"Make-Out Music": An Interview With Eleni Mandell
Wed, 07 Feb 2007 14:53:40
Eleni Mandell Videos
Like the man who produced her first album, Jon Brion, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell has been a local institution for years, seducing LA hipsters out of their jaded facades with her dark, artfully delivered tales of lovers, losers and desperadoes. Inspired by such diverse influences as Tom Waits (one of her musical mentors), film noir, Billie Holiday and underground punk, Mandell changes her colors with each passing album -- or maybe she just adds a few new subtle shades of gray. With her sixth album, Miracle of Five, Mandell has assembled her most intimate, torchiest set of songs to date -- not to mention a great cast of musicians, including Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and X drummer DJ Bonebrake (moonlighting here on vibes).
We caught up with Eleni just before the release of Miracle of Five and a busy touring schedule that includes stops up and down the West Coast and throughout Europe.
What does the title of your new album refer to?
The title refers to finding yourself in the arms of someone you've had a crush on for a while, holding their hand and dancing to some groovy, soft rock (like "Open Arms" by Journey or "How Deep is Your Love" by The Bee Gees).
You and producer Andy Kaulkin took the unusual approach of recording your vocals at home, then adding the other musicians in the studio later. Were you reluctant to try that approach at first? What do you think made it ultimately work so well?
Actually, we recorded the vocals and guitar simultaneously in the studio, not at home. I was nervous about that approach because I've long been an advocate of organic, live music, but this afforded me the opportunity to really hear myself, really feel relaxed and really take the time to get things right. I feel like it paid off. And it allowed my drummer, Kevin Fitzgerald, to play as loudly as he could possibly desire.
You were a big fan of X growing up, right? Is it still a thrill to get to work with X members like DJ Bonebrake?
Absolutely. It's also a relief to discover that someone you looked up to and admired as an impressionable teenager is such a truly down to earth, cool person. He's extremely talented and fun to work with, too. The first time we were in the studio together, I gathered my courage to tell him how much X influenced me and inspired me to become a musician. He said something like "I feel like I should apologize."
You've shifted styles quite a bit over the course of your career. If you had to describe the "sound" on Miracle of Five, what would you call it?
Romantic, make-out music.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process -- do you start with lyrics, a melody, an idea, or does it change from song to song?
Usually, everything happens simultaneously. That is my favorite way to write. My second favorite way is when a title or word inspires me (like "Nickel Plated Man," a title from my first record). I might write it at the top of a page everyday for a month and then, finally, the song will come.
There's a certain timeless quality about a lot of your music -- if you could time travel, what would be the first year you'd visit?
Wow, that's a hard question. I'd definitely want to meet my grandfather, Julius. It's really hard to choose but maybe the late 1930s in the East Village (NYC) at a club, watching some great bebop musician perform while chatting with Gramps over a perfect martini.
What was your favorite thing about growing up in Los Angeles?
I had a really nice childhood. Some of my favorite, vivid memories are rather mundane things like walking down to Ventura Blvd. to buy a candy bar at the local drugstore. Looking back, I have a real and growing appreciation for the music scene in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I got to see a lot of great bands and there was really a ton of great music happening then.
Do you ever think about living anywhere else or do you still love it here?
I love it here now more than ever. For many years I tried to think of somewhere else to go but Los Angeles always seemed like a better option. And I could never live in a city without great Chinese food.
I have this unshakable and probably unhealthy fascination with Tom Waits. Do you have any Tom Waits stories you can regale us with? Or Chuck E. Weiss [Waits' cohort and the inspiration for the song "Chuck E's in Love"], who I know less about but I gather is just as much of a character.
Chuck is definitely a character. The story I've told a million times (but I still love it) is the first time I met Chuck at Musso and Frank's. I had seen him perform a month earlier, for the first time. It's a bit silly but somehow we ended up having a drink together (although he was drinking soda) and he invited me to go to Canter's Deli with him because he had to meet a friend there. I refused, on the grounds that I did not go places with strange, older men. Eventually I relented. It was as though my automatic pilot took over. We sat down and Tom Waits arrived and took his place beside me. I spent the next hour quietly listening to them talk about the good old days. I've always felt that was an important signpost that pointed me towards a life in music.
Let's say this album becomes your biggest success to date -- its sells a million copies and suddenly you're playing sports arenas. What would you do next?
I'd request that my shows be switched to places like The Wiltern, go on vacation to someplace beautiful where you can see a million stars in the night sky, buy really good wine, and start trying to save the world.
To read our review of Eleni Mandell's new album, Miracle of Five, click here.