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Aimee Mann

Her New Hook

Aimee Mann Many rock stars practice self-destruction; others, usually after following the path of excess, become health nuts. Aimee Mann is somewhere in between. If the sight of the wispy singer-songwriter sporting a black eye on stage is unnerving, it’s comforting to know she’s endangering her face in the name of self-preservation.

Mann, it seems, has taken up boxing. She’s always been a battler, having pitted herself against four successive record companies since the late ‘80s before gaining total artistic control in 2000 and releasing her music – beginning with the universally lauded album Bachelor No. 2 – on her own label, SuperEgo. But after an impromptu lesson with a boxer friend a year and a half ago, she decided to take her fights literally into her own hands.

“On my web site,” says Mann over the phone from her LA home, “when I was first talking about boxing last year, there was a hoo-hah among certain fans who strenuously objected.” Nonetheless, she forged on, finding so much inspiration in the sport that she’s crafted her new CD, The Forgotten Arm, as a concept album centered around a love affair between a crack-addicted boxer and a woman he meets at the Virginia state fair.

“The forgotten arm” is a surprise technique in which a boxer hits repeatedly with one hand before coming in unexpectedly with the other. Mann, who’s charmingly laid-back and so soft-spoken it can be difficult to make out her words, explains that this move is too advanced for her: “At my level, you’re kind of lucky if you get any shots in at all. Everyone always talks about how physically taxing it is; it’s amazingly true. You wouldn’t think that it’s so hard to keep your hands up for three minutes, but when you’re in the ring, there’s so much tension that you’re not even aware of – it’s really exhausting. It’s interesting what a complicated sport it turns out to be: it’s much less about punching hard than it is about strategy and skill and reflexes.”

Learning to box helped her rethink her strategy for The Forgotten Arm: In writing material to follow up 2002’s Lost in Space, she had been trying to separate songs which were “hovering around the same themes.” Her boxing lessons inspired her “to develop these ideas over a period of time from song to song.”

Cynics might say that this doesn’t represent much of a departure: instead of writing a series of songs about different break-ups, the woman whom Rolling Stone once called “pop’s wriest documentarian of love’s emotional roller coaster” has written about a drawn-out break-up in 12 chapters. For one thing, though, The Forgotten Arm offers a more-or-less happy ending. We get the sense that, as Mann puts it, “eventually, some years down the line, [the couple] can hook up again and realize that it wasn’t just some crazy-ass thing: there was general affection.”

Despite the album’s relative lack of up-tempo, poppy tunes, The Forgotten Arm may present the strongest collection of melodies yet from an undeniably gifted songwriter. What’s more, the process of recording live off the floor with a band and using few overdubs gives the album a wide-open, often summery sound.

The album also has an unexpected undercurrent of Britishness. The opening song, “Dear John,” was originally set in London, but when Mann devised her concept, she changed the city to Richmond, which fortuitously also has a two-syllable name. She remembers a formative day when, as a teenager in Virginia, she missed a gig by glam-rockers Mott the Hoople (of “All the Young Dudes” fame) because of her stepmother’s family reunion. For her, they became “this sort of glamorous English band. You were starting to hear a lot of British music around the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but a lot of it was influenced by black southern music. I heard a lot of that when I was a kid, so I wanted to reference it.”

Mann has just returned from a tour of Britain and Ireland. And while it’s difficult to find boxing gyms on tour where and her bassist and fellow boxing enthusiast Paul Ryan can spar, she found one in Dublin, and emerged with a shiner.

“It was over 90 [Fahrenheit], and [the hotel] didn’t have air-conditioning, and my room didn’t even have rooms that opened! I’m sitting in this sweltering hot-box, and at some point, you realize that ice does not exist in Europe, so if I get a black eye, I can’t even put ice on it. I got some orange juice to keep cold, and they brought like three cubes. It’s hard to go abroad.”

Nevertheless, Mann will be venturing gamely into Canada soon; perhaps she’ll find a less violent sport to play. After all, there is a precedent: she thinks back to 1987, when as ‘til Tuesday’s lead singer, she was approached by Rush to sing on their single “Time Stand Still.”

“Much to my surprise,” she recalls, “they were all very funny. It was very entertaining. They were all really into baseball, and I was into baseball at the time, so we’d hang around and play catch.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, July 26, 2005


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