resume — “Oscar nominee”?
Oh my God, yes. And I got to meet Jeff Goldblum at the Vanity Fair party, and that was worth the price of admission. [They became friends and Goldblum has occasionally shown up as a guest at Mann’s L.A. shows.]
The song “Deathly” is one that appears on both “Bachelor No. 2” and “Magnolia.” There, the opening line shows up as a piece of dialogue between Melora Walters and John C. Reilly. In that context, you could think of it as more of like a positive song, because the characters are fearful of something that could be good for them. But then in your liner notes, you say that the song was written about needing to be wary of charmers who really are no up to good. So it’s one of those songs that could read different ways, but maybe the “Magnolia” usage pushes it in a certain direction?
Yeah, that’s probably true. I think when I wrote it, it was, yeah, “be aware of the charmer.” But it’s about when you have a certain reaction to somebody, and you’ve spent a long time really trying to stay heavily armored, and realizing how overwhelming it is to have feelings for somebody when you’re so heavily armored. It’s in that moment that you realize, “Oh, I’m out of my depth. It’s just too much.” It’s like, “Don’t be nice to me. It’ll just make me think of all the other times where people weren’t nice, and I don’t want to think about that.”
Songs like that stuck out because pop artists tend to write about more clear-cut feelings. “I’m really guarded” is not necessarily the first go-to theme for love song lyrics.
Yeah, exactly. Or stating in the first line both your attraction to somebody and how you’re immediately going to repudiate that attraction.
With the song “Wise Up,” Aaron Dessler and Bon Iver covered it just within the last few weeks, for a Biden thing or something, right?
Yeah, they did it for a get-out-the-vote-for-Wisconsin thing. I loved their version. And they have “rise up” at the end, which I loved.
That’s another song that you could almost take two ways. It’s either a hopeful song or a “you are just never gonna get the point” type of song.
This was before I knew anything about 12-step stuff, but it’s basically saying: “it’s not going to stop until you hit bottom. And better sooner than later.”
In the liner notes you say there were songs you almost would have left off the record then, and that they’re different than the ones you would leave off now.
Yeah, I think “Satellite” is a song that I overworked. Which you can kind of hear, because it’s got so many sections. Even so, I actually think it works. But I think when you overwork something, it doesn’t leave you with a great feeling. So I didn’t like that song — but I like a lot of it now. I am kind of into it. But I had originally had different music to it, and going through so many stages with a song is not something I usually do, because it throws me off, and I think that’s what happened. I lost perspective on that song.
Is there a standout for you?
I think “Nothing Is Good Enough” is kind of my current new favorite. The song where I was going to deliberately write a single, and that’s what I wrote instead. That really makes me laugh — the sort of Bacharach-y jazz waltz that would have no possibility of ever being a single in any universe.
There’s one song where, in the notes, you break down the math on what your attitude toward the decision making about it. You have the equation as “one-fourth make them happy, one-fourth fuck you…”
[Laughs.] That’s my usual breakdown in any given situation: one-fourth make ‘em happy, one-fourth fuck you.
You’d made great albums before this, but did you feel like this was the start of a second act, or third act, or whichever level of new beginning it would be at this point in your career?
Yeah, I do. I was so proud that, first of all, I produced that record. There were some songs that Jon Brion had started, or that I started recording with him, but finished off myself; songs that I produced entirely; songs that I collaborated with others). But I was more in charge of it than usual. Because the songs that I did with Jon, he plays everything, almost — I mean, 90% of everything — so he’s not only producer, he’s sort of the band. It’s very easy to just sit back and let Jon go. So this was the only record that I really took responsibility for all the music: all the parts that were played, the way everything sounded. Everything about it had an Independence Day flavor for me, including the fact that we took it and sold it ourselves and were completely under our own recognizance in selling and promoting it. It’s made me really happy that we were able to pull that off and keep going, even after leaving the sanctified world of Record Company Dad.
On subsequent albums, you’ve had an outside producer, usually a pretty close associate. But it feels like this album sort of set the template for what you did since; that even though it may be other people in the producer’s role, that you really settled on something musically with this album.
Yeah, I think there were certain things that I wanted to try, and a certain sound I wanted to go for that was a little more stripped down than I had been doing. My first two (solo) records were a little kitchen sink-y — in a great way. But I think I always felt more comfortable with a less-is-more approach.
And you’ve stuck with the DIY approach on a business level, keeping your own SuperEgo as your label. You must be pretty happy with that model, because surely other labels have come calling and would be very pleased to have you as a flagship artist. It’s still working for you, 20 years later, the way you go about things.
Yeah, it really is. I’m so happy to be able to do these records the way I want, within the limits of whatever I can afford — to spring for a string section sometimes, and to have the cover art the way I want it… I think the record companies were kind of counting on the idea that you were so desperate to just have a record out, because I think they thought, “Well, every artist wants to be famous, and this way we’ll sort of dangle the possibility of being famous over their heads.” But I wasn’t really into that. I mean, I wanted to make to make a good record. And I also wanted to have the possibility of being able to make a living — which, I mean, if you’re on a major label and they’re not promoting your record, it’s not like they’re giving you money, you know? The only money they give you is to make the actual record, and then sometimes not really that much.
At the time, with the model of how things worked so set, there was probably a feeling of, “Why wouldn’t you want our advice on how to make a hit record or find out what you can do to get on the radio, if we just give you some helpful hints”?
They were always wrong, though. All their hints were, “Well, why don’t you make it sound like this thing that is on the radio right now?” And my response was always: “Because by the time this record comes out, they won’t want to hear that anymore.” And also… I can’t speak to now, because I think there’s a really manufactured quality to everything that’s on top. Maybe it’s always been like that. But I think people respond to music most strongly when they can sense that the artists themselves were personally invested — that’s a personal expression and that it’s not just trying to move some units. Hearing a striving for moving units is not an emotional experience.