Acclaimed singer-songwriter Aimee Mann will mark Black Friday Record Store Day on November 27 with a limited edition vinyl reissue of her third solo album, Bachelor No. 2 or, The Last Remains of the Dodo, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. “It just seemed like twenty years is a big milestone,” Mann says of her decision to do this new version. “And also, when I first put it out, I was doing it all on my own. We didn’t have a lot of resources.”
This time, Mann says she was able to make things the way she’d always envisioned they should be. “There’s liner notes for every song. That’s a new thing,” she says. “It was remastered and restored from original mixes. And I really got my chance to make great cover [art].”
Another change from the original release is that this time, the album is expanded to include additional tracks. “At the time, I had recorded a bunch of songs together, but some of those songs wound up on the Magnolia soundtrack and then the rest of them wound up on Bachelor No. 2,” Mann says, “so I always wanted to reunite that group of songs. They were meant to be part of the same record.”
Looking back on her songwriting for Bachelor No. 2, Mann says, “I think that I was talking about relationships a lot. Of course, every song is about a relationship of some kind, but in this case, they were often relationships that had a parallel in my relationship to the record company. There was definitely a lot of that dynamic that seeped into the songwriting.” Adversarial artist/label relations is something she knows “is a very unromantic topic, but because it was emblematic of other relationships that I had then, it really resonated.
“That relationship is that it’s two entities who have different goals,” Mann continues. “As an artist, your goal is to make a great record. And as a record company, their goal is to find something that will sell – how it can be monetized. I think that the problem of being on a label is that when you write a song, almost the first people who hear it are these bloodless assessors, and they’re not going to have an emotional response to it. But it’s hard to not think that it’s because you’re not good enough.”
By the time Bachelor No. 2 was released in 2000, Mann was well familiar with the potential pitfalls in the music industry. Her band, ‘Til Tuesday, scored a Top 10 hit with their debut 1985 single, “Voices Carry,” which became one of the defining songs of the New Wave era. But their follow up albums didn’t receive as much support, and they disbanded in 1989. Mann embarked on a solo career, releasing her debut album, Whatever, in 1993. Throughout the 1990s, she received widespread critical praise, but still had a hard time finding a record company that was a good fit with her artistic vision. This struggle eventually took a toll on her work.
“There was a point when I just started to have writer’s block, and I think [it was] because there was a thing in me that didn’t want to write a song and then give it to somebody and have them go, ‘Hmm, I don’t think so.’ Or just shrug. It’s demoralizing,” Mann says. “So I think my way of dealing with that was, there’s part of me that just shut down. I didn’t want to tell my personal feelings in a song to people who didn’t care.”
Because of this experience, Mann has advice for how things should be done instead: “I think people in general, no matter what they do, first need a cheerleader,” she says. “Then they can sit down and go, ‘Okay, what is wrong with it?’ or ‘What should we do now?’ But the first thing out of anybody’s mouth can’t be, ‘You’re not doing it right.’”
When Mann originally released Bachelor No. 2, she actually wasn’t signed to a label at all – she recalls that the legwork was done by “me, my manager, and we had a couple of people helping him – just us doing it on our own.” They were vindicated when the album was a big success. “This record actually sold really well for an independent record. I think overall it sold about 275,000 records,” she says. She has resisted signing another major label deal ever since.
Whether Mann was signed to a major label, small label, or no label, her work has always consistently been praised for its lyrical and musical depth. She says that this is likely because of the artists who inspired her when she was growing up in Virginia. “I liked when other people were very detailed. I was a big Bob Dylan fan. My God, his use of language.” She also lists Elton John, The Beatles, Leon Russell, and Neil Young as key inspirations. “I like a song to be anchored in time and place and not have every line be vaguely about how somebody feels. I’d rather have somebody tell me what happened so that I’m feeling what they’re feeling.”
Mann says her lyrics are usually informed by the music she writes first. “I try to be sensitive to, ‘What does this melodic passage feel like it’s saying?’” she says. “I always think that the music sounds like something, like it’s got an emotional tone to it, and then I try to think of the story that comes with that tone.”
Mann’s initial creative spark usually happens, she says, when “I’m messing around with music, just playing guitar.” Mann has lived in Los Angeles for many years, but pre-pandemic she toured extensively, and this also helped her with her writing process. “A lot of times, when I’m warming up before a show, I’ll play and just sing a melody. Sometimes doing that, I’ll play something and I’m like, ‘Maybe I’ll record this.’ So I’ll record it and listen to it later and see what it sounds like.”
For someone who seems like a natural songwriter, Mann admits that she initially wasn’t sure she had the talent it takes to become a professional at it. When she was growing up, she says, “I felt like I had this dim feeling that I wanted to be a musician. and then I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I learn about music, then I’ll know if I have any talent.’”
She enrolled in a summer session at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, focusing on playing bass guitar, where she recalls she “practiced all the time, and then I got better, which I didn’t necessarily know would happen. And I thought, ‘I’m going to keep going until it’s obvious that I should stop.’”
Mann continued her studies at Berklee, but also got real world experience in the Boston music scene. “I formed a punk band and played all over town,” she says. “Then I formed another band because I was tired of the punk stuff. Then I formed ‘Til Tuesday and we got a record deal and I was like, ‘I guess I’m not stopping.’” Now, she says, there’s no question that she’ll remain a musician, because “There is something about music that is healing on a cellular level.”
Mann is already planning her next album, which she says is tentatively planned for a March release. That album (title TBD), she says, “is music for a stage version of Girl, Interrupted. I think there was a point where it was going to be a full-on musical, but now I think it’s probably going to be more like a play with some music. But I wrote a bunch of stuff for it and recorded that.”
This was an unusual experience for Mann, but she says she enjoyed it. “It was fun to have an assignment for each song. Like, ‘I’m going to write about this character, this is what it’s going to say, this is what it should feel like.’” Also, she adds, “I found that the more I did it, the faster I could work. It really kind of grew exponentially. I’m really pleased with it. To me, it sounds very different because it’s just written for a different kind of a thing.”
With the reissue of Bachelor No. 2 or, The Last Remains of the Dodo and the upcoming new album, Mann is giving listeners reason to rediscover her older work as well as continue with her on her musical journey. Mann has enjoyed a loyal fanbase for decades, and she has a theory about why they have bonded so tightly to her work, past and present: “I would like to think that, at the very least, people can tell that I really care about what I’m singing about, and that I always put myself inside it,” she says. “It’s never a bloodless thing where I’m just trying to churn out a song. It always has some real emotional connection.”