Although she’s released just two albums, Eleni Mandell’s music, featured on Wishbone and Thrill, is some of my favorite. Her songs are not only intricately crafted, they are almost bursting with personality. After recently receiving Thrill, I became even more intrigued by the woman who was writing and singing these incredible songs. I managed to talk with Eleni before she left Los Angeles on tour, to get a little insight into the woman who gave the world songs like “Meant to Be in Love,” “1970 Red Chevelle,” and “Giving Up the Fight.” I found her to be an engaging personality as we discussed her fashion sense, the joys of being an indie artist (even if that includes waiting tables), and The Third Man.
How was your record release party?
It actually went really well. It was pretty stressful, though. We chose this really bizarre venue. It’s a thousand-capacity, underground, subterranean, Mexican disco. We had to rent the PA from the house[sigma] like a Tejano band, and it was just insane. But I think we pulled it off and there was enough people there that it did not look remotely empty. So it was good. People seemed to appreciate the strangeness of the whole situation.
What’s your usual audience like?
I don’t really know. I haven’t been playing much lately in Los Angeles, because it’s kind of a thankless thing to do. I used to play at a place called Largo a lot, and the audiences were a little bit more sophisticated. Then I started playing on the east side of town, where I live, a little bit more. It isn’t that the audience there isn’t sophisticated, but they’re a little more punk rock, and actually, I was always afraid to play over here because of that, [I] thought I wasn’t punk rock enough for them, but they actually seem pretty supportive. Los Angeles’ audiences are kind of thin, just because it’s not really the greatest place for music, even though it’s where the industry is. Maybe because it’s spread out, people don’t seem that excited about going to clubs or seeing live music.
Do you think some of that has to do with the culture? The “laid back” stereotype?
I don’t really know. I think it has a lot to do with people just being jaded. Everybody being a musician or an actor, so people just sort of feel like they’ve seen it all before. A lot of the clubs aren’t so great around here.
Are you happy with the new record?
Oh yeah! I’m very proud of it. I had so much fun making it and we made it relatively quickly. I think it took like 24 days or something from start to end of mixing. I loved the people I worked with[sigma] Sheldon, the upright bass player, and Danny Frankel, the drummer, and Brian Kehew, who produced the last one and also produced this one. It was just and absolute joy to make and basically really easy to make. And everyone was really excited about it. I think you can tell from the record that everyone enjoyed themselves.
What kind of musical training have you had?
I took violin and piano lessons as a kid. I played violin for eight years, and I played piano for probably five. I can read music, but I can’t really play either of those instruments anymore. When I was thirteen, I begged my mom to let me quit, and when I was fifteen, I walked down to the boulevard and rented a guitar, and started playing guitar. I definitely wish I could do something on the piano. It would have been nice if I had sort of been exposed to Stephane Grappelli or bluegrass for the violin. But I really didn’t feel a connection to classical music. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but I couldn’t sing along to it.
Do you do any writing other than your songs?
Actually, in college, I sort of minored in creative writing, and I actually sort of wrote a novel, but I’m [not] sure anyone else would consider it one, because it’s probably pretty terrible. I did actually want to be a writer, and I really enjoy writing, and I’ve made some short films. But I definitely have been concentrating on writing songs and have not been writing anything else for the last few years. But I do hope to again in the future. A friend of mine and I wrote a screenplay that’s also really bad. I do think it’s worthwhile to concentrate on one thing, and I think I’ll go back and work on writing prose at another time.
Haven’t you done some voiceover work in films?
Yeah, I’ve made a little bit of money singing for films. Not at all recently. I performed in this movie, what was it called? Destiny Turns on the Radio. The actress was supposed to be a singer and I was her voice, which was really funny, and we recorded that with Herbie Hancock. I was pretty young; maybe I was twenty-five or something. Feels young. It was kind of scary[sigma] with Herbie Hancock. Not because I knew anything about him. Now I know that he has this great history in jazz. I definitely felt intimidated. I felt like they really wanted a different kind of singer, and they sort of got me. I can’t sing like Whitney Houston, and I think that was sort of what they were hoping [for]. It was a little stressful.
What are your live shows like? I’d imagine it’s pretty difficult to replicate the sound of your albums live.
I don’t really love to see a record replicated live. I think that can be boring. If you’re seeing a live performance, you want there to be something different about it that makes it special. And that is my rationalization for not replicating my records. When I tour, I’ve been touring just by myself. Just guitar and vocals. I just don’t have the money to take anybody on the road with me. In New York, Kid Congo Powers from Congo Norvell, and the Bad Seeds, and Gun Club; he sits in with me, often, when I’m in New York. At my record release, I had the full band, almost replicating the new record. For the first record, Jon Brion – I used to play a lot at Largo, and Jon Brion would sit in and run around the stage almost replicating, because he could play so many things. I used to feel sort of a pressure about replicating it, and I don’t anymore. I do wish and I hope that in the future I can take a band out with me. But I also think there’s something special about hearing the songs the way they were written, and I try to give as much to the performances as I would if I had a band. Often, it’s actually easier. I think I can give a better performance because there are no other variables that can throw me off and I can hear myself.
In the liner notes for Thrill, you seem rather proud of the fact that no computers were used to make your record.
I just think that technology makes things easier and cheaper, but not better. I don’t feel that music should be perfect. I think Pro Tools are often used to make something perfect. To make a singer sing exactly on key or to make a drum exactly in time. I think the music that any of us really love, the Beatles or Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday – nothing’s perfect about it. There’s a human quality that computers definitely take away. I don’t think everything needs to be soundproofed and isolated. I just think music should sound real, like it’s being played. You know, Bob Dylan wasn’t perfect. I do feel that computers and abuse of Pro Tools and all of that detracts from getting a wonderful feeling from music that I got as a kid, that I think all of us got as kids.
Speaking of computers, where do you stand on Napster and music on the Internet?
I’m pretty much Internet-ignorant. I use e-mail, but I’ve always felt the Internet is pretty much a passing fad. [There are] people that get really excited about this immediate gratification, but I personally don’t get any satisfaction by sitting in front of the computer and shopping or Web surfing, it just doesn’t hold my attention. I also don’t watch television, so it’s not really a part of my life. I’ve sort of always felt that I’d rather people hear my music than not hear it. So I would like people to buy the record, but I feel also that people want to have the record. They want to hold it in their hand, they want to look at it, and read the thank yous and wonder about the artist. I could be wrong, but I feel like “so what,” in a way. I feel people will also want to purchase the record, as well, and support the artist. People aren’t going to be able to make music if people don’t support them. I’m not really against it, I’m not really for it. A friend of mine told me that I should join Napster so I could discover all of this new music, and I just didn’t do that. I just didn’t feel like it was something I want to do. I’d rather buy the record. I actually like to go to a record store. Leave my house. I don’t know, what do you think?
I think there’s potential for great good and great just garbage use. I think right now, we’re still very much in the garbage stage.
I think the garbage very much outweighs the good. Even on television, there’s good things on television, but mostly garbage. I think, unfortunately, the lowest common denominator wins out.
Just look at what most major labels are putting out.
Mediocrity is definitely popular. I think a lot of independent artists feel good about just being heard. I don’t know, how many people want to go on Napster? Is it mostly 13-year-old boys?
I don’t want to say it’s old fashioned, but your music certainly seems to belong to another time, or at the least be inspired by music from the thirties and forties.
I feel that way. I’ve always been kind of nostalgic and thought that I’d have fit in nicely in the thirties or forties. A lot of the music I listen to is either actually from that period or other people who feel the same way about it. I really appreciate[sigma] I love the Rolling Stones and I can appreciate Cheap Trick and the seventies and everything. But for me, I feel like the musical quality and old world[sigma] that’s very attractive to me. I love traditional music. I’ve actually sort of felt like I was too old fashioned, and that’s why the record industry didn’t get me or didn’t want me. Kind of like too cabaret or too showtuney or I don’t know what.
Are you into vintage clothes and fixtures and that scene?
Yeah. I’ve always, since I was thirteen, been wearing vintage clothes, but I definitely like to mix it up. There’s people, I call timewarpers, that are actually like curling their hair and everything, I don’t go that far. I feel like my body type, I just look better in older clothes. They had better quality and better fabrics, and more flattering in every way for me. I like it, but I don’t take it to an extreme. I try to just like what I like I don’t have any rules about it. Like I can’t wear something because it’s from a modern store, because some things you find in the mall are great. I sort of envy them, because it seems like they’re really having fun. It just seems like a lot of work, to really be committed.
Any desire on your part to try to get a major label deal?
No. I sort of feel like it’s almost pointless, anymore. Not necessarily because of the Internet, although it’s been really helpful to me just being able to communicate with people, people being able to find out about me. I do think doing it yourself and getting distribution, which I have, I just feel you can do so much and you can feel so much more satisfaction than with a major label. I think a lot of people make the mistake thinking that a major label is going to change their life, and open all of these doors. It’s possible that it could, but what is it, like two percent of musicians on major labels, actually make a living at it? Just because you’re on a major label doesn’t mean you don’t have to work a day job and doesn’t mean you’re going to be taken care of and prioritized at all. The way I have it, I get to work with people who love what I do, who have no desire to change what I do, and we’re making strides. We’re slowly getting somewhere, but it’s so satisfying. Even in the smallest way, coming home and having to waitress, it’s just so much more satisfying than having to play that game with them and having to sit around and wait for them to tell you if you have a single or not. I just have so many friends who became so disheartened from being on major labels and being dropped that they don’t even play music anymore. I usually say that a major label would have to pay me just to consider them. I’ve kind of been put through the wringer, and for what? I’ve done so much more on my own. I just don’t understand them at all. They put out so much crap and overlook so much great stuff. I don’t get it.
I don’t have a clever question here, so why don’t you just give me some of your thoughts on Tom Waits.
He was sort of my hero. When I was thirteen, I heard X and thought, “That’s what I want to do.” Then when I was fifteen, I heard Tom Waits, and I said, “no, that’s what I want to do.” A light just went on, it just made sense to me. I love his songwriting – it transports you to another world, and that was so attractive to me. I love that his voice is so unique and different, and he was a great inspiration and I was lucky enough to get to be acquainted with him and for him to be very supportive of me, which definitely got me through the years of rejection from the industry. I feel like I talk about him a little bit too much, but definitely an inspiration.
Didn’t you play on one of his tribute albums?
Yeah, I’m on the most recent one. I have very mixed feelings about tribute records. Basically, I don’t have mixed feelings about them, I just feel like they’re not necessary. Especially his music, I feel he did it all right the first time, I’d rather listen to him sing it any day. I was very flattered to be asked. I really enjoyed doing it, and I like what I did, but I still would rather listen to him sing “Muriel” than me.
What do you find sexy?
I find a ton of stuff sexy. I feel like with any art, it needs to have a sexual energy to be interesting to me. With painting or with movies or music. My favorite movie is The Third Man, which, I’ve never really said “The Third Man is really sexy,” but it is. There’s sort of like this dark quality, this mysterious quality that I think is really sexy. Then there’s blatant, obvious stuff, like the Stones or Jimi Hendrix – stuff like that. Driving is sexy. I guess you can find sexiness just about everywhere.
I guess since The Third Man is your favorite film, then saying some of your music has a film noir feel would not be totally off base?
No, it’s not totally off base at all. I just love that stuff. I love detective novels. I love, actually, I went through a period not that long ago of Charles Williford. I love all that. I’ve always related to that sort of stuff and wanted to be in it.
Your new record really has that feel, although there wasn’t really a lot of singing in film noir.
No. But god, the music from The Third Man is amazing. I got the record in Canada for a dollar, and in L.A., I saw it for sixty dollars, but I’d never sell it, it’s so great. The Third Man paraphernalia is the only thing I collect. I’m not like a huge collector, but I have a couple of things. A couple of posters and some sheet music and stuff like that. Every moment of that film is so amazing to me. God, it’s so good! Actually, at my record release party, they had these two huge video monitors on the sides of the stage, and we played The Third Man while I was playing. And we played like weird Dean Martin movies while the other band was playing. It was such a bizarre experience. I think I would have enjoyed it more, but I was really sick, so I was all hopped up on cold medicine so I could sing.
Yeah, there’s some weird virus going around, but I seem to have avoided it, but that may be because I never go out.
I never go out, but I got it. You know what’s so funny? This VH-1[sigma] this pilot they were doing for VH-1 and it was a real TV thing and they were going to follow a real musician around, and they called me. There are so many reasons I would never do something like that. Number one, I would never want to watch it. And I was like, “if you follow me around, it’s just not going to look that good. Home reading a book, steaming some broccoli, like really not that interesting.” We were thinking maybe we could make some stuff up. You’ve got the wrong girl!
For more information: http://www.elenimandell.com. ◼