Seeing the Future: An Interview with Eleni Mandell

She's done jazz, rock, country, and even a bit of funk. But now, taking her kids on the road instead of her band, Eleni Mandell speaks to PopMatters about her new album and how it shows her in a new light: completely at ease with who she is ...

Eleni Mandell

I Can See the Future

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2012-07-10
UK Release Date: 2012-07-16

Once upon a time, a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles named Eleni Mandell dreamed of her Prince Charming.

She wrote song after song to him, whoever he might be, as well as songs to other princes she met along the way. When she was in her early 40s and the prince hadn't shown himself, she took matters in her own hands and found a sperm donor. Soon, Mandell found herself pregnant with twins and songs alike. When she was eight months pregnant, she went into the studio with veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli to record her latest record, I Can See The Future. While the album is titled after things to come, the songs reflect on the past, second-guessing love affairs and seeing former lovers as they are. The songs also still carry Mandell's trademark spark: the hope of what lies ahead.

"I want to fall in love again / I know where it will happen," opens I Can See the Future, as Mandell sweetly sings about the landscape that will house the birth of her new love. The beauty and optimism inherent in the song evoke some of her earlier work, namely the title track of Miracle of Five: "Fingers on your hand / hand is holding mine / dancing in the bar / miracle of five," begins that song, describing how holding hands with the right person can feel like a miracle.

Mandell is very much a romantic, but don't mistake that meaning she shares Celine Dion or Josh Groban's cheeseball sentimentality. For Mandell, there is a seasoned wisdom to her romanticism. "I knew it would not last forever," she sings in "Magic Summertime." And she's not afraid to admit it when she's wrong about a romantic prospect, as in her song "Artificial Fire" from the album of the same name: "I'm a killer at heart / and I wanted to feel / so I laid out my trap / with my artificial fire." So ends the song, whose title comes from a pun on les feu d'artifice, the French word for fireworks, which Mandell describes here as a metaphor for her failed relationships.

Whether she's reflecting on the past, growing wiser about the present, or preparing for the future, she never loses her masterful songcraft or her voice that is as lovely as it is versatile. Consider, for example, Mandell's ability to switch genres. She started with the angsty, rocking edge present on Snakebite and Thrill, detoured through country on Country for True Lovers, stopped off in jazz for the Maybe, Yes EP and Afternoon, and included some funk-inflected numbers on 2009's Artificial Fire. Mandell will likely never settle down with one signature style, but she will also never settle for platitudinous, overproduced ballads, if we can see the future. And I think we can.

* * *

One thing I noticed was the presence of strings on this record more than on your other records. I was wondering whether you made that choice or that was a production choice.

Well, my friend Nate Walcott -- who is in Bright Eyes and has done all their arrangements -- I wanted him to be involved but I didn't know what I wanted him to do. Then Joe Chiccarelli, he had a little more direction. I was just open to anything. It was pretty much Nate's choice how he wanted to arrange things, and then he got a little bit of nudging from Joe.

Another thing I've noticed about your records is that you've changed producers a lot. Is that an aesthetic decision, or have you just not found the perfect fit?

My first three records were all produced by Brian Kehew. Jon Brion produced most of the first one and Brian Kehew finished it. After that, it's not that I want to avoid anybody. I love everybody that I've worked with. I have a great rapport with them in the studio. I guess I'm looking to try new things. I didn't know Joe, and I didn't know his track record and all of his awards, but friends that had worked with him heard some of my new songs said, 'Oh, you have to have Joe Chiccarelli produce this.' I emailed Joe and we started a conversation about it. But it was really just a serendipitous accident that came into my life. I always think I'm going to produce the next one and then I get cold feet.

What holds you back from producing your own record?

I guess I'm afraid of getting stuck. I gravitate towards certain things, certain sounds. I'm not an engineer at all. Joe is. Not all the producers I've worked with are, but it's really nice when someone knows sound and all the technical stuff. I'm just afraid that I'll be too much of myself. I still think that I will do it. I did a lot of producing on [her side project] the Living Sisters record. I feel like I have it in me, but I hesitate. I have a fear of being me.

There are certain themes lyrically coming throughout your records, including this one. The miracles in 'Desert Song' made me think of 'Miracle of Five.' You talk about kissing a lot. Do you feel like you're writing sequel songs or something with a story arc that spans different albums?

I don't feel like I do anything consciously, but, like I said, I do gravitate towards certain themes. I think the word 'walking' probably appears in many of my songs, and 'water.' I definitely think kissing coming up again and again is a result of continually looking for love and it not working out, so I get to keep kissing these people and then writing about it. When I become aware that I'm repeating myself, I try to move away from it, but a lot of times I'm not aware of it. Sometimes, I'll think 'I said that in a different song,' but it seems perfect, so I stick with it and hope nobody notices.

When you're working on an album, do you listen to other people's music or do you tune out other influences?

I've been going through a really unfortunate phase where I don't listen to a lot of music. In a way, it's good because I'm less influenced by other people because it's a way to continually own my sound. I do miss getting really excited about my music. Recently I got a minivan -- sadly I got rid of my full-sized van, which I love -- and combined my town car with my touring vehicle and got a minivan. So now I have XM Radio, and I don't want to be a spokesperson for XM Radio, but they made me start listening to music again, which is great. I mostly listen to the old country music stations. I find myself buying records again.

I know that you've said that Tom Waits and X are your biggest influences, but was there an album, either of one of theirs or someone else's, that taught you how to make a record?

I think about influences a lot, and I've talked about Tom and X a lot. I listened to so much other music before I discovered them. But they, for me, were roadmaps on how to do it. I sat around listening to the Beach Boys and the Beatles and George Gershwin and so much other music when I was a kid that really influenced me, but unconsciously. When I discovered X and Tom Waits as a teenager, I thought, 'That's what I want to do, and if I listen closely, they're going to give me a roadmap on how to do it.' I discovered X at 13 years old, and thought, 'I should be in a band. I need to play an instrument, which [lead singer] Exene doesn't play an instrument. ' Then I discovered Tom and thought 'I can do this on my own. I don't even need to put a band together.' Which was great. Definitely listening to Tom Waits for so long gave me a lesson in songwriting and also in how to make a record for sure. He really influenced the kind of style that I'm attracted to. But, again, there are so many influences that came before that that are just in me. I love thinking about that stuff.

Can you tell me about your first guitar?

My first guitar I rented. I rented a guitar when I was 15. It was the first decision I'd made. I wanted to play guitar. I had already played violin and piano, and I didn't want to do that anymore. My dad said, 'I'll rent you a guitar, and if you play that for a year, I'll get you a guitar for your 16th birthday.' My teacher has Gibson ES-35, so I had to have a Gibson ES-35. My dad found me one in the Recycler, which probably doesn't exist anymore, because it's Craigslist. Some guy down the block sold my dad my first guitar.

It's funny you mention piano because as I was listening to the new record, I kept thinking I wanted to hear you sing over a piano. Have you thought about doing a piano-based album?

I would really like to do that. I don't know why I haven't done it. When I hear a singer playing with just one or two instruments, it's some of my favorite stuff, especially Ella Fitzgerald. I would love to do that.

Do you do a lot of writing on the road?

I don't. I have every now and then when something tremendous happens, like making out with a really cute guy in Quebec City. I wrote a song the next day while my guitar stumbled around the airport incredibly hungover. That story makes it sound like we're partiers, which we're not. It just so happened. I tend to just take notes when I'm on the road and write more when I get home.

Do you ever do any cowriting?

I don't do a lot of it. I'm in another band. I'm in a band called the Living Sisters, but another band. We're called The Grabs and we're a little bit of a dormant band, but we have two records that I really love. I cowrite with Nigel Harrison and Steve Gregoropoulos. Nigel was the bass player in Blondie and wrote "One Way or Another", among other great songs. It's really fun to write with them because they think of music so incredibly different than I do.

I realize this question is old news, but how did your song 'Girls' end up in the first season of True Blood?

Gary Calamar was a deejay at KCRW, and now he's a music supervisor. I just got really lucky. Every now and then he remembers me. I would love it if he put me in another season of True Blood!

Did you get a lot of new fans based on that?

I have no idea, but I did have friends call me and say that they heard it, which is hilarious to me because it's so far in the background of the scene.

When you look at your new record, do you see a certain theme running through it?

The record is really a reflection on -- I was in a very dark place when I wrote most of those songs -- and I was feeling sorry for myself at the time, reflecting on past relationships and why they didn't work out, and kind of paying tribute to them in a way. For instance, 'Crooked Man' is about a guy I dated 12 years ago who I hadn't heard from. He's a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and he just sort of disappeared. He's not on the Internet, he doesn't email, I didn't have a phone number for him. And then he showed up in Portland. I had no idea he was living there. It was so great to see him, and it made me think about why we didn't work out and the things I loved and hated about him at the same time. I don't know if I can say what the theme is, but the mood is definitely bittersweet.

There seems to be a lot of imagining a dream lover and imagining perfection in your music. When you were a kid, did you have a dream lover you fantasized about?

I've definitely always been a little overly romantic and a really active daydreamer. I think I really bought into this whole fairy tale of Prince Charming coming along. Little by little, I realized that wasn't going to happen. Maybe everything I write is reflecting on that thing that didn't happen. I definitely daydreamed a lot and it was usually very much about characters that are like the characters I've ended up dating. For instance, I was four years old when I saw Gone With the Wind and fell madly in love with Rhett Butler, who was sort of the bad boy that you couldn't have, and then you had him, and he went away. Dracula was a real big thing for me when I was a kid. Very terrified and totally obsessed. I'm still working out a lot of stuff. Now that I have children, it's changed my outlook on dating. It's definitely not as important. Before I had the kids, I felt like I was always searching for something or somebody.

Are you going to tour with your band for this record?

No, I'm actually touring solo. I'm bringing my kids instead of a band, and bringing a friend to watch them while I perform. With the economy the way it is, and the music business the way it is, it made me realize I just can't afford a band anymore. Which is heartbreaking to me because there's nothing more fun than having that connection with other musicians. But I'm really excited to just go out there and play these songs and have people hear the worlds and connect with them more intimately.

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