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Every album tells a story

Savoring her freedom to write a concept album instead of a singles-driven CD, Aimee Mann creates a saga of love, drug addiction and boxing.

Published October 23, 2005

[AP photo]
Singer Aimee Mann’s latest work, The Forgotten Arm, was released in May. Mann borrowed from her experiences with friends to weave the tale of a couple fighting to maintain a relationship.

Aimee Mann knows a thing or two about writing music to fit a story. Director Paul Thomas Anderson said he felt so inspired by Mann's poignant music that he wrote the entire film Magnolia around her songs, featuring them prominently in pivotal scenes. It doesn't hurt that Mann and Anderson had been friends for years, either, but that's another story.

On her latest album, The Forgotten Arm, released in May, Mann turned to narrative storytelling again, crafting a concept album about a boxer, his girlfriend and their rocky, cross country love affair. Set in the '70s and outfitted with boogie piano and warm, rollicking, Southern-rock-inspired orchestrations, Mann's song cycle delves into complex issues about escape and addiction.

Mann is actually much less brooding in conversation than her heady songwriting might suggest. Still, she says, the album's plot is based on real life; she formed her characters from composites of close friends.

Before she and her band arrive in town for a performance Thursday at Tampa Theatre, Mann called to chat about The Forgotten Arm, her choice to ditch the major label system and her own training as a boxer.

Aimee, can we start with a quick plot summary?

Yeah, (the album's) about two people who meet and fall in love and run away together. The guy is a boxer and they meet at a state fair, where he's doing some exhibition. He's spent some time in Vietnam, so he's really had a hard time in his life and his drug use is getting to be more of a serious problem. So, when they run off together, that becomes a little more clear. They stop off in Vegas. They gamble away a lot of their money, and they decide to split up and he keeps wandering around. And eventually he gets worse and worse and she realizes she can't really keep up with him. The last song is sort of the happy ending that comes probably many years later, where they've both figured out their lives. And at that point it's not really a love story. They meet up and realize they have a lot of affection for each other. I think that's more realistically happy too, because part of running off together is the idea that their relationship is going to somehow save them.

Lyrically there are lots of Vietnam references. Are you suggesting a parallel to today? And what was interesting about the '70s as a setting for you?

Mostly it was about the music. It was a time when, I think, people really did think they could find themselves by running away. Today that idea is a little naive. Also, it was harder to recognize drug addiction as a problem because people were just starting to do drugs and it was heralded as something that was a positive experience almost. So drug addiction and alcoholism were more invisible, and people were sort of confused about why their lives and relationships weren't working out.

Did you write differently this time to facilitate a conceptual approach?

Usually if I'm interested in something, I'm interested in writing more than one song about it. It was about giving myself more permission to have songs be about the same characters and having a little bit of a story to tie it all together rather than making an effort to write 10 or 12 songs that are totally different from each other. Also, the dynamic of a relationship where one person is trying to have a relationship with a drug addict is something that's around me a lot, so I'm pretty familiar with it from my own experiences with friends I know. To me, it's a very specific and interesting and complex relationship.

How coincidental that your husband, Michael Penn, also released a concept album this year. Were you both talking high concept over dinner and around the house?

(Laughs.) No, not at all, but I do think we are influenced by (a few) of the same things. One is just the changing times in how people look at music. It has become so singles-oriented and disposable. You either try to keep up with that culture or you completely drop out of it and do whatever you want. I think that for the two of us, who are on indie labels, because there's no pressure to come up with singles, we've just gone the other way and given ourselves the freedom to do whatever we want and have the ideas behind the records go as deep as we want.

Tell me about the boxing connection. I've read that you're a boxer in training.

Well, a friend of mine who had done some boxing was fooling around, showing me some boxing moves. That's where I got the title, The Forgotten Arm, from. He goes, "I call this "the forgotten arm,' " and I just thought it was so funny.

So, that's not a technical term?

(Laughs.) No, I think that's his thing. He's a total character. But he's also a guy who struggled with drug addiction for many years. That's one of the reasons I made the character a boxer. And also I had started boxing myself. For me, it represented that the character came from a history of trauma, and that was underneath the drug addiction too.

Are you training seriously now, or is boxing just recreational for you?

Since I've been on the road, I really don't do it that much, unfortunately. It's something that you really need to work at to be good at. But there's a trainer that I started working with who actually works with professional boxers, so I'm pretty excited about that.

- PREVIEW: Aimee Mann, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Tampa Theatre, Tampa. $30. (813) 274-8982

[Last modified October 20, 2005, 11:01:03]

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