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Bards of a Feather

Married singer-songwriters Michael Penn and Aimee Mann share a talent for writing lyrics, melodies--and their own ticket to critical acclaim.

May 14, 2000|NATALIE NICHOLS | Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's a sunny afternoon in Laurel Canyon, but things are a little stormy inside the home of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. The stress of a photo session has sent Penn out the front door in pursuit of a nicotine fix as his wife mildly objects.

He returns almost immediately. "I only had one puff," he says. That's not so bad, he's told. "It is when it's your first day quitting," he replies sharply, clearly annoyed with himself.

But Penn quickly mellows as he and Mann settle into chairs in their large living room, which is adorned with books, art, musical instruments, exotic rugs and comfortably distressed furniture. Sitting near a bookcase filled with reference works (including "The Pop-Up Book of Phobias"), they lightheartedly rehash the discomfort of posing for pictures, and soon the tension dissipates.

The talking certainly helps, but the returning calm seems just as much the result of a nonverbal communion between these two remarkably well-matched people, who got together five years ago and were married in late 1997.

As individual artists, Mann, 39, and Penn, 41, share a knack for writing beautiful melodies in the tradition of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and R.E.M., as well as lyrics about terribly dysfunctional relationships.

Both are blue-eyed, and each has a birthday in August. They have each collaborated with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, Penn on the scores for "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," and Mann on the soundtrack to last year's "Magnolia," earning an Oscar nomination for the song "Save Me."

Both are also part of the scene at Largo, the tiny Fairfax district nightclub that has cultivated a community of literate, eccentric artists including Jon Brion, Fiona Apple and Grant Lee Phillips.

The Largo vibe has proven so comfortable that Mann and Penn are taking it on the road in the form of their Acoustic Vaudeville tour, which comes to the Henry Fonda Theatre on Thursday and Friday and the Sun Theatre on May 25.

Modeled after their intimate club performances, the show features the duo taking turns in the spotlight, backed by each other and a band. They'll also continue their quirky practice of having stand-ins handle the between-song banter (in the case of the Fonda shows, comedian Patton Oswalt), relieving them of a chore that ranks right up there with posing for pictures.

"It's hard enough to get a grasp of the songs we've rehearsed," Mann jokes.

As much as they enjoy re-creating a familiar setting in unfamiliar places, Mann and Penn are also delighted to be presenting a concert the way they want to, rather than following conventional wisdom by doing individual sets.

"Every system that the music industry has, has served each of us poorly," says Penn, summarizing their separate long histories of baffling record labels with their critically praised but unfashionable pop. "So the more systems we can subvert, the more exciting it is."

"Also, there's something to be said for doing something that's meaningful to you, rather than in this rigidly prescribed way," says Mann, whose successful reacquisition from Universal Music Group of her latest album, "Bachelor No. 2," has been a big story in the music press.

Her husband recently negotiated a similar release from Epic Records, gaining ownership of his latest collection, "MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident)," and his Web domain name (michaelpenn.com). Thus, he joins Mann and many other enduringly talented musicians who are using the Internet to connect directly with their audiences.

Ironically, at least for Mann's former label, shortly after she became independent her "Magnolia" work garnered the most attention she's had since scoring the 1985 hit "Voices Carry" with her old band 'Til Tuesday.

Penn escorted her to the Academy Awards ceremony in March, feeling not only proud of his wife, he says, but also "happy to see something really good getting some acknowledgment, from whatever quarter. Because of 'Magnolia,' Aimee's gotten some recognition, where she was sort of slighted in the whole female revolution of a few years ago."

Penn seems not at all envious of her time in the spotlight--not only because they are a mutually supportive couple, but also because neither particularly enjoys being scrutinized.

"We don't like public speaking," says Penn. For him, it's too much like acting, an occupation he has assiduously avoided (outside of some long-ago work as an extra and a small role in "Boogie Nights"), partly because it's the chosen livelihood of his entire family, including younger brothers Sean and Christopher, mother Eileen Ryan and his late father, director-actor Leo Penn.

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