Fall is synonymous with homecomings, so it's fitting that Open High graduate Aimee Mann plays the National just as the first leaves begin to drop. During a recent phone interview, it's Mann who begins asking the questions when she finds out I'm calling from her hometown.
“How's Richmond doing?” she asks. “Is it still cool to walk around Cary Street?” “Where's the happening restaurant?” Given her enthusiasm for the subject, I offer up my humble suggestions and decide to pick her brain about Richmond roots instead of what it was like to play the toe-sacrificing nihilist in “The Big Lebowski.”
Thirty- and forty-somethings might recall Mann's rat-tailed days with the band Til Tuesday, when the video for “Voices Carry” became an early '80s staple on MTV, while others will recall her astonishing success with songs from P.T. Anderson's film “Magnolia” in the late '90s, which scored Grammy and Oscar nods.
In between, Mann suffered disillusionment with major labels and garnered massive indie-folk cred with a handful of releases on her label, SuperEgo, while maintaining a steady touring schedule.
It all began, however, in our city, where a young Mann battled mono and picked up a guitar for the first time while recovering. She would eventually land at Open High in the ever-so-cozy confines of Oregon Hill.
“When I was growing up it was a dump,” she says. “I loved all of those row houses, but I mean they were just falling apart. I knew people who lived there like dirt poor musicians, but it was scary.”
These days, her ties to the city are few. “I have one friend who moved back there,” she says. “That's about it. My father moved out into the country.”
Mann's parents divorced when she was quite young and Mann remained in town with her dad until she went off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. So, does she ever plan to return?
“No. It's too bad though, because Richmond is really just the greatest. I'm always sad when I come back [and see] the little boutiques that close and stuff. It really could be the coolest place.” She then gushes, “The great houses and buildings in the Fan are just soooo gorgeous. … I'm hoping I will have a little time to hang out when I'm there.”
While chatting up local happenings, boxing (a sport at which she's quite knowledgeable and skilled), and her desires to write a graphic novel, I almost forget to ask about her latest release, “@#%&*! Smilers.”
Her sixth disc brings more Mann-typical songs wrought with introspection and slight depression by way of characters who easily could have made cameos in “Magnolia.” While some have elevated her to the lofty heights of the singer-songwriter, she says that she's relatively lighthearted and hopes the album's title suggests a sense of humor.
“There are elements to my songs, whether it's a little musical or lyrical thing that I find funny and I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person who is in on that,” she says, “and I understand that because people tend to view artists in very black-and-white terms.”
I ask the former Richmonder if she's aware of Dirtwoman's attempted run for mayor. But somehow, Mann has managed to spend time in Oregon Hill without encountering one of our beloved denizens. A bit of explaining — transvestite, former male prostitute, erstwhile candidate — results in a deadpan response.
“Oh, Christ Almighty,” Mann says.
Aimee Mann with the Submarines plays the National Monday, Sept. 8, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 612-1900 or visit www.thenationalva.com.