Eleni Mandell: Revelations of an X-lover
Eleni Mandell was in high school when she discovered that country music and run-ins with the law sometimes go hand-in-hand.
“I was a huge X fan,” Mandell begins. “So when the Knitters happened, I went and saw them.” Although her father sometimes listened to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, it was that night, hearing John Doe and Exene Cervenka sing “Silver Wings” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” when country truly registered on her radar.
After the show, Mandell wrangled her way backstage, “which is when I learned that nothing really happens backstage,” she chuckles. “But I was excited because I got to stand next to John Doe. And I stayed out past my curfew.” When she got home, she found her father “on the phone, in his underwear, with the police.” She was grounded for a month.
After that, she started noticing the country influences on her Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones records. But even though her latest album is entitled Country For True Lovers, Mandell didn’t become a devotee of true country until years after the Knitters’ brief mid-’80s heyday. While touring by car, often alone, in support of her first three albums — Wishbone (1999), Thrill (2000), and Snakebite (2002) — she started actively seeking out classic country stations on the radio dial.
“I just liked singing along,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘I want to do this.'” The possibility of making a foray into this territory held other attractions, too. “I could be an old lady and do this,” she realized. “And if my hair falls out, I’ll start wearing wigs.” She began to purchase albums by Nelson and George Jones, although, appropriately, the Nashville full-length that made the biggest impression on her was Tammy Wynette’s 1967 debut, Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.
Duly inspired, Mandell officially decided to detour around her trademark gritty vignettes and skeletal arrangements, which have garnered comparisons to PJ Harvey and Tom Waits, and give traditional country a try. But she wanted an outside producer familiar with the genre. Once again, the music led her back to X, this time in the person of the band’s late-’80s guitarist Tony Gilkyson, who she knew through a mutual friend, Chuck E. Weiss.
To support Mandell, Gilkyson selected the cream of L.A.’s country session men, including former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington, guitarist Joshua Grange, pedal steel player Dave Pearlman, and bassist Paul Marshall (whose credits include contributions to the infamous movie Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls).
With Gilkyson and Heffington calling the shots, recording went quickly: Country For True Lovers was made in just two weeks, versus the two years it took Mandell to eke out the critically-lauded Wishbone. Playing with seasoned vets meant fewer retakes, but the nature of the material demanded more of Mandell’s pipes than ever before.
“On my earlier records, the songs were scary or dirty, and you can kind of growl your way through them,” she admits. “But true singing, while fun as hell, was pretty difficult.” Mandell even gave yodeling a try, although ultimately that track, Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues”, didn’t wind up on the record.
The dozen songs that did make the cut, which include covers of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and Merle Haggard’s “I’ve Got A Tender Heart”, bear little trace of the hard-as-nails persona Mandell brandishes on her other albums; even the rough-edged “You’re All Bad (And That’s Why You’ve Been Invited)” sounds playful in contrast.
Although a couple originals, including “Home”, pre-date her decision to make True Lovers, the bulk were hammered out in the summer of 2002, right before recording began. “Lucky for me, I had some rotten guy in my life, who I was flying around the country to see,” Mandell says. “Nothing beats a bad boyfriend for inspiration.”
Alas, that insight wasn’t exactly a new revelation. Despite its romantic, Hometown U.S.A. imagery, the hushed and dreamy waltz “Iowa City” was also prompted by a relationship on the rocks, albeit an older one. “I was on my very first tour. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was desperate to have someone help me.” So she invited her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend along, for muscle and company. “And we hated each other, but then we just happened to get along in Iowa City.”
Mandell plans to finish her fifth album, which she describes as “soul music,” fitting somewhere between True Lovers and her grittier fare, in July. Perhaps she’s finished with drawing on heartbreak for inspiration. “I’ve got enough material now. I’m ready for a good boyfriend,” she concludes. “I’ll sing cover songs the rest of my life if I have to.” Which should leave plenty of time to shop for wigs.