Eleni Mandell takes us into the future
A few years back, I got a CD in the mail that had this weird George Jetson-meets-DNA-looking design on it. It was supremely not a roots/folk/Americana-looking album. I get so many CDs sent to me in the mail, I don’t bother with albums which are clearly not even trying to present themselves as anything in the genre about which I typically write. There’s not enough time in the world to listen to every singer-songwriter and “next big” honkytonk thing, much less artists-of-random-unspecified-genre.
But, this particular day, when I received this particular CD, I happened to be in a mood. I liked the colors on the cover, frankly, and I liked the idea of the title – Artificial Fire. Contained in those two little words was the sentiment I have, for the last many years, extracted from just about every radio pop hit. I knew off the bat this might be a pop record which was so self-aware as to call itself out. It was going to be about discovering the abject fakery behind things which you might imagine could not be faked.
Everything can be faked, for better or worse, the title seemed to assert. Even fire.
I fell hard for that album. I wrote about it here, when I got to interview its artist, Eleni Mandell, before her appearance at Bumbershoot that year. I figured people looking to attend Bumbershoot might wonder why I was spending time talking to her when there were plenty of well-known rootsy artists on the bill, but I didn’t care. It was one of those rare moments as a critic/writer/whatever I am, when you get to shine light on an artist whose work is superb despite – or maybe even because of – the fact that it is different from everything else.
According to Mandell, though, the album “tanked”. Indeed, I’ve met few people who heard it. A damn shame.
When I talked with Eleni back then, she was apparently going through a bit of a time. Her band was more or less falling apart. She had decided she wanted to be a parent and was realizing she’d have to do that on her own. Once she decided to make that leap, it took her two years of troubleshooting her body and its cycles before she finally got pregnant. With twins.
“It was one of the worst times in my life,” she told me this week, “that’s where these songs come from.”
“These songs” to which she’s referring are the ones which appear on her new album, I Can See the Future. It’s her first release on Yep Roc – a fact which pleases her mainly because she feels like she finally has a team behind her music. Advocates. It strikes me as silly she should need them – an artist as authentically gifted as she, in a world of others who all sound the same. But a beautiful little bird singing against the din of bustling factories. Yes, one needs advocates.
A week or two ago, she rolled into Asheville, NC, with her friends Henry Wolfe and Benji Hughes. They were scheduled to play at the Grey Eagle – the storied River Arts District bar prized for its allegiance to acoustic music. Asheville is a big town for acoustic music. Folks here value three chords and the truth. They get down with the insightful, imaginative singer-songwriter as much as they do to the high-octane bluegrass troupe. You’d think this bunch of incredibly gifted songwriters would engender a terrific amount of interest. Of course it happened that same night the Tallest Man on Earth was playing across town. This town is just not big enough for two great acoustic shows happening on the same night across town from one another. Tallest Man on Earth had the indie blogger buzz. That show was sold out.
When I got to the Grey Eagle, there were about eight people in the audience – two of them were Mandell and Hughes, watching their friend Henry onstage. Two bartenders, a sound guy, me, and then the other people seated around the room. In the center of the comically empty room, someone had placed a single chair. It remained empty. I took a loveseat in the back.
Henry Wolfe was remarkable. Songwriting like Tom Waits, a voice much better than that. By the time Mandell got onstage maybe five more people had shown up. One of them had taken the seat in the middle of the room, picked it up, moved it to the left about four feet, and sat. “We had this huge floor in front of us that people could have literally roller skated around while we performed,” she remembered. On nights like that, when you’re onstage alone, she admits, “It’s hard to know who you’re touching with your music.”
Given that the audience was silent except for its enthusiastic applause between numbers, the odds are most people were being touched.
The songs may have come out of the worst time in her life, but Mandell is a remarkably honest songwriter. Her lyrics are poetic in the sense that the mousy, articulate, unassuming girl in your social studies class was pretty. They’re just showing up, being what they are, telling the truth and mattering. Take for example, “I’m Lucky” – a song which sounds like a pep talk about loneliness, given to the bathroom mirror.
I take myself out for a night on the town, I’m lucky
I stay home when I’m feeling lowdown, I’m lucky
Every year I celebrate, blow out the candles on my birthday cake
Another wish or just a big mistake, I’m lucky
No other fortune teller told my fortune any better
It’s all so clear to me
I’m free, oh, I’m lucky
For her part, Mandell has composed around these lyrics a reticently whimsical melody. The whole song feels like a “fake it til you make it” love song about onesself. A friend once suggested when I was feeling bad about myself I should make ugly faces in the mirror – expressions which represented how I felt. Inevitably after a few twists of the mouth and brow, you start to realize the absurdity of everything. You at least get to laughing at your silly unfounded emotions, if not feeling better altogether.
That’s kind of how this record comes across. Trying to change your own mind. Trying to shift perspective. She does it on the title track, too:
I want to fall in love again
I know where it will happen
Along the California coast
where the ocean meets the mountains
I can see the future
What interests me the most about this record, though – whimsical arrangements aside – is that, in the worst time of her life, rather than disappear into a dark studio and make an album of navel-gazing “woe is me” music, she surrounded herself with a fairly dreamy band. Greg Liesz’s presence is strong. Benji Hughes shows up for a duet. The whole thing is exquisitely produced by Joe Chiccarelli (Tori Amos, Jason Mraz, the Strokes, Counting Crows).
I asked her about this. When you’ve just been through one of the hardest times in your life, how is it to have other people putting their touches on your feelings about it all?
“I’ve always found rehearsing and recording with a band a little embarrassing because my songs are so personal,” she said. “At some point I realized [the musicians are] not even paying attention to the words. It’s definitely a vulnerable position to be in, to play your heart out about this stuff that’s really happening in your life…but I feel now, I can [look back at this hard situation] and I’m now having the best time of my life, spending time with my kids. It’s amazing and I feel like every day is full of joy even when we have to be on the road. I feel like everything has come full circle.”
There’s nothing artificial about it, in other words. This time around, she gets to focus on the real fire.She’s still on the road, by the way. Check her tour dates here. Follow @kimruehl on Twitter