AIMEE MANN: Film and Conceptual Songwriting

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

 

Rock ‘n roll has played witness to a number of films that have been created from classic albums, like Pink Floyd’s  The Wall or The Who’s rock-opera Tommy.  And then there are great albums like Prince’s Purple Rain or Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, which are more or less musical versions of their film’s script. But rarely are artists commissioned to provide an entire soundtrack’s worth of original material for a movie in which they shared no part in filming or writing— in essence creating a score of new songs that carry their weight independent of the film. In that sense, Aimee Mann is part of a small, elite group of pop artists that can claim such a distinction.  Simon and Garfunkel had The Graduate.  Cat Stevens had Harold and Maude.  Aimee Mann has Magnolia.  Others exist but few compare.

Mann is no stranger to having directors use her songs in film.  Her material has appeared in a number of movies, including Jerry Maguire, Sliding Doors and Cruel Intentions.  She even has an acting credit to her name, playing the female nihilist in The Big Lebowsk.  But not until Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson asked her to write songs for his 1999 film, Magnolia, did Mann’s music really make its mark in cinema history.

So, what made Mann the frontrunner for this gig as the musical force behind Magnolia—a dark, avant-garde film about nine people loosely interconnected through a game show, in which the characters’ lives all seem to fall apart on the same day?  Putting aside her friendship with the director, anybody familiar with her music knows just how natural a fit Mann was.  Take your pick of songs from her two albums prior to Magnolia, Mann’s 1993 debut Whatever or 1996’s I’m With Stupid, and you’ll find that this tunesmith was quite experienced in writing songs about disappointment— particularly with relationships, one of the central themes in Magnolia.  Further studio efforts also confirm her neurotic fascination with the human psyche, which, combined with her songwriting smarts and accessible musical style, made her a prime candidate for a film tackling the psychosomatic idiosyncrasies of its characters.

The challenge of writing a single song for a film seems to be a daunting one, much less a whole soundtrack.  One may expect the artist to have an exhaustive understanding and connection with the script and characters, but with Mann and Magnolia, it’s clear that this is not necessarily the case.

“A lot of those songs really had little to do with the script,” Mann admits.  “Most of them I had been working on before I’d even been asked to have my music in the movie. It was just a coincidence that they ended up fitting so well.  The director never really said, ‘Try to capture this mood or scene or anything.’  It was more about writing songs that would fit into the overall scheme of things.  He put a lot of trust in me.”

Matter of fact, director Paul Thomas Anderson had enough faith in Mann’s music to build an entire scene around “Wise Up.”  For those of you who haven’t seen Magnolia, one of the most climactic and powerful scenes of the movie involves individual shots of all the main characters singing about 20 or 30 seconds of “Wise Up” as they find their lives fallen into utter disrepair.  It’s really an unprecedented scene in film history, creating three or four minutes’ worth of the cast singing along to a song the audience had never heard before.  “That was really ballsy of the director to do that, but it worked out well,” says Mann.

When listening to Mann’s nine songs on the soundtrack, you can’t help but speculate which songs or lyrics were written about which characters and so on, because they all seem so applicable to the film’s themes and characters.  But, as Mann clarifies, this wasn’t necessarily the case.  “’Deathly’ was a song I had kind of been working on and ended up incorporating bits of the movie into it,” Mann says, “ but I would say ‘Save Me’ was the only song really intended for that movie.”  Regardless of how the songs were written and directed, Magnolia wouldn’t have been the movie it was without Mann’s artistic intuition.

Now, Mann has found a new outlet for creating songs from script a concept album called The Forgotten Arm, which is slated for release in May.  “I had already done this sort of thing with Magnolia and found it nice and somewhat easy to create my own characters and basic story…and then let songs develop from there,” says Mann, who first got the idea for the album after being asked to write a song for The Human Stain (a movie in which Anthony Hopkins plays a college professor, once a promising young boxer, who has been hiding from his troubled past).

The Forgotten Arm chronicles the long affair of John and Caroline, a boxer and young girl who meet at the Virginia State Fair, fall in love and run off together.  Their travels take them across the country, down to Mexico and eventually to Sin City where John falls prey to several addictions.  Needless to say, the couple’s romance runs into a whole host of problems and sort of falls apart.  The rest of the story relates the troubles the couple faces on John’s road to recovery and redemption before finally getting back together in the end.

Upon listening to the album, even repeatedly, it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the storyline, partly thanks to Mann’s clever lyrical style and her intention that each song hold it’s ground independent of the story. “There really is no absolute storyline, just a general one,” Mann says.  “Songs are based more upon themes.”  So just what themes does she write about in The Forgotten Arm.  Well, basically all the baggage and disappointment that comes with relationships— it’s typical Mann.

The difficulty in Mann’s songwriting approach for The Forgotten Arm seems to lie in how to stay true to the concept, while also allowing each song to preserve its own identity.  “As far as the lyrics went, I would get a theme or idea and let it develop, then find some way of tying it in the storyline,” says Mann.  “A good example is ‘Goodbye Caroline.’  I had already written that song apart from the concept, but I went back and changed some lines here and there that would give it an identifiable connection with the story.”

Without knowing the underlying story, one might assume “Goodbye Caroline” is merely about a guy foolishly letting a girl slip from his hands, but the chorus, “Goodbye Caroline/you’re my favorite faith healer/goodbye everything/say I gave to the house dealer” reveals that John has lost all their money due to a gambling addiction.  The follow-up song, “Going through the Motions,” recounts how the couple’s relationship goes on autopilot as the boxer’s gambling and alcohol addictions have strained its well-being, but without ever bogging down the listeners with too many details.

Breaking down the songs on The Forgotten Arm, you find the same Aimee Mann that her fans fell in love with on Bachelor No. 2 or I’m With Stupid— her trademark voice along with well-edited, chord-driven songs, catchy choruses and shrewd lyrics.  However, her newest album sets itself apart more so than any of her previous efforts, not just because of its concept album status, but also in the manner it was recorded.  “The story takes place in the early ‘70s and I wanted the music to reflect that,” says Mann.  “If you listen to older music, it’s pretty basic.  There aren’t all these extra sounds recorded in the background.  This album was basically recorded live over a six day period.”

In the days of analog recording and expensive tape reels, without giant budgets from recording labels, musicians didn’t always have the luxury of laying down countless numbers of takes and sound effects.  The Forgotten Arm assumes that mentality.  Excluding vocals, nearly everything was recorded live over a few takes, which gives the album a modest but effectual simplicity.  “With most records you do drums first, then bass, and go on endlessly laying down guitar tracks, just to see what you can do,” asserts Mann.  “Most of the guitar parts are basically for insurance and you have the producer there to sort all that out.  We didn’t really do that here.”

From the opening number (“Dear John”) to the album’s closer (“Beautiful”), the instrumentation remains relatively simple— guitar, bass, drums and piano.  Of course, there is the frequent organ blaring over a chorus and various keyboards Mann is known to use, as well as a small horn section in the slower number “King of the Jailhouse”—somewhat evocative an old ballad by The Band.  Even though this is the general Mann formula, guitar tones are pretty consistent throughout the album, and guitar effects and random keyboard sounds are kept to a minimum.  In this respect, the album carries the spirit of early ‘70s albums by Rod Stewart, The Band, and Elton John, all of which Mann cites as influences behind The Forgotten Arm‘s creation.

Another distinguishing element of the album is how piano-driven a lot of the songs are, a departure from the guitar-centered approach to her previous records.  “Maybe that bled through, since I had been listening to a lot of Elton John’s earlier stuff,” Mann points out. “But I also wanted a focus on piano because it helps fit that time period.”  Even though guitar still sustains the greatest presence, “King of the Jailhouse,” “Video” and “Clean Up for Christmas” are all outright piano songs.  Even faster songs like “Goodbye Caroline” have the piano bouncing around appreciably in the background.  But probably the most powerful song on the album, the heart-wrenching “That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart,” is reminiscent of the classic Coldplay piano ballad—where the drums don’t enter until 2 or 3 minutes into the song and then break into a commanding climax.

Whether creating your own concept album or writing music for a film, Mann proves that events and details merely set the stage for higher ideals that play on the emotions of an artist’s audience.  With Magnolia, Mann’s success was grounded in establishing the mood of a scene and augmenting its impact.  Knowledge of the movie’s plot and characters was secondary, if not entirely irrelevant.  The Forgotten Arm really shares the same approach— its strength lies in grabbing the listener’s attention while adhering to a central concept.  But rather than already having the characters and plot laid out, Mann had to construct her own, which adds a whole new element to the creative process.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in making a concept album lies not in fabricating one’s story but in finding that delicate balance between telling the story and creating music that affects one’s listeners through greater themes…and succeeding in every song.

 

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