When it came to choosing an artist to sing a theme song for HBO’s documentary series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (which has its finale tonight), it’s far from inconceivable that the producers might have looked just as a matter of course to Aimee Mann. Speaking of the dark, she’s a woman who’s spent some time on the non-sunny side of the street — her last album was titled “Mental Illness,” after all, even if the neuroses it surveyed didn’t rise to the level of the serial killings recounted in the HBO series. And Mann is maybe one of the few contemporary artists with the stature and gravitas to be mentioned in the same breath as Leonard Cohen — whose “Avalanche” is the song being used as the title theme — without any balkers.
But the connection was much more personal than that. “The producers wanted that Leonard Cohen song,” Mann says, “and I don’t know this for a fact, but I did get the sense that because I was friends with Michelle, they wanted me to be the one to sing the opening song.” Michelle is of course Michelle McNamara, the late writer whose book about her search for the Golden State Killer, also called “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” was the source for the show, and who comes to be perhaps the series’ real primary subject, as she’s seen in video and audio footage.
“The case is about as horrible as you can get, which obviously is interesting,” says the singer-songwriter. “But Michelle herself is interesting, the way that she approached this. Michael (Penn, Mann’s husband) and I remember her at dinner saying, ‘When Pat (McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt) and I did this 23andMe, I had this idea that you could back-engineer from genetic material, to see if there’s relatives of the suspect that are on (the DNA testing service). She was really instrumental in literally solving this crime.
“They have a lot of footage of Michelle, and also a lot of just tapes of her interviewing people. She feels very alive and real and present. She was really smart. She was kind of sarcastic, really funny. And she was just delightful to be around. So half of it is kind of nice to sort of hear her voice again and see her. And you know, half of it is just super-sad.”
Mann’s version of “Avalanche” is only briefly excerpted for the opening credit sequence, but fans of her and/or Cohen can look forward to hearing the full version as a download or stream. “We did a full version because I think they wanted to have all the verses just in case. I personally would have maybe come out a couple of verses,” she says, laughing at Cohen’s propensity for going for the epic form at times. “But you know, he is in that folk tradition of get on the horse and ride it till the horse is dead.”
She says her team is “actually just kind of working it out with HBO, to give us permission so we can release it, so I think that’ll happen soon,” she says. She gives special credit to Penn, who produced the track, for how successfully she believes the full, epic version turned out. “Because you know, having a song with six verses, it’s not like there’s not a lot harmonically that’s going on; it doesn’t have a chorus, it doesn’t have a bridge. So it was really hard to keep it interesting. And I think Michael did a great job. It’s a really beautiful version, so I do want it to get out there.”
Mann is a Cohen fan but admits she hadn’t spent much time with the 1971 album “Songs of Love and Hate” from which “Avalanche” sprang. “I love Leonard Cohen,” she says, “I’m not somebody who knows every single record, but you know, everything I ever hear, I’m reminded especially what a great lyricist he was. Sometimes a little too oblique.” She laughs. “But always, always great. Always evocative.”
So, the $10 million question: Does she have any idea what “Avalanche” is about? Cohen fans certainly can’t agree where the symbolic language leads. Look it up on any lyric interpretation site and you’ll find gentle disagreements about whether it’s a song about a passionate and obsessive love affair, an exploration of some kind of mental illness (a subject that, clearly, would be right up Mann’s alley) or is one of Cohen’s wryly religious songs, with the narrator possibly being God or Christ, speaking to humanity as part of a spiritually dysfunctional relationship. Cohen isn’t spilling any secrets at this point, and Mann doesn’t have a handle on it herself.
“We were trying to figure it out, too,” she admits. “Michael produced it, because he’s got a small studio at home. And when you do multiple takes of vocals… Like, we actually started in one key, because he thought it would sound good if I sang it really low, but then that kind of didn’t work out. So I ended up singing it a lot. So when you hear the song through so many times, you start to go, what is happening in this song? What is going on? And we couldn’t really figure that out. All we found that was that it’s based on a poem that he wrote, which doesn’t help at all. We had a vague idea that there was some kind of arcane alchemist reference. We didn’t get very far.I should look at the lyrics over again and come up with my own unified theory about what he’s talking about. The hunchback, the gold… I don’t know, it was very confusing.
“But,” she adds, “it definitely had the air of obsession that perfectly fit the subject matter and how Michelle was approaching this project. So I thought it was a really great choice.”
Of the HBO series itself, Mann has much the same reaction that most viewers might: It’s fascinating and in some ways a tough go. “I think it’s really fantastic,” she says, “but it’s really hard to kind of relive her death and everything. And the crimes are so disgusting. It’s hard to watch on a bunch of different levels. So we kind of like to space it out and then have kind of a palate cleanser to watch after, so that we don’t go to bed super-depressed and freaked out.”
Any tips for a cleanser? “We’ve been using some ‘Larry Sanders’ or just old Turner Classic Movies sometimes. And we’re going back a lot to ‘The West Wing,’ for obvious reasons. It’s just very soothing. Like the idea that it is possible to have government that is considered and intelligent and fact-based.” But hasn’t “West Wing” seemed almost heartbreaking, in recent years, like a fantasy of what could be that demands too great a suspension of disbelief anymore? “I don’t think so. It’s the witty repartee of it all, too — not even just the governmental aspect, but the snappy dialogue and humor and the fantastic acting. There’s something that is uplifting and inspiring about just seeing people do a really, really great job. All the actors on that are so great and they mesh in a really great way. And I think that that’s hard, with Sorkin, because it can be a little Mamet-y, his tone — everybody has to be on the same acting page. But I think the first three seasons are as good as television has ever been.”
There are fans who would make similar claims in the music realm for much of Mann’s output. Anyone inclined to use her classic albums as 2020 palate cleansers has some good news in store.
“We just finished remastering a ‘Bachelor Number Two’ reissue,” which will likely come out toward the end of the year for Record Store Day. “It’s got some extra stuff, but it’s not loaded with posters or anything. It’s mostly for vinyl. But the artwork has been redone, too, because at the time we kind of had just thrown something together, so we did a better version of it. And there’s some liner notes, where I talk about each song. Oh, and we’re going to do a ‘Lost in Space’ reissue, too, so that’s the next thing I have to start getting busy on.” she says. “And we just finished mixing a new record, which who knows when that will come out — because I think we want to have a chance that there is some sort of live playing that I could do. So yeah, a lot of projects, a lot of stuff going on, weirdly, while I sit here alone in the middle of the world that’s stopped turning on its axis.”