Eleni Mandell | Salt Truck = Love

eleni-smI think about what I’ll 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?" 





When we talked to her, Eleni Mandell was reclining in a hotel room someplace in Pennsylvania. She was on the first part of a U.S. tour that took her from coast to coast in support of her most recent album, Miracle of Five. Mandell’s voice forms the focal point of the album—just a woman and her guitar—so to hear that voice curling through the receiver, especially with a slightly rough morning edge, made the interview that much more ejoyable. Mandell’s career has been one both charmed and always appearing to be on the edge of greatness. The L.A. singer/songwriter has been a critic’s darling and one who has found her niche in some unforeseen places (one that brought her in contact, at least by name association, with Paris Hilton). With Miracle, her sixth album, Mandell seems to be marshalling all her resources and aiming them directly for success. The album is not so much a departure for her as it is a honing of her vast talents. With Andy Kaulkin producing, Mandell has an able partner to reign her in and allow her to concentrate on creating a deep intimate mood on the LP; it is truly a perfect soundtrack for summer.

That is where we began our conversation; before it ended, we talked about Paris, dentistry and salt trucks.


I really liked the other albums, but I wanted to say that on this album, I don’t think you sound like anyone else. It’s like you’ve really found your voice.

Yeah, I completely agree.

Andy Kaulkin produced; is this the first time you’ve worked with him?


I understand that he had kind of a different approach. Basically, he just sat you down and had you play your guitar and vocal parts, then went back later and added to it. How do you think that worked?

eleni3Well, 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 [Epitaph] 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 it’s actually much harder for me to play in front of one person that I don’t know that well instead of in front of 100 people that I don’t know at all, 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. It’s 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.

It’s kind of a nice thing to let someone else take care of it. He also picked the final songs that went into the mix?

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.

Will those other songs show up anywhere?

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 it’ll work out OK.

But it’s still about love and loss? Love and gain?

[Laughs] Well, life is kind of about that.

This is your sixth album over 10 years , and you’ve been with Zedtone for pretty much the entire time. What do you think makes that relationship work? It’s kind of a rarity in this day and age for an artist to stick with one label for that long a time.

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 I’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 really that he’s such a fan of music.

As a songwriter, how do you find inspiration? Do you go to a certain place? Do locales influence it?

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. The radio in L.A. isn’t great, we have a couple good stations, but I kind of like just flipping around and suddenly a great Earth Wind and Fire song comes on. Or when I’m totally fed up with the radio and I turn it off and 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 I’m walking in my neighborhood up to Griffith Park, making up songs to myself. I’m sure I look totally insane.

But you can just say, "Look, songwriter on duty now."

Exactly. And sometimes I’ll take notes and notice that I get this excited feeling-and I’m kind of starting to think it’s a feeling related to being a kid or a teenager-and I’m noticing certain colors, like I’ll go to the flea market and there will be a pile of t-shirts and the colors will remind me of my childhood. I’ll 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 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. Then I’ll 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.

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?

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 goodeleni 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, I’d 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 jotted down to my drummer Kevin, and he gave me this sideways look like, "You’re crazy." I promised "It’ll be different when its done!" Then of course it all came back to love. Salt trucks equal love."

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?

One thing that I’ve noticed I’m doing on the songs that are going on the new album is 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 of a Peggy Lee approach than a Lena Lovich approach.

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

I hope so.

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…

I think about what I’ll 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?"

A friend of mine saw you in Chicago and just said, "Damn her. She looks so good and her clothing is so awesome." But you do do a lot of your own sewing. Is that correct? You basically make what you wear on stage?

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.

So who are your musical heroes?

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 was a huge influence, and X, but I don’t know if I’d say that they are my musical heroes, but they were a huge influence on me and I still love their music. I’d say that I’m a little more obsessed with Bob Dylan now. But I guess I want to add Randy Newman, 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.

You’ve been hired to sing on several television commercials. When you get to sing other people’s music, how do you feel about that?

I love it. When I’m hired for a commercial I find it really amusing. It’s really challenging because you’re 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 what I 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 (for Hardees and Carls Jr. where Paris Hilton famously washes a car) 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. It was still a challenge.

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.

That’s funny. The most difficult part was when they were like, "Could you do the ooh again but a little more like OOOH."

I’m sure Cole Porter is happy.

I definitely heard some criticism for having sung 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 jobs they take. The music business, commercials and everything have 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.

I read a Times of London article which referred to how your family supported of your musical career. Were they helpful?

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. I’ve actually come to really appreciate it. Growing 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 them 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.

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

No. I did work for my dad [who is a dentist] for six years, and I think the last time was a good seven or eight 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 I’m 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 I’m really going to do that. | Jim Dunn
Eleni Mandell Official Site

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Eleni on Tour:

Sat.  9/8       KANSAS CITY, MO     Crossroads Music Festival

Sun.  9/23     CHARLESTON, WV     Mountain Stage – Cultural Center

Tues. 9/25      PHILADELPHIA, PA  Tin Angel

Wed. 9/26    NEW YORK, NY         Joe’s Pub**

Wed. 10/3     ZUMBROTA, MN        Crossings at Carnegie

Thu. 10/4       MINNEAPOLIS, MN  Cedar Cultural Centre

Sat. 10/6       CHICAGO, IL              Old Town School of Folk Music*

Sun. 10/7      CHAMPAIGN, IL        Courtyard Cafe


**co-headline with Jim Lauderdale

*with Howe Gelb


About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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