Anyone lucky enough to catch any of the Acoustic Vaudeville tour stops of Aimee Mann and husband Michael Penn can be forgiven for wondering whatever happened to the latter singer/songwriter.
Mann, of course, has finally received her due, having survived a plague of major-label disasters and buying back and self-releasing her current album, “Bachelor No. 2,” in time to benefit from her Oscar-nominated music for the much-lauded “Magnolia” movie soundtrack. Penn’s story, unfortunately, is somewhat comparable, but mainly because of its negative aspects.
“We have very similar histories,” he says, “the only difference being that she was really fortuitous in that her contract allowed her to get her record back free and clear — and I was unable to.”
He can laugh about it now, he says, but the much-heralded Penn experienced “the curse of death” when he won the MTV video music award for best new artist video for “No Myth,” the hit single from his 1989 RCA debut album, “March.”
“I had a big hit with it, and then the president of the label who signed me is gone, and the record dies,” says Penn. “The day after winning the award they canceled the next video.”
RCA did release Penn’s follow-up album, “Free for All,” in 1992, but without any support, he says — or the freedom to leave.
“I was held captive for three years and was going to just wait out my contract,” he continues. “So I started writing a record called “Resigned,” because I was going to leave the system and release it independently on the Internet. Then, when I was finally released, [producer] Brendan O’Brien heard I was out of my contract. He’d just started his 57 Records imprint with Sony and was so enthusiastic and non-corporate that I decided to take a chance with him and changed the album title to `Re Signed.? But Sony wasn’t interested in me or the label.”
O’Brien was able to secure funding for a fourth Penn album, “MP4: Days Since a Long Time Accident,” which Epic released last year, “but nobody knew about it,” notes Penn. “So I’m quite happy now to be out of that strange [corporate] black hole.”
Luckily, Penn also shares with his wife a penchant for writing film scores. He scored “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” for “Magnolia” director Paul Thomas Anderson (his video for the “Re signed” track “Try” appears on the “Boogie Nights” DVD) and has also scored Jennifer Jason Leigh’s upcoming film “The Anniversary Party.” He also co-produced with Andrew Slater the Wallflowers’ current album, “(Breach).”
“That’s how I’ve been paying the bills,” he says, noting, “It’s quite different writing for films and for myself. You have to help guide a scene along emotionally, and the wrong approach can just be deadly. But it’s a lot of fun in the sense that the movie is the lyric, and what you’re doing is the track behind it. So it’s not that dissimilar in some ways from songwriting, but in others it’s radically different.”
Fans of Penn’s recording career, who may have missed out on his last three albums, needn’t worry that he’s again given up on songwriting.
“I’m taking time to write my next record, which I’ll ultimately put out myself,” says Penn. “Aimee and I have formed a Web site — United Musicians — where we’ll release our next records.”
First out will be live material taped during the duo’s Acoustic Vaudeville tour, which developed out of the shows they started putting on a couple years ago at the Largo club in Los Angeles.
“We played very stripped-down versions of our songs and included comedians to do the banter between songs,” says Penn. “Aimee and I are seen as very dour songwriters, and we’re both kind of uncomfortable just talking. We look at ourselves as songwriters and not entertainers, so to bring up these alternative comedians who play at Largo to take the piss out of the whole enterprise was like ginger on a sushi plate — a palate cleanser. And as frustrated as I was about the music business — and not hearing any truth in any of the music being pumped out by the [major labels] — it was great to hear these comedians in their own art form talking about real things in an intelligent and hysterically clever way.”
But sharing the stage and exchanging songs with his suddenly successful wife hasn’t really affected his current songwriting practice.
“Playing live doesn’t inform how I write songs,” he says, “and I don’t write much on the road, because it’s not a conducive atmosphere. But doing the songs stripped-down has freed me up to look at my own material and recognize that my next record, particularly, will be independent — and probably not [recorded] in a big studio. So I might actually try things that are more bare-bones just out of practicality.”
Penn and Mann are thinking of filming their Acoustic Vaudeville show. He may also compose another film score as he writes his next album.