Singer/songwriter Michael Penn has been making albums for two decades and is sad to see them go. Not only the physical media, but the album as an art form, a concept, a story with two acts. He’s not the kind of musician who’s excited that you can listen to your favorite mix on your phone. The son of actress Eileen Ryan and once-blacklisted actor/director Leo Penn, brother of Sean Penn and the late Chris Penn, Michael’s no stranger to the movie business, but that seems to be the reason he chose to try and avoid it — at least until 1996, when he relented and began scoring films for director Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, he’s composed the scores for “American Teen” and “Sunshine Cleaning,” and contributed three songs to IFC’s “Bollywood Hero,” so I talked to him about that, what his influences are and what a drag the music industry is.
Tell me about this crossover into writing original music for film, which started in 1996 with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Hard Eight.” Did you pursue that actively or was it chance?
Coming from a family where everybody but myself was in the movie business, I had a lot of preconceived notions and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But Paul was this rabid fan of mine, and he called my manager and said that he wanted me to score his first [feature]. I kind of blew it off. I avoided him for literally a year, but he kept hounding me, and finally to shut him up, I went to see his movie [“Sydney,” later renamed “Hard Eight”] and it was phenomenal. And I said, “Fuck yeah, I’ll do it.” That led to “Boogie Nights,” then I started getting calls from people and did a few other things. A couple years ago, I got an agent and started to do it more seriously.
How’s that process of songwriting for film different from what you would normally go through for a record?
It’s not nearly as big of a blank page. It’s easier in the sense that half of it’s already there for you — I look at the movie as the lyric, in a way. As a songwriter I don’t really collaborate, and I miss collaboration. I used to do it in bands. This is a way for me to collaborate, which is nice. There’re parameters. It’s more constrained — you’re dealing with storyline and dialogue. You’re trying to not direct traffic, but you’re trying to outline where the street is. That’s my approach.
Balance and not being heavy-handed about what emotion you’re trying to convey.
Yeah, and sometimes you don’t want to convey any emotion. You just want to create a context for the performance’s emotion to be able to shine. So it can be tricky, but sometimes you do want a hint of something in there. And I like melody in a film score, so I try to push in as much melody as I can.
You mentioned collaboration and you’re married to Aimee Mann. What’s it like sharing your life with another musician and one with whom you seem to work frequently with?
We actually don’t do that much together! I think it can be a dangerous thing to work too much with the person you’re with. Occasionally, we do, and it’s always really fun. There is a nice aspect to it: we have a head start in understanding each other in terms of the pitfalls and strange aspects of our careers. And there’s certainly a common language going on.
Yeah, that seems pretty apparent to me. What’s your favorite collaboration [with Mann] so far?
Ah, probably the song “Wise Up.”
So you’ve composed a few original songs for “Bollywood Hero.” Was there anything in particular that you went to for inspiration, for the flourishes of Eastern sound?
For two of them, I did. It was an unusual project and at first, I was thinking I was going to do more of an Indian approach. But as I got into it, my thought was, I’m going to write serious songs because it’ll be funnier if the songs are pretty straight. I’m not a huge fan of modern Bollywood music. To me, it’s just hip-hop. So I went back and listened to a lot of ’70s and late ’60s Bollywood music, read up on Indian tales, and then forgot all about it and just wrote songs.
I liked that cover of your old hit “No Myth” by the Bombay Dub Orchestra. Did you get a kick out of that?
I was secretly hoping they were going to do a more upbeat version of it, because to me, the faster rhythm of the original track is very suited to taking an Indian approach to, but they decided to make it a ballad. It was funny to hear it — yeah, absolutely.
You formed a collective of independent artists with the idea that artists retain their rights while releasing their work. What do you think about the music industry now, and how are those efforts going?
That was something that we formed about nine years ago. The idea, to be perfectly honest with you… Aimee and I were too unknown, too cult status to have pulled it off, but if we could demo this model out, maybe Bruce Springsteen and a bunch of really huge people can do this and make a statement and fuck all y’all and make it work.
Like Radiohead did?
Ultimately, yeah. It was inevitable that new models would emerge and the Radiohead one is a good one. The entire music industry is so fucked right now. The iTunes model was sort of working because it’s convenient, but to me the drag is, it’s destroyed the album as an art form. That, to me, is a sad thing because that’s what I like to do — make albums — and it’s not really about that anymore. The “Bollywood Hero” thing was nice because it was a way to write songs that worked together — not quite an [album] side, but it’s three songs that work together and instead of packaged in a nice gatefold sleeve, it’s packaged in a TV show. So I feel very lucky.