Acclaimed songwriter Eleni Mandell writes wry, literate songs that synthesize jazz (Maybe, Yes), country (Country for True Lovers), folk, blues, rock and pop – reflecting the diverse LA music scene from which she springs. True to her clever, eclectic nature, she stands up to PopMatters ‘Miss America’-like 20 Questions with self-deprecating humor. Her latest CD, Artificial Fire was released on Zedtone in February.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I seem to superficially cry during movies all the time when they turn up the sad music and hit you with those sappy notes. I’m completely programmed but I hate it. I don’t feel genuinely moved. I’m just reacting. I’ve even cried during a commercial or two.
I can’t remember the last book that made me cry but I was hysterical when I read On the Beach as a kid. I do most of my crying while reading a column in the New York Times on Sunday called “Modern Love”. What doozies they throw at you! In some ways it really makes me feel less hopeless, lonely and sorry for myself. For instance, one man wrote about his wife becoming paralyzed after an accident and how he suddenly had to deal with her incontinence and all other kinds of challenges. What made me cry was how they stuck together and wound up continuing to enjoy life, see the world, go to the beach etc.
I guess I “like” to cry at life affirming stories; stories that reflect the sad beauty of this world.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Scarlett O’Hara? I don’t know what it means that I wrote that when I don’t live on a plantation, own slaves or look like Vivienne Leigh.
Maybe it’s because Gone with the Wind directly affected my taste in men (Rhett Butler) for many years. Maybe because I think I could sew a dress into curtains. Of course, she probably had Mammy do it.
I think I relate to her strength, sometimes bitchiness and overly romantic nature. I hope I’m nicer than her, though.
There’s a Twilight Zone episode that I’ve always related to. It’s about the future when everyone is made to choose a certain look when they reach about 16 years of age. Each look is beautiful and everyone is happy and pretty. The main character doesn’t want to get changed and she is not very pretty.
She argues with her father about it because he taught her about philosophy and being oneself, being real. In the end she is dragged away to have the transformation against her wishes. Afterwards she runs to her father, beautiful and happy. She exclaims that really is wonderful to be beautiful and that everyone is right.
I’ve always felt “oppressed by the figures of beauty” (to quote Leonard Cohen). I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be truly beautiful in the conventional sense and I imagine that all my dreams would come true. I think there are lots of lessons to be learned from The Twilight Zone.
3. The greatest album, ever?
This question is impossible to answer. I have no idea. Lots of things come to mind ... But what’s the point of even giving an answer? There are so many great records and they’re all different.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I don’t give either of them a thought. If I really had to choose I’d go with Star Trek because it was fun to watch re-runs of it on KTLA when I was a kid. I always wanted some romance to happen between the Captain and some Martian…
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I prefer Star Wars because the romance does happen with Han Solo and Princess Leah. I do love Harrison Ford in that movie. I guess I’m boring on this subject but I’ve never felt strongly about either.
It was a big deal when Star Wars came out and it was fun to wait in line to see the movie. I miss that kind of excitement about movies. It seems like a long time since everyone seemed to be waiting excitedly for the same thing. I think this answer is boring.
5. Your ideal brain food?
The New York Times on Sunday. I will carry the paper around with me for a week hoping that I’ll read more of it. I get down on myself for starting with the Style section when there are more important things to read on the front page. But I always learn something and read about something new each week. It makes me feel grown up in a silly way.
I get a lot out of the New Yorker, too. Now I sound like a snob. Well, I love the LA Weekly, too. I think reading alone at a nice Vietnamese restaurant is great way to feed the brain and the body.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Quitting nail biting. I bit my nails for years. I thought of it as grooming because I only bit them as short as I needed them to be. But I started realizing that it made me look nervous and my vanity kicked in.
I never thought it would be possible to quit but I saw a hypnotherapist and she assured me that it was possible. I didn’t even go to her for that reason but it was a great by-product of our session. I do think about biting my nails but I’m very proud that I can think about how lovely it would be to bite them and refrain from doing it.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Writing good songs, being funny and throwing a good party. I always say that being funny is the hardest part of my job. I don’t prepare at all.
Perhaps I should try that but I find it disappointing when I discover other performers rehearse and prepare their jokes. Morally, I feel that it should be spontaneous. When I’m funny during a show I consider it a huge accomplishment.
I recently found an old autograph book that kids signed on the last day of school. This book was from 5th grade. A lot of kids remarked that I was funny. I have no memory of being funny but I like that I was thought of that way.
What’s better than throwing a good party? My mother really planned a lot of interesting birthday parties for me as a kid. I think that’s why I put a lot of stock in a good party. I think I’ve thrown some good ones, too. I suppose it’s all in the casting. You’ve got to have good friends.
This answer is starting to deteriorate ... being a good friend would be nice to be remembered for, too. Thoughtful ... oh boy, now I’m really losing it.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Yikes. I feel like I did when I took the SAT for the third time. Or I feel like I might if I was in a Miss America contest.
It seems like I should say something about world peace, like my good friend Becky Stark would ... the most inspirational are those that are honest, kind and thoughtful. I think making changes on a small level can really spread and create bigger changes over time.
Nigel Harrison, who is playing bass for me now, told us (the touring band) about the idea of not complaining or saying anything negative. Supposedly this can create a whole new attitude and outlook and spread to those around you. I like that idea.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Honestly my mind is a blank. I feel like I should’ve studied for this.
I’m happy with my imperfect, small, insignificant masterpieces but I wish I had nicer hair.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I can weave my toes together as though my feet are clasping like hands.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
My grandmother has always given me the best advice. The piece of advice I’m most grateful for is when she told me to go to the hospital on my birthday to see my other grandmother when she was dying of cancer. I really didn’t want to go because it was my birthday and I wanted to have fun. I’m so glad I did go to the hospital that day.
My sick grandmother was so happy to see me and really wanted to wish me a happy birthday. I often cry when I think about how horrible I would’ve felt if I hadn’t gone. But I did go! Thank God for grandmothers!!
Photo (partial) by Lauren Dukoff
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I stole a grammar book. I still have it. Perhaps if I ever read it I’d be a better writer.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Whatever is my new favorite vintage dress. I’m very fickle. I’ve had some things for many years and sometimes I wear something once and am completely sick of it. At least I buy used things so I’m recycling.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I’ve been to the Ritz! Twice! Once to visit a friend who is a scientist. He was put up there by a University that was courting him. We felt like little kids and swam in the pool.
The other time was in London. I’d heard that High Tea was really something to do at the Ritz. We had to try three times to get in. We weren’t dressed right, supposedly, to get in the first two times. We really got a kick out of all those little sandwiches.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d love to go back and have a conversation with my Grandpa Julius. He died when I was only two and I’ve had many dreams about him over the years. I wrote a song called “Conversation in a Dream” about finding him and talking to him.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I’m not sure I’ve very good at managing stress. That’s a work in progress. I like being talked down from the ledge by a good friend ... and a nice glass of wine.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
They’ve all been essential at different times. Except cigarettes. I hate tobacco. Hate the smell. I think the smoking ban is one the greatest thing that’s happened. I am really grateful that I’ve never been a smoker or a drug addict. I love to enjoy a good glass of Scotch, vodka, wine etc.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Every time I’m in nature I think about how life affirming, awe inspiring and nurturing it is. Yet I seem to be more drawn to cities. I think as I get older I’ll become more of a hippie and wind up living in nature. Or near nature. I always have to be within a short (ish) drive to a good Asian restaurant, though. And I’m a West coast girl for sure!
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Please, prosecute those responsible for torture! I think it’s very dangerous and immoral to let those in charge of such heinous crimes off the hook.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m on tour in Europe and working on getting over jet lag, keeping a positive attitude and not being homesick.