Issue #921 – February 16, 2007

Eleni Mandell
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–

Chris Willman


{Web Exclusive}
Writer: Kristina Feliciano
Issue 28

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 my input.

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 often?

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 literal.

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 it?
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 really worry.

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 with them.

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, disco side.

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

Eleni Mandell:
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.

January/February 2007

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.

-John Schacht

Print and online feature

Eleni Mandell

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

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 ruin everything.

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 to transcendence.

"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 solemn purpose.

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, my people!’”

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 station.”



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 years.”



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

PATRIOT LEDGER (Boston area)

Mandell ready to compete with Sox again at ZuZu

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 edge.

‘‘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 her going.

‘‘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?''