Eleni Mandell – A stitch in time
“I kind of like being creative in all different ways, and letting the songs come to me. And I accept that they may stop coming someday. And that’s OK.”
Like any good Los Angeles showbiz pro, Eleni Mandell answers her cell phone and replies promptly to e-mails. She functions just fine in the 21st century. But her bittersweet songs suggest she might have been happier, and more prosperous, living in an earlier era — one when being up-to-date meant you’d attended an early Broadway performance of On The Town or South Pacific, or had purchased the Songs Of Leonard Cohen LP while everyone else in the dorm was still mesmerized by Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne”.
Of course, those are two different generations. Yet intimate Mandell miniatures such as “Moonglow, Lamp Low”, the lead cut from her new record, Miracle Of Five, could have been crafted in either. You can imagine Fred Astaire singing this ditty to his love interest on the silver screen, or Harry Nilsson appropriating it for his prescient A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night collection.
“My songwriting style is a bit more old-fashioned, and steeped in the traditional sounds from the past,” she concurs. “I’ve always been fascinated with old songs and photos and movies and books. There’s a romance for me in things that are old.”
That savvy sense of nostalgia permeates her whole worldview. “I mostly buy vintage clothes,” she continues. “The fabrics are more beautiful, and more attention was paid to craftsmanship and design and a woman’s body that was curvy, not straight and skinny like most designers focus on today. Also, I like having something special, something no one else has. That applies to my music, my career, my whole life, too. I like treasure hunting.”
Artists rarely limit themselves to a single discipline. Tony Bennett paints. Boogie-woogie pianist Marcia Ball is a gourmet cook. And Mandell spends almost as much time with her Singer as she does singing. She praises the music of Richard Rodgers, but gives off the impression she’d have been just as comfortable chatting with his wife, noted society hostess Dorothy. Before we get around to talking about Miracle Of Five (on Zedtone in America, V2 in Europe), she dissects season three of “Project Runway” — she and controversial winner Jeffrey Sebelia share mutual friends — and enthuses about finally learning to put in a zipper correctly.
“Sewing is my new obsession,” she admits. “Machine sewing is like driving a race car. There is no more fun you could have. Except for playing music.”
The latter bug bit her first. Mandell didn’t take a formal sewing class until seventh grade, but she began studying violin at age 5. Later, she traded in her bow and fiddle for the guitar, the better to accompany her singing. Smart kid. Those pipes have served her well since her Jon Brion-produced debut album, Wishbone, won critical acclaim in 1999. Suffused with smoldering warmth, her singing style is worldly but not world-weary; think Chet Baker on Benzedrine, or a less coquettish Blossom Dearie.
Producer Andy Kaulkin made sure to focus closely on that voice for Miracle Of Five, Mandell’s sixth full-length release. To elicit the performances he wanted, he placed his charge into solitary confinement…although not before trying more conventional methods first.
“We recorded all of the basic tracks before I went on a tour,” she remembers. “When I got back, Andy said, ‘I don’t think it’s good enough. We need to do it again.’ That totally broke my heart. But I really trusted him, so we did it again.”
The first time around, Mandell had recorded her performances live-in-studio with longtime bassist Ryan Feves. “That meant if either of us wasn’t at our best, we were screwed,” she says. On the second pass, Kaulkin threw Mandell and her nylon-string guitar in the booth, alone. After they got the takes they wanted, the band came in and retrofitted their performances to synch up with the vocals.
Not the easiest way of working, but it paid off. A protege of recording artist and notorious cult icon Chuck E. Weiss, Mandell has always surrounded herself with top-flight musicians (Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and X percussionist DJ Bonebrake feature prominently on Miracle). But sometimes the performances they concocted together on earlier records, such as her sophomore set Thrill, yielded an urgency that, while well-suited to her edgy originals, overwhelmed subtler vocal shadings.
The Kaulkin method meant her cohorts could cut loose without concern for influencing how Mandell sang. She croons contemplatively on “Girls”, a daydream reverie in three-quarter time. And in the background? Drummer Kevin Fitzgerald cuts loose. “He could play as loud as he wanted, without affecting me,” she reflects. “You just turn it down in the mix.”
Not to imply that Mandell is a delicate flower who requires constant supervision and hand-holding. Early on, she radiated a personality that seemed tough yet funny, like a former mob moll who opted to write jazz ditties and saloon ballads, rather than lurid tell-all page-turners, after her patrons got sent up the river. The air about the singer has mellowed with time, but her lyrics still suggest she would make an ideal eyewitness at any crime scene.
“Make-Out King” captures the first flush of a new love in a flurry of telling details — how her beau dances, tousles his hair — while “My Twin” ruminates moodily on the search for the man of her dreams (who may very well be dead), even as a sinewy saxophone line follows her like a detective trailing a suspect through a darkened train yard. The same economy of words is evident in lighter numbers; the Mills Brothers might’ve had a ball with the jaunty “Salt Truck”.
“What I hope has happened is, I’ve just gotten better at what I do,” she says of the refinements in her songwriting style. “I never force anything. If anything, I try to take things out more now, and edit myself, and say as much as I can with as few words possible. Every time I write a song, I feel like I got lucky. And if it’s good one? Then I’m extra lucky.”