Story Highlights• Two Michael Penn CDs are out: a collection and rerelease
• Penn's had ups and downs with record business
• Songwriter writes music for movies and loves Second Life site
By Todd Leopold
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The music business is a fickle partner, and Michael Penn has seen it at its backslapping best and door-closing worst.
In 1989, he was a hit. His single "No Myth" broke into the Top 20; the album it came from, "March," also sold well.
And then -- not much.
Despite good reviews, the follow-up CD, 1992's "Free-for-All," struggled to peak at No. 160 on Billboard's album charts. His record label, RCA, dropped him. Epic picked him up for 1997's "Resigned" and 2000's "MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident," but his fifth album, "Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947," was released on his own Mimeograph label.
"It was definitely a crash course in how the music business works, and also how the corporatization of music was affecting the musical choices and the artistic choices of what were going on. It was a tough period for me," Penn, smoking a cigarette in the late-February chill on a Los Angeles coffee shop patio, recalls of having the carpet pulled out from under him.
"All my support left after the first single off the first album. ... The company was taken over by another guy who was not a fan of mine or didn't know me from Adam, and all my support systems went away."
So Penn, 48, was surprised when he received a call from Legacy, the archival arm of his former record companies, now merged into Sony/BMG. With his major-label catalog under one roof, Legacy wanted to put out a best-of collection, and they wanted Penn's assistance.
He's still bemused by the gesture. "I felt like they didn't have to do that -- they didn't have to call me."
So, yes, he got involved. In return, Legacy has issued "Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection" -- complete with a handful of demos and alternate versions of Penn songs, and sequenced by the man himself -- along with a remastered "Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947," about which Penn is particularly pleased.
"I put it out on my own imprint, and there wasn't much distribution. Also, I never mastered the record, which we did this time because Sony has some great people," he says.
Trying 'not to repeat myself'
In one sense, it probably was to be expected that Penn would seek a career in the spotlight. His parents are director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan; his two brothers, Sean and the late Chris Penn, also went into acting.
Michael Penn, though, preferred music. He loved the Beatles and had some success with a band called Doll Congress, which featured his future collaborator, Patrick Warren. When Doll Congress broke up, he did a little acting -- according to Allmusic.com, you can find him in an episode of "St. Elsewhere" -- but thanks to a 1987 appearance on "Saturday Night Live," he got back into music and put "March" together.
Though his lyrical style has changed somewhat over the years -- earlier songs were more abstract, more punning ("Brave New World," off "March," is a classic variation of "Highway 61 Revisited") -- his songwriting has tended to stress delicate, hook-laden melodies with an undercurrent of yearning, a desire for love that sometimes won't work out.
"What if I were Romeo in black jeans?" he asked in "No Myth." "I just screwed this up/At least I think I have .../The times come when all your love is drained," he sang in "Drained." "You lost your whole world/And it was all over/The heart of a girl," he mused in "Bucket Brigade."
The themes are similar, but expressed so distinctly -- the subject of much effort, he says.
"I always try so hard not to repeat myself, not to do something I've heard before," he says. "It definitely cuts into my output."
Beyond big labels, record charts
He'll always write songs -- "I have so many orphans," he notes of his unfinished output -- but in recent years he's ventured into movie music, including last year's "The Last Kiss." He also composed the score for Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights" (he played a small role in the latter) and inspired Anderson to write "Magnolia."
Penn, you see, has an interest in skeptic Charles Fort and Fort's study of unexplained phenomena, a subject that infuses "Magnolia." "Fort's an old favorite writer of mine and I find him incredibly entertaining," Penn explains. "Paul couldn't get me to shut up about Fort."
"Magnolia" also gave Penn's wife, Aimee Mann, a big boost by using a number of her songs on the soundtrack. (One of them, "Save Me," was nominated for an Oscar.) Penn, Mann and manager Michael Hausman formed the cooperative United Musicians, an organization that has allowed songwriters to issue their material on their own labels and retain copyright ownership.
So while Penn is happy with Legacy's attention, he's moved on. In fact, while the big labels are still issuing CDs and trying to cope with the vagaries of the Internet, Penn is ready to travel to cyberspace. He's a big fan of the interactive site Second Life, and he's trying to figure out a way to take his music to its environs.
"I don't think I've been as inspired creatively since I first got my first Macintosh in '84," he says. "It uses the technology of the World Wide Web in a way that's both entertaining and immerses one in an experience, and I'm going to find a way somehow to make it part of what I do -- [and] not in a normal way of a concert and an avatar."
He describes an elaborate plan he had for "Mr. Hollywood," in which the music -- instead of coming out on CD -- would have been released as a chip enclosed in a distinctive package, to be sold on eBay. In the real world, such a release would be impractical (at best), but "in Second Life, I can do that," he says.
So what about the old-fashioned music business? Like getting on the radio and topping the charts?
Penn, fittingly, has mixed feelings.
"I wouldn't balk at having a hit single, because it would allow me some of the freedom to do some of the things I want to do," he says. "By the same token, I would be suspicious of my own work if I did."
Songwriter Michael Penn says he's fascinated by Second Life and has a number of ideas for the interactive site.