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Critically acclaimed, commercially snubbed, Michael Penn tries again

Penn has spent years sticking it out in the music business and he is still determined to do it his way  

April 25, 2000
Web posted at: 5:02 p.m. EST (2102 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's the day after singer-songwriter Michael Penn performed at an intimate Manhattan club with his wife Aimee Mann. The day is cold, the hour, late; Penn calls for a cup of tea.

Despite the hour, Penn tingles with energy. Mann has just been nominated for an Oscar (Disney darling Phil Collins ultimately took the statuette home), and Penn sees it as a vindication -- his wife no longer is a musical underdog. Her nomination is "marvelous," he says.

The same could be said about Penn's own musical longevity, though the musician probably is better known for the company he keeps: his wife and younger brother, actor Sean Penn.

In the early '90s, Penn stormed the music scene with his debut "March," which yielded "No Myth," the biggest hit of his career. Commercially speaking, it was downhill from there.

He followed up with 1992's "Free-For-All," which Rolling Stone dubbed "stunning." Record buyers did not, and the album languished. "Resigned," in 1997," was another critical hit, but didn't make much of a financial impact. His fourth album, "MP4 (Days Since A Lost Time Accident)," which features backing vocals from Mann, Michael's other brother Chris and Grant Lee Phillips, bowed earlier this year. Its sales figures are inconclusive.


"Lucky One"

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"Don't Let Me Go"

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Penn, clearly, has some battle scars, just as his wife's well-documented skirmishes with the recording industry have left her bruised.

He left his original label, RCA, for Sony, and "MP4" nearly got buried in the label's vaults in the process. Similarly, we've all heard about Mann's collaboration with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson on "Magnolia." But how many people know that Penn scored Anderson's first two films, "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights?"

With hot tea in hand, Penn gave up some cold facts about his career.

CNN: How tough is it to have two singer-songwriters in the same household?

Penn: I think we're two people who realize through our own life experiences the tried and true notion that opposites attract. So it's nice having somebody who understands me.

CNN: Ever want to release a joint Mann-Penn album?

Penn: I don't know. We might do a live album of this tour, but apart from that, it would have to evolve naturally.

CNN: I know your brother Chris sang backing vocals for you on this album. Can we expect to hear from Sean next?

Penn: Sean doesn't sing. Chris actually does sing, but Sean doesn't sing.

CNN: Does it annoy you when reporters such as myself bring up Sean?

Penn: They used to ask me about that all the time. I was really paranoid about that in the first record because I really didn't want attention on my record or perception of my record to be colored by that fact. I really have a knee-jerk reaction to showbiz families anyway. In many ways, it's like parading dysfunction for public view. I find it a little bit unseemly. In addition, he had just been divorced from Madonna and there was all of that and there was just a lot of baggage about it.

So I kind of laid down the law that I didn't want to talk about it when my first album came out. And then an interesting phenomenon happened where the fact that it wasn't an issue became an issue. It still wound up in all the articles. So it was like, I can't win on this.

CNN: Does Sean listen to your music?

Penn: We have a little mutual-admiration society.

CNN: Critics certainly admire you. So what does 'MP4' tell us about the real Michael Penn?

Penn: The overwhelming theme is just where I am in my life and trying to sort through all the issues I find important. I'm in probably this middle place of starting to get clued in to the way I work. But the brain intelligence hasn't entirely transferred to the emotional intelligence.

CNN:Your debut got pretty major radio play and even earned you an MTV award. You seemed headed for pseudo pop stardom, but then the wind went out of your sails. Why?

Penn: 'No Myth' was not like anything on the radio at the time. I just lucked out.

CNN:So you've scored two movies, released three critically acclaimed albums and produced the Wallflowers' 1996 album, yet the current market doesn't seem to have much room for someone like you. You're no Britney Spears, so why even bother sticking it out?

Penn: Oh, they (Sony) weren't even going to release my record. My record has been done since June. And they weren't going to release it because they didn't understand it. The only way something like this has a chance is if people hear it, and people will only hear it if the record company turns the switch on. But then it became clear that even if they did drop me, I would not be able to get the record back. They would still own it.

CNN: Did you always feel free to do what you wanted to do?

Penn: (Record companies) never f----d with me that way. They did a different thing with me. They knew that I wouldn't listen to 'You should hook up with Diane Warren' or something. So what they did with me was that they wouldn't let me make a record for four years. And they wouldn't let me out of my contract.

CNN: Why?

Penn: Because I wouldn't do it their way. And because by this point, by the time of the second album, the guy that had signed me had left and a new regime came into RCA. It became a complete nightmare. It took me three-and-a-half years to get out.

CNN: Is the Internet a viable distribution option for a singer such as yourself?

Penn: I think it's still sort of a limited exposure but I think that's going to change dramatically. Aimee has the best of both worlds going. She has her independence from the majors and has her record available on her Web site. And in addition, she has the 'Magnolia' soundtrack, which Warner Bros. is sinking millions and millions of dollars into. So she's getting the promotional switch turned on for that.

CNN: Given your own battles with record labels, what advice would you give to fledgling performers?

Penn: Learn HTML.

CNN: Much has been written about Aimee's Oscar-nominated collaboration with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson on 'Magnolia,' yet you were there first. How did you and Anderson connect?

Penn: He was listening to my album 'Free For All' when he was writing what became 'Hard Eight.' He was determined to have me score the movie. He was contacting my manager for the better part of a year to try to get me to be involved and I kept ignoring me because I didn't want to score movies. I finally said all right, just to shut him up. And I went down and saw a screening of 'Sydney' and thought it was phenomenal. And as it turned out, it was a wonderful experience. It wasn't art by committee. It was Paul. And that led to 'Boogie Nights.'

CNN: So Paul met Aimee through you?

Penn: He met Aimee through me. We would all have discussions about all types of topics and he was starting to sort of get themes in his mind what the songs were going to be. Aimee was working on her record, Paul heard early mixes of the record and incorporated them into the movie.

'Starship Troopers,' 'Boogie Nights' on home video
May 7, 1998


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