Aimee Mann is one tough woman to track down. After a month of scheduling and rescheduling an interview time, I was finally about to sit down and talk with Mann about her role as composer of independent film soundtrack, and about how the art of film inspires her as a songwriter.
Before her critically acclaimed soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant film, Magnolia (1999), Mann was best known as the front woman to the 80s post-new wave band ’Til Tuesday. After she left the major label group to embark on a solo career in the mid 90s, Mann scored some hits and was able to find the freedom to express and market herself the way she wanted to as an indie label artist.
Like indie films, the indie music business has its perks, most of which having to do with the quality of the work. “You get so much more work done as an indie artist,” she says in her familiar mellow voice. “With majors, everybody has to have control, and you can’t get anything done—they have a system. As an artist, you’re constantly trying to do something different. I recall my manager and I trying to come up with alternative ideas of how to promote my albums, but the label refused. They’re simply terrified to try anything else.” Seems only fitting, then, that Mann would pair with an independent filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson.
“Paul and I were friends before the film was made,” Mann says. “But it was serendipity, really, the way the music worked within the film. I actually wrote the songs first and he took them for the movie.” It’s rare that a musician will have an entire soundtrack composed for a film prior to the screenplay being written, though as Mann explains, “I read some of the screenplay, yes, but it was amazing in that I had the songs and he had a [screen]play, and the two fused together perfectly.”
Anderson’s critically acclaimed Magnolia is a collage of about ten separate stories. Yet, they are all interconnected by the paradoxical and sometimes tragic state of being both together and alone in the universe. This sacred synchronicity is the foundation of the film, and the core of its soundtrack. Mann’s cover of “One” (the Harry Nilsson tune popularized by Three Dog Night) plays ingeniously throughout the film, and Mann, with her trademark hauntingly lonely voice, actually serves as a narrator of sorts, weaving together each forlorn tale by its common theme of loneliness: “One is the loneliest number…Much much worse than two…One is a number divided by two.”
Anderson’s unique placement of the music within the film is particularly poignant in the opening credits, which are introduced through Mann’s spare music and singing, then paired with the slightly psychedelic entrance of a magnolia flower as the music expands. Such sublime combination of music and imagery makes it difficult to know whether these poetic placements were made by director, composer, or both. “The placement of the music [in this instance] was up to the director,” Mann says. “I’d already recorded the song ‘One’ a few years before. But Paul heard it and wanted it for Magnolia. He’s an astoundingly great filmmaker, and his use of music is one of the unique talents about him—a lot of directors cannot do what he does with music. He sets up a tone and mood and uses music as an extremely powerful tool to help tell the story.”
And then there is that pure cinematic moment of unexpected beauty, simplicity, and emotional wallop when the core characters all take turns, in their isolation, singing Mann’s “Wise Up” in their own voices. It’s almost subconscious how it sneaks up on you—a perfect bridge at the perfect moment in a bold movie.
Magnolia’s complicated plot—or rather plots—follow two families and several loosely connected characters through a single, unbelievably eventful (somewhat biblical) day in the San Fernando Valley. And Mann’s consistent and repeated voice throughout the film is a comforting reminder that we are all connected on a certain level, even if the connection is that we are alone. Mann confesses, “I didn’t expect all the songs to remain—the music in a movie is really a flavor that you add to or subtract from, depending on what story needs to be told. To me [the soundtrack] acts like an effective extension of the dialogue in a film.”
Mann has since extended the dialogue in a few films, as well as in television. Her cover duet with husband Michael Penn—brother of the actors Sean and Chris Penn—of The Beatles song “Two of Us” is the opening track of the I am Sam (2001) soundtrack. In 1995, Mann’s hit “That’s Just What You Are” was included on the soundtrack to the television series, “Melrose Place.” “There are two ways to go about this participation,” Mann says. “The first way is where the filmmaker or TV producer will ask you to write for the movie specifically. The other way is where they want a song that you’ve already done—and you can only hope it’s going to be right for the movie.” She chuckles. “I usually ask to see the scene first. I try to stay away from the most egregious stuff, especially TV work. I don’t want my music associated with something awful!”
So far, so good. “I wish more people would use music more carefully in movies. A lot of people use it but they just throw it in there. I think the thing I love about Anderson’s use of music is that he really lets songs take over a scene, on equal par with the narration.”
Regarding writing specifically for screenplays, Mann says, “Sometimes they ask me to write songs for the movie based on a particular script, which is not that easy to do. I’ll give it a shot, but it is much easier to go at it the other way around.”
But even if the song ends up not being used in a film, it still has its rewards. “I wrote a song for a movie called The Human Stain,” Mann says. “The director [Robert Benton] ultimately decided to have no songs—just an instrumental score, so I had the song back. I’m actually including it on my new solo album, which is a concept album, using boxing as a metaphor. I was quite proud of the song because it not only went with the movie but also stood on its own.”
So how does film affect the process of songwriting in terms of inspiration? “Paul has really inspired me as a writer,” Mann says. “His first movie Hard Eight has a scene in it where the characters run off and drive away together. I actually had that in mind when I wrote the song ‘King of the Jailhouse’ on my new album,” Mann says. “It is a concept album, and I never quite realized until this very moment just how much film and imagery plays a part in my songwriting process.”
Mann has gone even further beyond film and music on her new record to include yet another art form, painting. “We’re even going to hire an artist/painter for the album artwork,” she says. “I really want to include other mediums, and it is not common to have actual paintings in an album today. It takes time to paint, and the major labels are on intense schedules that would not tolerate this kind of creativity. It’s going to take a while to complete, but it is going to be beautiful.
“At this point, the working title of the new album is ‘The Forgotten Arm.’ There is a very cinematic, visual concept to this project. The story takes place in the 1970s. It’s about a boxer and this woman he gets involved with. He had spent time in Vietnam and developed a drug problem there. When he comes back to her, it is a very dysfunctional relationship. The term ‘the forgotten arm’ comes from an old boxing trick: if you are fighting close to the ropes, you can rest your right hand near the opponent’s waist, and then suddenly hit them with that ‘forgotten arm’—the opponent has a false sense of security. And that is a metaphor for the two people in this relationship. The drug addiction and trauma is the ‘forgotten arm’ here.”
Sounds like the makings of a powerful independent film. Maybe someone out there reading this is up for the task and can pitch it to Mann before P.T. Anderson gets his hands on it.