The title of Aimee Mann’s latest album, “@#%&*! Smilers,” does a good job of conveying the tone of the singer-songwriter’s output, not to mention her wry sense of humor; which isn’t to say Mann has nothing to smile about. After years of hassling with major record labels about the direction of her music, first as the leader of the post-new wave Boston band ‘Til Tuesday in the 80s, and then as a solo artist in the early 90s, Mann became one of the first pop artists to successfully strike out as an independent, before the Internet and affordable do-it-yourself technology made such a move easy for anyone. Nevertheless, she doesn’t necessarily believe that music in general benefits from this tech-assisted egalitarianism.
“You know, I’m a snob,” she says over the phone from her office in Los Angeles. “I don’t like that much stuff. Music has a different function for me than when I was a kid. I’m now looking for music that’s inspiring, and to be inspiring is a tall order.”
She continues, “It’s difficult to sort through it all, to decide what to listen to and what to track down. It makes it difficult for me as a listener and a fan. I gravitate to one song here and one song there. I don’t listen to full albums any more.”
That seems sad, since Mann is one of those rare pop artists who still works best in the album format. Since 1993 she has released six long-players, not including the “Magnolia” soundtrack, a live CD/dvd, and a Christmas record, and each one is a fully integrated musical statement. “Smilers,” in fact, is her first album since her bona fide 1995 masterpiece, “I’m With Stupid,” that isn’t built around a narrative or a theme, but it could be said to hold together as a unified work about the bitterness of getting older without getting better.
“I’m always interested in the same thing,” she says. “I like to write about messed up people who have relationships where the dynamic is strange. People are interesting, and most are fairly disturbed. I don’t know anybody who you would call well adjusted. I know people who are flawed and who are trying to improve, and I applaud that.”
However, she rejects the observation that her songs are misanthropic. “I have a lot of compassion for people,” she says briskly. “It’s not easy being a person. I even feel sorry for giant celebrities. I think it’s a tougher gig than people give them credit for.”
Her songwriting methodology is empathetic, which is why Paul Thomas Anderson could build the characters in his 1999 movie “Magnolia” around Mann’s existing songs. At one point in the film, they all sing her dark, swirling ballad “Wise Up,” whose centerpiece is the line, “It’s not going to stop,” referring to the emotional pain each character feels.
“I like to write in the first person but from somebody else’s point of view,” she explains. “How would it feel to be doing what they’re doing, or feeling what they’re feeling? The best way to do that is to figure out how you are alike. Maybe you take a person who you think isn’t like you and it’s not your story, and you start telling their story and discover the part of it that is your story.”
However, she is also quite adept at penetrating second-person observations. She says that “Freeway,” the opening track on the new album, “is about somebody I know. He’s a drug addict and he moved to Los Angeles to get sober, and he found doctors in Orange County who I knew were prescribing him speed. I was like, ‘Oh my God, if you have money you cannot get sober in this world, because people will always kiss your ass.’ And that’s what the song’s chorus means: You have a lot of money but you can’t afford to live here because it’s the worst place for you right now.”
Not all of Mann’s acquaintances are drug addicts and depressives. In fact, these days she hangs out with a lot of professional comedians, one of the side benefits of her annual Christmas tour, which she describes as, “a traveling circus.
There’s a million people and it’s hard to put together. I’ve done it three years in a row but I’m not going to do it this year because it’s just too much.”
The revue style has given her food for creative thought. She says she wants to do more “little comedy videos” like “A Christmas Aimee,” a short film based on “A Christmas Carol” featuring Mann as a Scrooge-like taskmaster, as well as her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, and movie actors Michael Cera and John C. Reilly. She’s also working on a stage musical version of her 2005 album, “The Forgotten Arm,” about a boxer returning from the Vietnam War.
Or, more precisely, she’s trying to work on it. “I haven’t gotten to the point where I haven’t either tried or given up,” she says. “It’s still at the ‘I don’t know how it can be done but I’m willing to give it a go’ stage.”
Aimee Mann plays Aug. 25, 7 p.m., Shibuya-AX, Tokyo (03-3444-6751); Aug. 27, 7 p.m., Big Cat, Osaka (06-6535-5569). Both shows are ¥7,500 in advance.