IN A SOCIETY obsessed with celebrities—what kind of toothbrushes they use, who they're sleeping with after dining at Spago—it's a wonder Michael Penn hasn't scored a spot in more gossip columns. The older brother of both rebel actor Sean and wild-eyed character actor Chris, Michael's seen his share of fame in his family tree. But somehow the 41-year-old singer has managed to stay behind the silver screen, where he busies himself composing film scores (Boogie Nights, Sydney) and writing quietly personal pop essays that echo the gentleness of Paul McCartney.
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
Showbox, Saturday, January 29
Penn's newest album, MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident), is the culmination of an entire decade spent toiling in commercial music's dustbin, where the songwriter has developed a kind voice with a popcorn-dry undertone. He divebombs the millennium ("Lucky One") with reluctant glee, while pasting his hopes on the future ("High Time"). Rightly so: Everything in Michael's world seems to be closely tied with that of his wife, Aimee Mann, and his brothers, so much that it's impossible to deny that he's some sort of lucky rabbit's foot for those around him. Just as MP4 nears release, Mann's score for Magnolia—the hot new Paul Thomas Anderson film custom-built around her soundtrack, on which Penn plays—has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Almost simultaneously, Sean Penn has turned in a stellar performance playing, coincidentally, a vanguard guitarist who keeps getting in the way of his own success in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown.
Of course, ask the gentle-voiced singer if he scrutinized Sean's faux finger-picking in the movie and he'll come up with nothing but sweet, brotherly compliments. "I thought he did an admirable job of playing," says Penn, laughing at the idea that Sean might have needed his musical expertise to play the part. Likewise, he praises Chris Penn's unexpected backing vocals on MP4: "He's not a musician, but if you bug him long enough, he'll break into the blues at a bar. It's truly fun."
It's hard to imagine why the son of an actress (Eileen Ryan) and a director (Leo Penn) would arrive in the celluloid world so late in life. "Film was demystified for me," he says. "I knew how all the special effects were done; it wasn't magical." Until he worked on Boogie Nights, Penn says found film scoring daunting. "It's not like that at all," he explains. "Working on films is like art by committee. Your random ideas actually get heard."
For the last decade, the oft-silent Penn has steadily parlayed life's burnout moments into a handsome audio catalog. After bit parts on TV's St. Elsewhere in the mid-1980s, the eldest Penn sprung into the music limelight when Sean appointed him the musical guest on a 1987 Saturday Night Live episode he hosted. In 1989, Michael scored a surprise hit with "No Myth," a tale of unrequited love with a plaintive chorus that asked, "What if I was Romeo in black jeans?" But fame was fleeting, and the songwriter quietly retreated to LA's underground collective, where he released just two albums (Free for All in 1992, Resigned in 1997) in the next eight years.
During that time, Penn began collaborating with like-minded artists, including Aimee Mann (a victim of one-hit-wonderism herself, with her former band 'Til Tuesday's single "Voices Carry") and Anderson, a then-fledgling filmmaker who would later direct Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Penn and Mann played together on her commercially fragile, emotionally rich 1996 album, I'm With Stupid. Their musical partnership soon became a personal one; in 1998, the two were married. After their careers were jeopardized by last year's record industry consolidation (when bands that didn't earn their Billboard slice of the pie were summarily dropped), Penn and Mann had reawakenings. Dropped by Interscope, Mann bought back her unreleased album to put out on her own, resulting in the forthcoming Bachelor No. 2. Penn waited out the drought, and his label, Epic, stuck by him. And thankfully, neither one's penchant for writing cynical songs has been dampened by marriage; as Penn puts it, "No matter how great your life is, there's always something to be pissed off about."
Last year, the couple spent many nights at LA's infamous Club Largo, where the likes of Robyn Hitchcock, Grant Lee Phillips, Neil Finn, and superinstrumentalist Jon Brion took up nightly residencies. Penn and Mann joined forces with a group of rotating stand-up comedians, sprinkling their sets with songs from each other's catalogs and loads of heckling. This is what people will see on their tour: an improvisational night of Penn playing Mann songs and vice versa, while comics steal the mic between tunes. "It'll be sort of vaudevillian," Penn explains. "Neither Aimee nor I are very good at knowing what to say after a song. The comedians will allow us to be spectators for a moment." Which seems to be where he feels most comfortable.