interview with singer-songwriter eleni mandell for paste magazine

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Having released five LPs, one EP, and two 7-inches since 1998—not including her latest album, Miracle of Five (V2)—Eleni Mandell just might be the music industry’s answer to wildly prolific author Joyce Carol 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.

P: You must have really trusted him. 

EM: I did. I just really got along with him, really had a good time working with him, and, yeah, really trusted him.

P: I read that you said he was hard on you at times. 

EM: 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.

P: That means doing more than one take? 

EM: 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.

P: So is it the case that the vocals were recorded and then, separately, the musicians did their interpretations based on your vocals and guitar? 

EM: Yeah.

P: Were you present when they recorded their parts? 

EM: Yeah.

P: So were you offering guidance? 

EM: 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.

P: You didn’t even make suggestions? 

EM: 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.

P: What is this thing that you said you wanted it to be like? 

EM: [Laughs] I don’t want to say!

P: Is it Saul Bass [the legendary graphic designer who created the poster for the 1955 film The Man With the Golden Arm]? 

EM: It is, it is. Yeah. [Laughs] Oops!

P: 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. 

EM: 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.

P: Your songs are sometimes autobiographical, is that right? Always or often? 

EM: 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.

P: It is, but there are degrees… 

EM: Yeah, there are degrees. And I hate to admit it, but I’m really literal.

P: Must be hard for the people you’re singing about sometimes… 

EM: 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.

P: Sewing, like, clothing? 

EM: Yeah, I’ve been making my own clothes. It’s really fun.

P: I had read that you found some vintage patterns in…Oregon, was it? 

EM: 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.

P: Like where you’re sewing every day? 

EM: 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.

P: And then you’re, like, making a slipcover for the pillow on the airplane when you travel… 

EM: I haven’t gotten that bad. If I start upholstering, I’ll really worry.

P: Tell me about how living in Los Angeles influences the way you write and the kind of music that you make. 

EM: 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.

P: Because it’s so spread out? 

EM: 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.

P: And yet you love it there. 

EM: 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.

P: You have several side projects. One of them is the Living Sisters, with Inara George [also of the Bird and the Bee]. 

EM: 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.

P: And then is there a side project called the Grabs? 

EM: 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.

P: Why is that? 

EM: 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.

P: Did you sing on a Paris Hilton commercial? 

EM: [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.

P: Was she in the commercial? 

EM: Yeah. You should look it up. It was banned in certain states.

P: Is it racy? 

EM: Yeah. It’s basically her in a very revealing bathing suit washing a car. And a hose. You know--cliché sexual innuendos.

P: Not to mention something you picture for In N’ Out Burger… 

EM: Yeah. But people got really up in arms about it.

P: What kind of music are you listening to these days? 

EM: Besides friends of mine, I have been listening to Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmilsson. It’s a great record. And Otis Redding.

P: Do you go on to iTunes, or do you go to Amoeba [the music mecca for Californians]? How do you find new music? 

EM: 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!

P: What are you hoping will happen for The Miracle of Five? 

EM: 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.

(Published in Paste, 2007)