eleni mandell transcript

JD: Where are you right now?
EM: We’re in Morgantown PA right now. We played a show in Phialdelphia last night.

JD: How did the show go?
EM: It went really well actually. We’ve been here only two or three times before, and this was definitely the best time. I was very happy to see a lot of young people out there.

JD: Where did you play?
EM: We played the …angel.

JD: I wanted to let you know that this album was the first album of yours that I have ever heard, and I admit that kind of sheepishly because I listened to it, thought it was fantastic, went out and picked up as much of your previous stuff that I possibly could, and really enjoyed it all, and I’m really kind of embarrassed about. I start with an apology.
EM: That’s ok.

JD: I really liked te other albums, but I wanted to say that on this album, I don’t think you sound like anyone else. Its like you’ve really found your voice.
EM: Yeah, I completely agree.

JD: Its one of those albums where you recommend it to other people and consistently they all come back and say that they do the same and recommend it to their friends. Im really impressed with it.
EM: Thanks, that makes me very happy.

JD: Andy Calkin produced on this, is this the first time you’ve worked with him?
EM: Yeah.

JD: Just to get this question out of the way, I understand that he had kind of a different approach to doing this alum than you’ve done with previous albums. Basically he just sat you down and had you play your guitar and vocal parts, then went back later and added stuff to it. How do you think that worked?
EM: Well, when I first became friends with Andy, shortly before we recorded together, at some point he admitted that he was president of a record company and that some people that know me in his company told him to come see me, and that when he saw me perform and heard my records, he wasn’t that impressed. Then we became friends and I asked him if he wanted to produce for me, he said that he wanted to come over and hear the songs, so he came and sat in my living room, and its actually much harder or me to play n front of one person that I don’t know that well instead of in front of 100 people that I don’t know that well, so I just sat in my living room and played everything for him and he said that it never sounded better and he had never really heard my voice in that way and he said that he wanted to capture that feeling, that kind of intimacy and make sure that I was that relaxed. That I could hear myself that well so that my voice sounded as good as he thought it did in my living room.

So that’s what we decided to do, and I think it worked out really well. Its actually the same way that I started to record my first album with Jon Brion. After working with Jon in that way, I wanted to work with a band in a really organic way and it felt somehow inorganic to do it that way, to make the band come in one other time afterwards. But I don’t know, after years of thinking I knew everything, I was definitely willing to learn something new or learn it again.

JD: Its kind of a nice thing to let someone else take care of it. He also picked the final songs that went into the mix?
EM: Yeah he vetoed a couple, although I sort of insisted on them and in the end he was like, “You know I really don’t think these work in the context of the record.” And I’m glad I gave him that control. Part of it was I think just exhaustion after years of controlling everything, to have somebody, another set of ears, be invested enough, I was happy to have his input.

JD: will those other songs show up anywhere?
EM: Yeah I want to put them on the next record. And he was right, they didn’t ft with this current record. The next records a bit more upbeat in some kind of backwards and dark way, so I think itll work out ok.

JD: But its still about love and loss? Love and gain?
EM: (Laughs) well, life is kind of about that.

JD: This is your 6th album over 10 years approximately, and you’ve been with zevtone for pretty much the entire time. What do you think makes that relationship work? Its kind of a rarity in this day and age for an artist, unless you’re paul mccartney or someone, to stick with one label for that long of time.
EM: Well, one reason I think it works is because he’s one person and I’m one person and we have a friendship. Even when m not recording we stay in touch about other things. He’s also a music collector and lover or all kinds of music so he really understands all of the other influences that go into my music and all of the other styles that I want to explore. He’s completely thrilled about all of them. I guess I’m just lucky that it’s worked for so long, he’s been really generous. I think its rally that he’s such a fan of music.

JD: Well he must be hapy with the results of this one, I think the album’s doing really well. I actually saw it in the Entertainment Weekly “Must” List a while ago.
EM: Well that’s good.

JD: I love when I see music that I like in there because it seems like its just a bunch of people sitting around going, “You know, I really like this album and I really think that it needs to get a little extra exposure.” And the reviews have been really great, I’m sure its nice when you put a lot of effort into it and it pays off—everything gels.
EM: Yeah.

JD: As a songwriter, how do you find inspiration? Do you go to a certain place? Do locales influence it?
EM: Well, I don’t look for inspiration, I wait for it to find me. That helps. I’ve noticed that there are certain things that always get me thinking about words and melodies and draw me back into writing songs if I haven’t done it in a while. One thing is when I’m driving with the radio off, I don’t have a cd player in my car and I really kind of like that. Te radio in la isn’t great, we have a couple good stations, but I kind of like just flipping around and suddenly the great Earth Wind and Fire song comes on and when I’m totally fed up with the radio and I turn it off and I just start singing to myself and making songs up. I’ve actually written a lot of songs that way–I just repeat something over and over and when I get home I run inside and write it down.

Also I like when im walking in my neighborhood up to Griffin Park making up songs to myself I’m sure I look totally insane.

JD: But you can just say, look songwriter on duty now,

EM: Exactly. And sometimes ill take notes and notice that I get this excited feeling—and im kind of starting to think it’s a feeling related to being a kid or a teenager—and I’m noticing certain colors, like ill go to the flea market and there will be a pile of tshirts and the colors will remind me of my childhood. Il get that feeling and want to start writing. I’m trying to pay attention to the signs because a lot of times I’ll tell myself that I’ve done so much stuff that I’m proud of and really enjoy what I get to do for a living even if I’m not a household name, and if I don’t write anymore that’ll be ok. And then ill write another song, and there’s just no greater feeling for me than when I write a song that I like and play it for someone else…so I’m trying to pay attention to those signs.

JD: Do you start off with the personal and then try to enhance it? Like on the new album, a song like “Salt Truck,” where it seems to be personal than it’s a little more generalized maybe to make it accessible?

EM: Well I never try to make anything accessible, which I think is obvious given the nature of my career. But what I tend to do—“Salt Truck” is a good example—is I start off with a very literal situation. We were driving around the country in the winter, the worst winter in 100 years or something, and I had never experienced black ice or swerving or seeing a big rig slide across the road, so I was pretty terrified. Whenever salt trucks would appear, id feel safe and I knew I could relax, so I started off writing this ridiculous song to a salt truck, and I remember reading the little notes that i had jotted down to my drummer Kevin, and he gave me this sideways look like, you’re crazy. I was like, “It’ll be different when its done!” Then of course it all came back to love. Salt trucks=love.

JD: They do, it’s a great metaphor. So is your voice really scratchy from singing?

EM: Well im lying down right now—we had a pretty late night last night—and it doesn’t always sound this scratchy.

JD: Damn that Stephanie for scheduling it this early. I was shooting to fit into your schedule.

EM: No, its ok, I always get up pretty early, so this is perfect.

JD: Well then let me ask the voice question: your voice has really matured in the last 10 years, are there things that you’re willing to try now than you were when you started? Have you refined your presentation? Your voice can probably do more than it could many years ago, but do you try to do more because of that?

EM: One thing that I’ve noticed I’m doing on the songs that are going on the new album is doing a lot more singing high. That’s really fun, I like to use all parts of my range. I don’t think I’m an acrobatic singer, or a perfect singer, or even an example of the best singing, and I don’t think that I have a huge range, but I definitely like to jump around, I used to not want to sing high because I thought it was girly, although I always wore dresses and high heels on stage so I don’t know why. I knew I didn’t like breathy high-pitched singers, I just preferred more mellow female singers like Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald. But I’m having a lot of fun playing with my upper register on these new songs. The other thing that I’ve changed since I’ve started is trying to deliver the songs with a more subtle approach, less acting more of a Peggy Wie approach than a Lena Lovich approach.

JD: It sounds like your later career is going to be really nice.

EM: I hope so.

JD: I can kind of visualize it, you’ll be in this little club when you’re 60 and come out with the cigarette burning and stuff…

EM: I think about what Il do when I’m 60—whether I’ll still be writing music and performing it live—and I always think, “What will I wear? Will I still be able to wear these rags that I got treasure hunting at flea markets or will that look ridiculous?”

JD: A friend of mine saw you in Chicago and just said, “Damn her. She looks so good and her clothing is so awesome.” And I was just like, tell mer more about the performance, I have to talk to this person! But you do a lot of your own sewing is that correct? You basically make what you wear on stage?

EM: Well I either wear stuff that I made or vintage stuff that I found. That night in Chicago I wore a dress that I made, the first night that I wore that dress so I was very happy that people liked it.

JD: Every once in a while, Dressy Bessy comes to town—Tracy Elam—ad shes another big thriftier. She likes to go out and find vintage clothing and stuff, and we always talk about having a contest where the prize is you can go thrifting with Dressy Bessy. So if you ever come to town, we can have a go thrifting with Elaine contest.

EM: There’s nothing id like more than to be turned on to the good thrift stores.

JD: There are some good ones here. So who are your musical heroes?

EM: As I get older, I want to keep adding names to that list, but the first two that I can think of are Tom Waits—who acts as a huge influence but I don’t know if id say anymore that they are my musical heroes, but they were a huge influence on me and I still love their music—but id say that I’m a little more obsessed with Bob Dylan now. But I guess I want to ad Randy Newman and Harry Nillson and Ella Fitzgerald and all the other great songwriters. But Tom Waits definitely changed my life and studying him unofficially I learned a lot about songwriting and lyrics and melody and all kinds of things..sounds.

JD: I read the story about you getting to meet him. Have you gotten to meet Randy Newman or Bob Dylan?

EM No, but I do think they would really love me.

JD: I think so too. When you get to—and I’m putting off the Paris Hilton question until the end—sing other peoples music, how do you feel about that?

EM: I love it, when im hired for a commercial. I find it really amusing. Its really challenging because youre not singing something you created in your room and practiced for your own voice. And you have to sing in a certain style and emote however these people want you to do it. I really find it challenging and I always hope they’ll want to use wha ti do. I sang in a demo for a Tide commercial where I had to sing a coffeehouse version of “America the Beautiful.” I really thought it was hilarious. And then I sang on a Crest commercial—there are all things they didn’t end up using—also a coffeehouse version of “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Its just really funny especially when you can see the commercial and the imagery—I just think its  a crackup. And I get paid. I sang on a Honda commercial, and that one made it. That’s the one that no one ever heard about but that I keep getting checks for. And then there was the Paris Hilton one, where I had to kind of do more emoting that was embarrassing to do in front of 10 executives in suits, which was what the last day of recording was like. It was still a challenge.

JD: It sounds like you almost found your Courtney Love. I finally downloaded a version of that and I was kind of shocked because I had spent all this time listening to your previous work and then this came on and it sounded like a Hole song.

EM: That’s funny. The most difficult part was when they were like, “Could you do the (ooh) again but a little more like (OOOH).”

JD: Im sure Cole Porter is happy.

EM: I definitely heard some criticism for having sone that, I guess especially because it’s a cole porter song. But the criticism came from people who can afford to pick and choose what jos they take or if they take those jobs at all. He music busness and commercials and everything has become pretty interconnected, and a lot of musicians get their big break by having their work on commercials. This wasn’t even my work, just my voice. I can see it both ways, but actually I really enjoy doing it and I like making money.

JD: I heard this really great thing by Wayne Coyne and he was talking about working at a burger shop in the early years of the Flaming Lips and he said that it gave him the money to pursue his dreams and really that’s what it comes down to.

EM: Yeah that’s pretty good.

JD: Anyway, do you ever get tired of people trying to think up descriptors for your voice?

EM: It’s amusing.

JD: I read the times of London article, which I thought was really cute because its true. Was your family supported of your musical career?

EM: Over the top. I always said that if my parents were less supportive, I’d be more successful. You hear these stories about John Lennon, and how his dad was never around, and people whose parents have never come to a show or whatever and my parents have seen me every time that I’ve played in LA. Ive actually come to really appreciate it. Rowing up, my mom played the piano and my dad collected records, so I grew up hearing a lot of different stuff from them. Strangely, when I told the, that this is what I wanted to do, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They thought I was really good. They think I should be more famous.

JD: So there’s no plans for you to join the dental practice?

EM: No. I did work for my dad for 6 years and I think the last time was a god 7 or 8 years ago. Now, I kind of enjoy knowing that much about teeth from all those years. Like when my friends have toothaches, I can tell them what I think it is and then send them to my dad. But I brainstorm about other careers all the time because I think someday this is all going to stop and im barely keeping my head above water as it is. For a while I wanted to go to fashion school, not to be a big designer but to be a seamstress or something, but I don’t know if im really going to do that.

JD: You sound like you still got options. Let’s talk about Living Sisters and Grabs, are they still going on?

EM: They’re floating in the ether. Steve Gregorpoplis, my writing partner in the Grabs, is in a band called Lavendar Diamond and they’re on tour. Becky Stark, whose one of the singers in Living Sisters, is also in Lavendar Diamond. And Norah George, the other girl in Living sister, is in the Bird and the Bee and has her own solo career. SO between everyone that’s involved, no one’s really home right now. But George and I definitely want to do another Grabs record. Its kind of nice because we never toured after the first record, and even less peole knw who the Grabs are than know who I am, but as ive been on the road people have been asking me “When are te Grabs coming back? I love the Grabs record.” So its nice to have all this affirmation and it makes me hopeful that we’ll do another record soon. And then The Living Sisters is like one of the most joyous things im involved in, we don’t get to play that much, we have no record out, although we started recording over a year ago. We dress up in these ridiculous disco outfits with ribbons and feathers and everything, and we walk out and people think we look like this joke and we start singing these old fashioned, romantic songs. Just singing harmonies with them is great, its not easy, and I think I’m the worst of the three. But we have such a great time. I think we should go to hospitals and old folks home because its just the kind fo stuff that makes people smile and laugh.

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