Aimee Mann named her new release “@#%&! Smilers” as a tongue-in-cheek protest of people who constantly prod others to put on a happy face, even when they don’t feel like it. But as Mann herself admits, her seventh solo album, due June 3 on her own SuperEgo Records, is one of her most “smiley” works to date.
And why shouldn’t it be? The singer/songwriter has enjoyed more than two decades of ongoing success, much of it through her own toil as a pioneer of the now thriving do-it-yourself model of the music business. “Smilers” is the former ‘Til Tuesday vocalist’s fifth release on SuperEgo, which she founded with manager and longtime collaborator Michael Hausman in 1999 after negotiating a contract release from Geffen.
While the themes on “Smilers” aren’t universally cheerful — Mann masters wistfulness and dissatisfaction on songs like the synth-laced “Thirty One Today” — there’s a musical playfulness throughout that culminates in closer “Ballantines,” a piano-bar romp with trombones. The variety is a deliberate departure from 2005’s “The Forgotten Arm,” a musical “novella” about a relationship headed for trouble.
“I think because the last record was a concept album and had a narrative that went through the whole record, I was in the mood to do something completely different and make every song its own thing,” Mann says. “So if it needed horns, great. If the next song was just acoustic guitar and sounds like Neil Young, great.” Mann praises the versatility of producer Paul Bryan, who she says “almost physically can’t do certain things if they’re not really good.”
Mann and Hausman had an early taste of indie success with the 1999 “Magnolia” film soundtrack, as the pair experienced an early grasp of how to leverage the then-nascent power of the Internet to reach fans. “We had been collecting e-mail addresses since the mid-’90s, as soon as people started using e-mail,” Hausman says. “By the time Aimee went solo, I think we had 10,000 e-mails.” Mann then offered free downloads to promote 2000’s “Bachelor No. 2 (Or the Last Remains of the Dodo),” “which no one else was doing then,” Hausman says. That album has sold 230,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan; 2002 follow-up “Lost in Space” sold 232,000 and hit No. 35 on the Billboard 200.
Mann will tour through the end of the year, including her acclaimed Christmas variety show that features comedy and video in addition to music. Mann says that although it’s hard to make money on the road, it may be another key to staying ahead of the curve.
“Everybody can make a record on Garage Band, everybody has a MySpace page,” she says. “I think maybe people who play live well are going to raise their heads above the fray. Making a record is more smoke and mirrors, but playing live, you really have to know what you’re doing.”