Issue #921 – February 16, 2007
Miracle of Five
With her penchants for torchy jazz and Cole Porter-era pop, this longtime
L.A. Favorite is like a funnier Norah Jones or a less daffy Nellie
McKay. This time, her alto rarely rises above a whisper, and the lulling
accompaniment is downright somnolent. But if the music is mesmerizing
sleepy, Mandell’s lyrics are lucid, exploring the elusive promise
of romance with wit and moony wistfulness. It’s a perfect bedtime
album for grownups who ought to know better but can’t help hitting
the sack dreaming of true love. A–
Writer: Kristina Feliciano
Eleni Mandell Q&A
Issue 28 of Paste features a Scrapbook piece on Eleni Mandell. As
a PasteMagazine.com exclusive, we provide you here with the full interview.
Having released five LPs, one EP, and two 7-inches since 1998—not
including her latest album, The Miracle of Five (V2) - Eleni Mandell
just might be the music industry’s answer to wildly
prolific author Joyce Carole Oates. But like Oates, Mandell rewards
her fans’ loyalty with work that is always astute, and Five
is no exception. In fact, it’s arguably the L.A.-based singer-songwriter’s
best album to date, chock full of captivating imagery, hummable melodies,
and smoky nuance. It’s also the first time she left the decision-making
to someone else: Andy Kaulkin, a musician as well as the president
of Anti- Records, produced Five, choosing all 12 of the tracks from
the 20-plus that Mandell had written, determining that she
would record her vocals and guitar separately and the other musicians
would play their parts in response to her, and directing those musicians,
even when Mandell disagreed with his choices.
“I would be like, ‘Are you insane? You’re gonna
ruin this,’” she recalls, probably only half-jokingly.
“But then I found that, wow, he was right. So I had opinions
but also wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t try to
control everything. And it was great.”
The dusky-voiced singer-songwriter spoke to Paste about the album,
as well as legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, Los Angeles as muse,
the joys of cheesy pop music, and her secret ties to Paris Hilton.
PASTE: You’re quite prolific. How do you know when you
have enough to do an album and that you have the certain kind of enough
to do an album?
ELENI MANDELL: Well, with this record, I had, I think, 22 songs that
I put on a cassette tape for Andy [Kaulkin, the producer]. He chose
all of the songs that are on [The Miracle of Five]. I fought for one
that isn’t on there. [Laughs] I fought for two. But he kind
of convinced me that it was important to sort of stick to a certain
tone that we set and have consistency. I really appreciate that approach
because I’d never done that before.
You must have really trusted him.
I did. I just really got along with him, really had a good time working
with him, and, yeah, really trusted him.
I read that you said he was hard on you at times.
Well, in his way. He’s, like, the nicest guy in the world. He’s
6 foot 7, but I could probably take him down. [Laughs] But when I
say he was hard on me, he just insisted that I give the best performance
I could give. And when he first was considering working with me, he
just sat in my living room and let me play him songs. And he was of
the opinion that I sing better in that environment than he heard me
on previous records. So he just really wanted to work me like a slave
until I gave the best performance I can give.
That means doing more than one take?
That means rerecording the whole record. We had done all of my vocals
and guitar, and then I went on tour. And when I got back, he said,
“I think you can do better.” [Note: “Girls, the
second track on the disc,” was the only one they didn’t
redo.] I kind of have always done things really, really quickly. And
I felt like perfectionism is for, you know, perfectionists—not
for me. [Laughs] I felt like getting the vibe was more important.
But there are moments on past records that [when I hear them now,]
I’ll kind of cringe a little bit. And I just thought, I don’t
want any of those moments on this record. So I just accepted that
I was going to have to be patient, and I think it paid off.
So is it the case that the vocals were recorded and then,
separately, the musicians did their interpretations based on your
vocals and guitar?
Were you present when they recorded their parts?
So were you offering guidance?
Andy actually was really—he’s a musician himself, so he
really had a vision and had an idea, and he was really good at articulating
that. And I would often disagree and be like, “Are you insane?
You’re gonna ruin this.” But then I found that, wow, he
was right. So I had opinions but also wanted to see what would happen
if I didn’t try to control everything. And it was great. The
same is true of my record cover. This is the first cover where I completely
gave it all to somebody else. I said, “Just show me something.”
And I love what happened.
You didn’t even make suggestions?
I said, I’m a fan of this particular thing. I want something
really simple. I’m a fan of this sort of look. But I want it
to be different, and I just want to see what you’ll do without
What is this thing that you said you wanted it to be like?
[Laughs] I don’t want to say!
Is it Saul Bass [the legendary graphic designer who created
the poster for the 1955 film The Man With the Golden Arm]?
It is, it is. Yeah. [Laughs] Oops!
I wanted to ask you about the other album covers. With singer-songwriters,
their album cover is usually a portrait of them—maybe even holding
their instrument, so to speak. And you don’t really do that.
Yeah, I actually don’t like being photographed with my guitar.
Maybe because I have a foolish insecurity about being perceived as
a girl with a guitar. But I do play it. I guess because I don’t
want to prejudice people. If they see [a photo of me with my guitar],
they’ll assume a certain thing, which I don’t think I
am. My first bunch of record covers were sort of inspired by the idea
that they’d all be action shots, which was really fun to do.
Like on [2000’s] Thrill, I’m falling. I actually really
liked [the concept of action shots], and I thought of doing that forever.
But I don’t know if I’m getting older. I just thought
maybe I don’t need to be on the cover. And I’m kind of
glad I’m not [on Miracle]. I think it’s a strong cover.
It’s a strong image.
Your songs are sometimes autobiographical, is that right? Always or
I think they always are. I’m not an art historian, but I sort
of believe that every painting that Picasso painted is more about
himself than the person he’s painting. You know what I mean?
So I could say something was about something else, but it’s
really always about yourself.
It is, but there are degrees…
Yeah, there are degrees. And I hate to admit it, but I’m really
Must be hard for the people you’re singing about sometimes…
They usually enjoy it. But it is kind of funny—a song that I
wrote that will be on my next record--it’s called “Needle
and Thread.” And I would love to tell you that there was some
grand metaphor, and, of course, there are some layers of meaning.
But it’s also completely literal because I love sewing. And
that’s all I do anymore, besides music.
Sewing, like, clothing?
Yeah, I’ve been making my own clothes. It’s really fun.
I had read that you found some vintage patterns in…Oregon, was
I did. I always look when I’m on tour. I always go to the vintage
stores, and I kind of started looking at patterns. But I’ve
gotten even more crazy about it.
Like where you’re sewing every day?
Yeah, well, I just finished something yesterday. [She explains that
she made a dress for her birthday party and one for her show, and
considered making a dress for a trip she was taking to New York.]
It’s like, everything I’m going to do, I think, I’ll
guess I’ll make myself something to wear.
And then you’re, like, making a slipcover for the pillow on
the airplane when you travel…
I haven’t gotten that bad. If I start upholstering, I’ll
Tell me about how living in Los Angeles influences the way
you write and the kind of music that you make.
I definitely think that the feeling of space and sort of... I have
in the past felt a desire in the past to connect with people and an
inability to do so in this city.
Because it’s so spread out?
I think because of everybody looking over your shoulder to see who’s
walking in the door, or everybody being so ambitious and career-oriented.
And it’s not really everyone, but at the time I felt like that.
So I think those feelings are definitely influential. And the struggle
to kind of find where you belong and create meaningful relationships
and feel like your life in general has meaning in a city based on,
you know, false perceptions.
And yet you love it there.
Because I did find those things. I think it took a while to find them.
It’s a constant process, life. [Laughs] It’s a constant
struggle. But I do feel like I’m in a good place and I have
found really good people that I spend my time with.
You have several side projects. One of them is the Living Sisters,
with Inara George [also of the Bird and the Bee].
Yeah, and Becky Stark from [dream-pop act] Lavender Diamond. One of
my other constant searches is to try and find people that want to
sing harmonies. And I’ve tried that in the past with different
people, and then I met Becky Stark. And she and I started doing it
as a duo, and then I met Inara and just really connected with her.
We were kind of talking about just doing a show together—just
Eleni Mandell and Inara George—and somehow it turned into her
being part of the Living Sisters, which for me was a great turn of
events because she’s got an amazing voice. She’s a wonderful
person to hang out with. And the three of us, our voices just really
clicked together. It’s like a spiritual experience singing harmonies
And then is there a side project called the Grabs?
Yeah, my fledgling rock project. Or pop band, actually. I get to work
with Nigel Harrison, who was Blondie’s bass player. That band
situation is very different than the Living Sisters or my solo project
in that the first time, it was really a democratic process, working
with egos and personalities and trying to keep everybody happy with
no leader. It’s really challenging. [She goes on to explain
that the Grabs have placed songs in some Canadian TV shows and contributed
a track to an upcoming movie.] We’ve had incredible luck—it’s
amazing. Pop music: It’s popular! [Laughs] [The Grabs] is really
fun, and it gives me the chance to be more poppy. I’m kind of
a little bit scared of that in my solo work.
Why is that?
I guess because I feel like it could veer into the very cheesy if
not handled correctly. I guess the Grabs allows me to be cheesy. And
I actually really love to dance. It’s, like, my favorite thing.
That kind of music doesn’t really fit in with whatever I’ve
created as solo artist. But the Grabs allows me to stretch my dancing,
Did you sing on a Paris Hilton commercial?
[Somewhat sheepishly] Yes, I did. I was hired to sing on a demo for
a Carl’s Jr. commercial. I went in, and I spent about an hour
[in the studio]. And they’re like, “We loved it. We’re
gonna use it.” And it kind of became this other thing. I never
wanted to be known for singing on that commercial. It was just a job,
and I enjoyed the job.
Was she in the commercial?
Yeah. You should look it up. It was banned in certain states.
Is it racy?
Yeah. It’s basically her in a very revealing bathing suit washing
a car. And a hose. You know--cliché sexual innuendos.
Not to mention something you picture for In N’ Out Burger…
Yeah. But people got really up in arms about it.
What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Besides friends of mine, I have been listening to Harry Nilsson's
Nilsson Schmilsson. It’s a great record. And Otis Redding.
Do you go on to iTunes, or do you go to Amoeba [the music mecca for
Californians]? How do you find new music?
I kind of rely on friends to turn me on to new music. Or I listen
to [South California NPR affiliate] KCRW and hear stuff. And I still
go and buy records at Amoeba, and I still buy vinyl. But I have been
going through these stretches of not listening to music at all. For
my birthday, I downloaded a lot of silly hit songs from the 70s and
80s for dancing. It was really convenient, and I thought, This downloading
thing is all it’s cracked up to be!
What are you hoping will happen for Miracle of Five?
I really hope that more people will hear it and that I’ll reach
a wider audience and that people will enjoy it and listen to it while
they’re making out or at their dinner parties--or slow dancing.
News + Notes
Every Little Thing She Does
By Randy Harward
We could go on and on (and on) about Eleni Mandell’s sweet,
dusky voice and sublime, noirish songs or her side projects the Grabs
and the Living Sisters. But rather than gush yet again, we’ll
let her tell you her favorite things about herself.
Dancing In My Living Room With My Friends
I was having weekly dinner/dance parties over the summer [and] I had
a really intense one for my birthday. I danced the entire party and
actually got injured from dancing for five hours. Straight. But it
was really, really fun. I made the most perfect dance party mix. Echo
and the Bunnymen, Adam and the Ants, Boston—any great hit song
I could remember, I put on there.
I’ve become an avid—I don’t wanna say seamstress,
’cause I’m not that good. But I wanna get really good
at it. I made a dress for my birthday dance party that I thought was
really cool: navy blue velvet with a white satin petal collar. Every
time I have something to do, I make something to wear for it. I just
played at CMJ and I wore a dress that I made.
Eating Really Good Food
I had a really great appetizer when I was in New York—escargot
and mussels with wild mushrooms over creamy polenta. I really like
all kinds of food. I love a great cheeseburger. I love really good
steak. I think a lot about food. Probably a little too much.
Listening To Charlie Wadhams
We kind of…have a relationship [laughs]. He’s an incredible
singer and songwriter. He’s self-taught, so he doesn’t
really write the same I-IV-V chord progressions. His songs are really
romantic—they’re kind of short little romantic pieces.
And he has a really creamy voice. Really sweet.
When everything comes together, when I feel like I’m doing the
best I can do, I’m singing a song that I think is good—even
if I didn’t write it…the stars align. There’s this
sort of indescribable connection with the audience where I feel like
they’re enjoying it and they get it. It’s really sublime.
The Living Sisters
Is a group I have with Inara George and Becky Stark. We sing harmonies
and wear matching outfits. Sometimes we have birds in our hair and
crazy glitter disco dresses, but we sing kind of old-fashioned songs
with really pretty harmonies. There’s something about harmonies
that I just love. They resonate in my body or something. I know that
sounds really corny.
Miracle of Five
Nobody does sultry like Eleni Mandell. Whether she's singing about
the "Make-Out King" asleep in her bed, the fling with a
"Perfect Stranger," or just holding hands with a lover on
the title cut, passion fuels Miracle of Five. But the L.A. Singer's
sixth record is free from Harlequin banalities
or Girls Gone Wild excess. These are country shuffles, late-night
lullabies and jazzy torch songs for real adults, where mystery and
subtlety leave the best bits to your imagination. In keeping with
her hometown's noirish legacy, the affairs may seem doomed from the
first kiss, but burn all the brighter for their fate. Some L.A.'s
best session players add all the right accents to Miracle of Five,
which also makes judicious use of guitar wiz Nels Cline. But it's
Mandell's alluring whisper that weakens knees and wills, and these
songs remind us why men fall for smart, sexy women in the first place.
Print and online feature
After five albums and 15 years of working the club circuit, the statuesque
singer-songwriter has yet to crack the national mainstream. Not that
by Emili Vesilind
Eleni Mandell is near-famous in her native Los Angeles. Still, after
five albums and 15 years of working the club circuit, the statuesque
singer-songwriter has yet to crack the national mainstream. Not that
she minds. At 37, Mandell is in a good place. Flanked by a boyfriend
whom she blushes at the mere mention of, she’s also part of
a tight-knit community of musician friends, including her partners
in the high-profile side projects the Living Sisters and the Grabs.
Over the years, Mandell has evolved from a moody, Tom Waits–style
songstress into a sophisticated crooner, writing melodic indie rock
songs framed by a retro, Americana feel. Shades of Patsy Cline, Bob
Dylan, and Emmylou Harris are evident in the lilting Miracle of Five,
her sixth full-length CD. Its songs unfold like a series of old postcards
— most are brief and full of wistful affection.
I sat down with Mandell in January 2007 for a glass of wine and to
talk about the album, her side projects, and why navel-gazing can
How did the creation of Miracle of Five differ from
your past albums?
I took my time on this, for the first time. I thought I’d experiment
with patience. I wouldn’t say I became a perfectionist, but
I definitely was trying to really get my vocals right and have them
be the centerpiece. It was recorded over a year, but if you string
all the time together, it was probably only a month or a month and
a half. In the past, I was making records and mixing in about three
weeks. I think I wrote a lot of really great songs that I’m
proud of, but I think sonically the records would sound better if
I had taken a little more time.
You recorded vocals before anything else on Miracle of Five.
How did that change the rest of the recording process?
I wasn’t changing my voice to accommodate other instruments.
Even if you have headphones on or are in an isolation booth, it just
changes how you sing. I think because of that, we were able to really
capture that sort of “living room” sound. Adding drums
and bass after — it just makes everyone play differently and
pay attention to the vocals and melody. I just love what everybody
played on the [album].
How do you write songs?
I’ve adopted a formula for writing, having done it for a long
time — which is just to not, like, worry about it. I just let
the songs come to me. I don’t try to force it. If I’m
not feeling creative, I’ll make a dress [Mandell is an avid
sewer] or try to write prose or something. It’s really great
to try to constantly stimulate your brain and get inspired by other
forms of creativity. Sewing can be really distracting. It involves
a lot of math and geometry and problem solving.
I’ve read that you are sick of focusing on bad relationships
in your music — true?
When you’re younger, I think in general people are a lot more
self-centered, and part of it stems from insecurity and self-doubt.
As you get older, you figure out who you are more and make better
choices, you start looking outward a little bit, which is really great.
I’m relieved that I can find inspiration outside of myself.
One of my favorite things my grandmother ever said to me as a kid
and called her complaining [was], “Why don’t you stop
thinking about yourself so much?” It’s hard sometimes,
but it works … It’s kind of interesting now, with the
state of affairs in the world, I feel more and more at ease with where
I am in my career and my life. I definitely hope for better and better
things, but I feel like there’s more out there.
Has your current relationship changed the way you write music?
Being loved almost unconditionally by someone in a romantic way has
definitely changed my life and my outlook on life — and my sense
of hopefulness in general. The songs are autobiographical, but I think
of them as snapshots. You stop into town, shake hands with someone,
then you go away and write about it.
Do you like playing live?
I think it’s kind of what sustains me. I’ve been so excited
lately preparing to tour and for the record to come out. I think that
connection with the audience is really important. When you’re
onstage and you can feel the audience is appreciating what you do
and is being moved by it — it’s really a unique experience.
I feel really grateful for that. [She laughs] I feel like I sound
like a beauty contestant.
Tell me about your side project, Living Sisters. How did you hook
up with those ladies?
I met both of them on scene. Becky and I met a few years ago and actually
performed as the Living Sisters, just the two of us. And then I met
Inara. I instantly liked her as a person and was blown away by her
music. [The Living Sisters] is really one of the most fun projects
that I have. I’ve always really craved singing harmonies. I
don’t know how to describe it without sounding really corny,
but it does sort of feel spiritual. We get dressed up really hilariously
for the shows. Tonight they’re meeting me at my place, and Becky
swears that she found three matching dresses that will fit us at a
thrift store. Our songs are serious, but our look is not.
Do you worry about how youth-centric the industry is?
I [used to] get a little annoyed when people would ask my age but
I really think it’s important for women to be honest about it.
I realized how much things are changing. I’m in another side
project called The Grabs with Nigel Harrison who’s the bass
player for Blondie and the keyboard player for Lavender Diamond, and
they’re both a good 10 to 15 years older than I am. And they’re
just awesome and great musicians and have a really punk-rock attitude.
I really think [age] matters less and less. Obviously in the Britney
Spears world, it’s different.
Has MySpace and the Internet changed your game at all?
My MySpace page was started by a fan of mine. I was too embarrassed
— I find anything that looks like you want to have friends really
embarrassing. God forbid you should admit that publicly. I should
be more tech-savvy, but I’m just not. My grandmother’s
actually more techie than I am. I miss the typewriter.
Arts & Music section
Sunday, February 19, 2007
Eleni Mandell / Rickie Lee Jones
"Miracle of Five" (Zedtone) / "The Sermon on Exposition
Boulevard" (New West)
Bonded by the Chuck E. connection
WHEN you look at pop music only through the prism
of popularity charts, it can seem like a rootless, random place, where
practitioners rise and fall in disconnected orbits and with no bonds
to the past.
But that's just one aspect of popular music, and although there's
nothing wrong with the trendiness of the Top 40 — that kind
of impermanence helps keep mainstream pop fresh and fun — music
has also come to offer something more stable and connected to those
who want it.
Those are qualities that fans have learned to seek out in the various
scenes on the pop landscape, whether geographical, ideological or
stylistic. In these communities, artists can put down roots and seed
creativity in a protected ecosystem of shared ideals or mutual hangouts,
and a musical spirit can survive and evolve far beyond pop radio's
transitory lifespan. For generations even.
For a living, breathing example of this connection, you can't do better
than the recently released albums by Rickie Lee Jones and Eleni Mandell.
Here is the mother of Los Angeles bohemian female singer-songwriter
pop and her most prominent heir, and although you might not match
them as close kin based purely on the sound of these collections,
they are bound by musical genes and personal history.
Jones, of course, was the beret-wearing, bottle-wielding, post-beatnik
Bonnie to Tom Waits' Clyde in the city's barfly underbelly of the
1970s. When she drew on that milieu for her sweetly saucy song "Chuck
E.'s in Love" she became a star, on the scene and beyond.
Chuck E. was the redoubtable Chuck E. Weiss, their crony and a colorful
musician in his own right, and he was a mentor not only to Jones but
also, decades after, to Mandell. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley
in the 1970s and '80s and, inspired by L.A.'s great punk band X, became
a musician herself.
She was a Waits admirer as well and embodied a neo-boho sensibility.
Her reputation was established with her first album, the Jon Brion-assisted
"Wishbone" in 1999. Jones was bottoming out at about that
time, her commercial fortunes and critical regard tarnished particularly
by her 1997 experimental electronic album "Ghostyhead."
But as their paths converge in 2007, they're both riding a high. Mandell's
career has progressed steadily, and "Miracle of Five" is
the best of her six albums. Jones regained her artistic focus on the
politically inspired 2003 album "Evening of My Best Day,"
and the moving, jubilantly eccentric "The Sermon on Exposition
Boulevard" might be the best of her career.
The records contrast sharply. Mandell's is reflective, calmly stated,
cleanly recorded, a jewel-like showcase of her qualities as a writer
and singer. Jones' is ambitious and sprawling, a mud-caked journey
"Miracle of Five" is Mandell's most intimate work, and it
summarizes all of her strengths: her ability to move among genres
without sounding facile and among musical eras without seeming nostalgic,
her emotional directness, her subtly shaded singing.
She's not the broad, brassy character that the young Jones could be,
and she suggests the big world in economical, understated ways. The
folkish "Girls" is light, elegant and perfect, a musical
pastry with a wistful aftertaste. She's a deep-voiced femme fatale
in the smoky noir of "Beautiful," and she brings a bit of
her country twang to the languorous title song.
In "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard," Jones has crafted
a musical extension of her friend Lee Cantelon's book "Words,"
which Jones describes in her booklet note as "a modern rendering
of the words of Christ."
That doesn't really prepare you for the effect of the album, in which
Jones and her collaborators mount a range of potent musical frameworks,
from the ragged, Velvet Underground-like anthem that starts it off
to the free-flowing groove that ends it on a note of "Astral
Weeks'" trembling emotion.
Jones (who plays the Henry Fonda Theatre on March 1) has a great time
placing the New Testament themes into her vernacular, both humorously
(picture Jesus driving around heaven in Elvis' Cadillac) and with
If Mandell is watching, she figures to be inspired by Jones' breakthrough
into this zone of creative freedom. And she should assume that it
runs in the family.
Treat Her Like She’s Heavy
Eleni Mandell feathers you to the floor
by Greg Burk
She likes to say she’s easily embarrassed.
But she’s learned how to deal with it. We can tell. At a distance
where she can smell us, here in the dark back closet of the Tangier
restaurant in Los Feliz, Eleni Mandell sings about the feelings and
the fingers and the kisses. She sings almost to herself, smiling a
touch as if remembering. That slight margin of distance — it
comes in handy when she’s spilling the intimate stuff.
Knowing we’re crammed like crayons in a box to hear her, she’s
nevertheless not quite pleased. “I was done being nervous about
10 years ago,” she scolds like Mom, “but you guys are
so quiet .” Well, if we clapped too hard, we’d probably
slap an adjacent cheek. And about half the young men are too transfixed
to applaud, mooning over her open-faced good looks, her unaffectedly
melodious voice and her focused lyrics (“You were some kind
of friend like a scorpion”).
Mandell fakes a frown, threatens to tell a joke if we don’t
loosen up. This drumless alternate version of her band — Ryan
Feves thrumming and bowing his bass, Woody Jackson extracting weird
repressed fuzz from his guitar as Mandell frets jazzy chords on her
miniature Martin — cha-chas into “Afternoon,” the
title song from her new album. And she gets the big response, all
right. There’ll be mash notes in the green room tonight.
Sometimes a performer needs to demand her props. Mandell has been
doing her thing quite a while now (first album was in 1998). “Can’t
you see I’m soulful?” she sings, and yeah, we know she
is, but sometimes a gal needs to kick her heels, the way she does
onstage while chugging through “Just a Dream,” and let
people know they can’t treat her like old carpet just cuz she’s
local talent. She seems to be waving some flags lately to announce
that, songwriterwise, if you’re gonna talk about your Tom Waits
or your PJ Harvey, you better be talking about her, too.
She’s doing very well. Her six CDs have been received with increasing
buckets of critical drool. She tied with Elliott Smith last year for
the L.A. Weekly Music Awards’ best songwriter. She packs ’em
in around town, just returned from a successful European tour, and
is heading out on another American one. She gets radio airplay all
across this great land. Sometimes she’s amazed at the ways her
bit o’ fame gleams forth.
“We just played in Columbia, South Carolina — a show booked
a week before we got there,” says Mandell. She’s dressed
daytime-summery, her hair several shades lighter than her usual boho
black. “My friend who’s from that town got me a show on
a Sunday night. He was, like, ‘This is probably gonna suck.’”
She lets that trebly, mirthful laugh escape. “The audience were
probably 15, 20 people, but these college kids were singing along
and calling out requests. That really blew my mind!”
Small venues are good for Mandell; she gets a Superglue
connection from nearness, both live and on record. Not a belter, she
needs to make sure her usual band — Feves on bass and Kevin
Fitzgerald on drums — gives her voice some space in demitasse-size
rooms. She likes the fact that Fitzgerald, who bought his first pair
of brushes when he joined her, also plays with those vet punk moshmen
the Circle Jerks.
“I figured out a few code words to help him — eyelashes
,feathers . We were in this tiny club in London, where I was basically
standing over his cymbals. And I said, ‘Cut me some slack.’
And he said, ‘You want me to blink at the drums?’”
Mandell and her band enjoy one another. Part of the rapport comes
from her musicianly scope, broader than most singers’; before
finding her own way on guitar, which she fingers with ease and distinctive
style, she was tortured through classical violin and piano lessons
from the age of 5.
“I hated it,” Mandell says cheerfully. Well known for
her Americana bent, she doesn’t cop much of a buzz from the
Old Country’s music, except maybe the folk end. “That
minor, dark sound, the thing that drew me to Tom Waits . . . I think
the reason I was attracted to that was because of my heritage —
East European Jew. I hear a minor chord, and I’m, like, ‘Ah,
In addition to her textured nocturnal-pop work, Mandell has served
up a “country” album ( Country for True Lovers ) and a
“jazz” EP ( Maybe, Yes ). And thanks to the production
and guitar of rootsman Joshua Grange, Afternoon sometimes bucks with
the feel of cooled-out rockabilly. The reason her songs lend themselves
to a variety of slants — she often plays different arrangements
live — is that they’re sturdy and uncluttered. She says
she discards a bunch for every one she performs, which explains her
consistency. And her vivid lyrics stay in your head because she’s
naturally observant, a skill she honed in college when she worked
at a tobacco stand, amusing herself by guessing what type of customer
would buy what type of smoke. (She doesn’t puff herself, unfortunately
for her discarded café-poet image.)
So Mandell is a serious artist, but you get the feeling she’d
do anything to avoid pretension. She says she learns a new chord only
every couple of years; she practically brags that she can’t
resist buying clothes when she goes to the mall. Asked her reasons
for picking her favorite guitar, she says, “I think it was my
biological time clock. I walked into the store and I was, like, ‘Ooh,
that one’s cute! Look how small it is. Like a baby!’”
Mandell knows nobody likes a pompous egomaniac, but no worries; that
tag would never stick to this easygoing former waitress. Still, as
her song says, she wants to be treated like she’s heavy, and
when the subject of favorite songwriters comes up, Bob Dylan ranks
toppermost. She’s even premeditated how to break the ice if
she ever meets him.
“I’m gonna say, ‘Hey, do you know a good dentist?
Because my father is a dentist, and you might want to switch.’”
Show biz is tough. The clock ticks. The big money doesn’t roll
in. Once in a while there’s a depressing gig.
“I remember Iowa City a couple of years ago,” says Mandell,
“being sandwiched between the two local frat cover bands. Whoa.
I don’t know how much more hair I need to grow on my chest.
But every time I complain that I’ve paid enough dues, my friend
Chuck E. Weiss says, ‘Right. You ain’t seen nothin’.’”
Mandell keeps a positive attitude, cultivating it in small ways. “This
morning, I woke up to a story about pollution in China, how horrible
it is.” So she learned something from that. “I guess,”
she says, “you should never have your alarm clock set to a news
Singer Eleni Mandell finds inspiration in musical
community and mournful tales of cruel love
by Natalie Nichols
Eleni Mandell croons about boys who’ve done her wrong and boys
who’ve passed her by, in tunes tailor-made for lovers of a more
genteel pop era. Fist-pumping anthems are definitely not her thing,
so you wouldn’t exactly expect her to have gotten caught up
in the excitement last month when the Boston Red Sox beat the New
York Yankees to clinch the American League title before winning the
World Series. However, the singer-songwriter really had no choice.
“We played in Boston during the last game of the finals, so
there were, like, 10 people there,” recalls the native Angeleno.
“And that’s fine. I can enjoy a 10-person show. But when
they won, and people were mobbing the streets and pounding on the
windows while I was singing my heartfelt, weepy songs, I was like
– ah, yes, paying the dues again.”
Sitting at a tiny table on the sunny sidewalk outside a small Los
Feliz café, Mandell lets out a low, sexy chuckle that echoes
her sultry singing voice. “But the next day? I went to Montreal,
and the show was sold out, 300 to 400 people. It’s kind of nice
to continually have that contrast. It makes you really appreciate
the good times.”
For the past six years, Mandell has had many reasons to count her
blessings. As a fledgling artist in the late ’90s, she caught
the attention of such L.A. heroes as musician/producer Jon Brion and
roots-rocker Chuck E. Weiss. After putting out her self-released 1998
collection, Wishbone, she quickly garnered local attention and praise,
with critics comparing her to such influences as X and Tom Waits,
as well as contemporary PJ Harvey. Her music mixed folk, jazz, blues,
country, and rock for an old-fashioned effect that could still fit
into a rock context when she wanted it to, and her lyrics limned mournful
tales of cruel love. Since her 2000 follow-up, Thrill, she’s
released an album every year, varying the mix of styles but retaining
that core sense of eternal heartbreak, gorgeously lamented.
She established her niche and dug in, gaining ground both locally
and in such far-flung places as Kansas City, Quebec, and Europe. Mandell’s
even been lucky enough to have a fan, Ian Pearson, start a record
label, Zedtone, to ensure she had a place to put out her work. But
this year, several months before the June release of her current Afternoon
– which she describes as “my ’60s soul record”
– she found herself doubting her path. It all started in January,
when she developed pneumonia while touring back East.
“We were loading gear in a blizzard, in and out of the cold,
exhausted, and all of that,” she recalls. “Then I just
finally really couldn’t stand up.” She returned to Los
Angeles with a 104-degree fever. “I was sick for two weeks,”
she says. “I felt a little sorry for myself. Like, I’ve
given music everything I have – money, sweat, blood, tears –
and all I got was pneumonia?” She laughs ruefully. “I
was trying to figure out if it was worth it or not.” Then, she
says, Hubert Selby died. “I read a long quote of his about art
and why it is worth it. That sort of snapped me out of it, and made
me feel like it doesn’t matter if you get rewarded by the general
public, it’s [about] the self-satisfaction and the community
you create around you.”
That was less a revelation than a rediscovery of what had always mattered
to Mandell: her interaction with other artists. Indeed, one of the
gigs she’d played in January was a tribute to Waits, on a bill
with veteran bluesman John Hammond. “Meeting him was the best
part about it,” she says. “Any time I meet anyone in the
music business, I say, ‘Have you ever met Bob Dylan?’
And, of course, John Hammond knew him. We ended up singing Dylan songs
backstage, harmonizing, and him playing guitar. Those moments definitely
keep me going.”
It’s not just encounters with famous artists or her idols that
she cherishes, however, but also the variety of fine players she’s
worked with over the years, including X drummer DJ Bonebrake, Rasputina
cellist Melora Creager, local percussion master Danny Frankel, and
veteran musician Tony Gilkyson, who produced her twangy 2003 torch
album Country for True Lovers. Most of all, she loves her ace touring
band, guitarist Joshua Grange, bassist Ryan Feves, and drummer Kevin
Fitzgerald. “I respect them so much, and the fact that they
respect me as well is really gratifying,” she says.
Afternoon is the first album they recorded as a group, and the bond
they formed on the road carried over into the studio. “It was
definitely different than, ‘OK, at three o’clock, the
clarinet player’s gonna show up,’” she says. “We
were sort of all in it together.”
The artfully spare tunes evoke hazy fever dreams of yearning and reminiscence.
The minimal, whispery “American Boy” – which will
be used in an episode of ABC’s high-school drama Life as We
Know It – leaves an impression of comfort and hope, while the
bluesy “Dangerous” dangles a steamy come-on, and the plaintive
“I’ve Been Fooled” resonates with tearjerking pain.
Though carefully crafted, the tracks retain a rawness of emotion that
makes you want to pat her on the shoulder and tell her to steer clear
of these bad boys, already.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve known some really
intense specific characters,” says Mandell with a smile. “Mostly
I think I’ve been sort of lucky to know these people who are
really different from other people. Sometimes it really sucks.”
She laughs. “But then, you’re like, ‘But I will
do my very best to make money off of your horrible behavior.’”
Such numbers as the warbled lament “Can’t You See I’m
Soulful” and the wry other-woman plea “Afternoon”
teeter on the brink of desperation, but Mandell never sounds pathetic.
She fills each note with an introverted sense of burning beneath the
surface – giving notice to those who’d do her wrong that
they’ve missed out on something they never could see.
“I always hope there’s a subtlety to it, because I don’t
really like overt sexuality, like Christina Aguilera dressed like
a streetwalker,” Mandell says. “I don’t really understand
why that’s necessary.” Not that she’s opposed to
looking sexy – on the cover of Thrill she appears to be falling
into the L.A. skyline, clad in a strappy, ruffled vintage leotard
and fishnets, and on Afternoon she floats in a sapphire pool, wearing
a diaphonous gold nightie and a meaningful gaze.
These images tend to reinforce the musical persona of a woman utterly
compelled by dark attractions, somewhat adrift in the push-pull of
unpredictable amour. Yet, while Mandell may project vulnerability
or availability, it never quite seems like these experiences have
broken her. And lately, the attraction has worn thin.
“I’m not really inspired by these scoundrel types anymore,”
she says with another light, sultry chuckle. “I actually find
them sort of boring. I’ve started writing about other real people
I know, like friends of mine I’ve only had really positive experiences
with, and I’m finding those equally fun to write about. And
I don’t have to, like, go out with the wrong person for two
SHE'S POSITIONED HERSELF as a noir ingénue and country starlet,
but Afternoon finally packages Eleni Mandell as shiny easy-listening.
And that's desperately needed, if only because she deserves to steal
away Nellie McKay's audience. She's still working out some country
obsessions, but Mandell is a perfectly serviceable act for anybody
who prefers their soulful heroes to be found in the bin at Borders.
Watch out for the live act, though, since it's capable of selling
albums to people who usually can't stand this kind of thing. Mandell's
also capable of making a charming pitch for herself, as in a recent
phone conversation from her L.A. headquarters:
Afternoon is kind of a return to pop cabaret—if
you bother with the term nowadays. I've never used the term,
but I suppose it's sort of a return to the amalgamation that I was
doing on the first three records. Nobody's ever really told me to
settle into one style, but I've sort of figured out that if I had
done that, maybe I'd be the homecoming queen by now. All those styles
of music come together. If you listen to a lot of great records—Dylan,
the Beatles, the Rolling Stones—they all didn't stay to one
style, and nobody blinked an eye.
Why did you ditch the success of Country for True Lovers
? It was kind of nice doing a country-themed record, and
it opened me up to a new audience. They also seemed to like the other
stuff that I do live. The only time I worried about being a country
act was in East Germany, when a man who didn't speak English asked
through an interpreter where my cowboy hat was. I don't have any complaints,
but I didn't feel the need to do another theme record. I knew I wanted
a specific band sound for Afternoon , which is kind of my version
of 60s soul music, but the album still kind of became its own thing.
Is that why every one of your album covers seems like a screen test?
I'm really glad you appreciate that. The first record cover happened
by accident. My friend Autumn took the picture, and we went to the
Central Library in Los Angeles, which is a beautiful old building.
We were just sneaking around, and she asked me to run down a corridor
and then look at her. That photo caught my attention, and after that,
I decided that all my record covers would have some kind of action—and,
I hope, humor. That's my gimmick.
Eleni Mandell changeling aesthetic, Say Anything
stays sincere and more.
At least her spirit is full
The legions in the Los Angeles music community who regard Eleni
Mandell as a local treasure will tell you she defies categorization.
Too bad she simply can't deny it.
"I'm not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades," says the woman
whose fifth album, "Afternoon," is the latest in a line
of shape-shifting documents, segueing seamlessly from pop to country
to jazz, with her stark vocals and rapt lyrics serving as musical
thread. "The music I grew up listening to — the Beatles,
Dylan, the Stones — their songs were not all the same."
Mandell's changeling aesthetic has not only earned a following in
L.A. (where she has shows the next two Sundays at Tangier in Los Feliz)
and New York (where she'll do a residency in October), but also in
a few Midwestern locales with radio stations that have broad palates.
Her expansive stylings "haven't done me too much good in the
record business," she says wryly. "But I am getting all
that spiritual fulfillment."
-- Kevin Bronson
Mandell ready to compete with Sox again at
By CHAD BERNDTSON
The Patriot Ledger
For a musician who thrives on dark, chanteuse-ish songs with brooding,
mysterious themes, singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell has a surprisingly
laid-back personality. She lets her songs come to her, never forces
them, and if the creative well ever dries up, she won't be the panic-stricken,
brooding character depicted in many of her tunes, but rather ‘‘just
move on to somethin' else.''
The charming Mandell wraps a brief string of shows at Cambridge's
ZuZu (at the Middle East) tomorrow night, and said she hopes to have
a better crowd this go-round - last Wednesday, she had to compete
with, you know, some baseball game.
‘‘It got to a point where the sirens and screaming were
pretty loud,'' she said of the Red Sox Game 7 night, a mixture of
amusement and annoyance in her voice. ‘‘We still enjoyed
ourselves though. It was ... interesting.''
Mandell's musical upbringing was a collage of experiences in her native
Los Angeles. She's been playing music since she was 5 years old, but
found herself inspired by legendary Los Angeles punk band X and her
idol, Tom Waits, whom she met through an early career association
with the great and underrated musician and club staple Chuck E. Weiss
(a longtime Waits pal and the man behind Rickie Lee Jones' ‘‘Chuck
E's in Love'').
A combination of good luck, great songs and a tireless work ethic
brought her up through the L.A. singer/songwriter scene; by the time
her third album ‘‘Snakebite'' was in the recording process,
a few of those musicians she idolized, among them X drummer D.J. Bonebreak
and Waits keyboardist Danny McGough, were lining up to contribute.
Although Mandell's sound is similar in verve to the brooding, torch-songs-and-cabaret
style of Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and to a certain extent P.J. Harvey,
her previous album, ‘‘Country for True Lovers,'' found
her doing traditional, ‘‘country'' country desperado tunes.
It was a bit of switch, but it earned her L.A. Weekly's ‘‘songwriter
of the year'' accolades in 2003. With the current album, this year's
‘‘Afternoon,'' Mandell has returned to the dusky, blues-tinged
vibe that made her a name, yet also retained some of that country
‘‘It's so hard for me to describe myself, because I like
all different types of music,'' she said. ‘‘A lot of it
is sort of dark, but there's also a lot of humor. I read an article
about me the other day where the reporter called it ‘neo-noir.'
I kind of liked that, but at the same time, I mean, I recently wrote
a song about my drummer, and also a song about my friend Katie, who
has really small feet.''
Her method of songwriting is just as laid-back and casual - her songs
connect so eloquently because of her relaxed approach.
‘‘I just wait for inspiration to strike. I've been doing
this long enough where I know there's no use in forcing it,'' she
said. ‘‘I've recorded enough work that I'm proud of, that
when it dries up, that's cool. What will I do? I have no idea.''
After her fall tour wraps, Mandell and her band head to Germany in
early 2005 to back ‘‘Afternoon'' in Europe. Performance,
more than songwriting, is what gets her the most, and often what keeps
‘‘When you're performing and the audience is sort of in
your pocket and you're connecting really well with the other musicians
on stage, it's otherworldly,'' she said. ‘‘It's really
sublime, and it makes all the times you played in half-filled dives
... worth it. I never take anything for granted though - if you stop
paying your dues, you kind of get bored, right?''