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Eleni Mandell Sings of Friendship, Hope for the Future on "Evelyn" (premiere + interview)

Photo: Max Gerber / Yep Roc Music Group

Eleni Mandell spent two years teaching songwriting to women who were incarcerated. The experience informed the material on her new album, Wake Up Again. "I hoped that the women would leave there some day with one more thing to support them and keep them from getting in trouble again," she says.

Eleni Mandell's latest album, Wake Up Again, was inspired by the two years she spent teaching songwriting classes to female inmates at two California area facilities via Jail Guitar Doors, an organization founded by Wayne Kramer and Billy Bragg. (Kramer spent over two years in prison in the 1970s on drug charges.)

The latest single culled from the album is "Evelyn", which Mandell explains came directly from her teaching experience. "The song is about one of the inmates I met at the prison," she notes. "She was only 24 years old with quite a long sentence and had been in and out of trouble since she was a teenager. One day she invited a friend to our class so she could sing her a song she'd written about how much she loved her and wished her the best as she was about to be released. It was very touching. They both cried. She was taking college classes, was always in a good mood and always positive, striving and full of hope. I thought about her a lot, wondering how she would do once she was released. I really wish her the best and hope she can turn her life around."

Filled with the emotional honesty and pure vocal delivery central to all 11 of Mandell's studio albums, the song is a textbook example of how understatement can be powerfully heart-wrenching. Moving between jazzlike flourishes and pop sensibilities, "Evelyn" is one of Mandell's finest moments both in her career and on a record that is unlike any other you'll hear this year.

Produced by Sheldon Gomberg, Wake Up Again, released on 7 June, features Mandell backed by Milo Jones (guitar), Ryan Feves (bass) and Kevin Fitzgerald (drums).

Mandell recently spoke with PopMatters about her experience teaching songwriting and how she wove it into the material which comprises Wake Up Again.

How did you come to volunteer for Jail Guitar Doors?

I actually overheard a friend talking at a party about having gone into a men's prison for one session. I immediately wanted to be part of something like that. My friend put me in touch with Wayne Kramer. Wayne was great. He said, "OK. You're signed up!" But it took at least six months going through the process of getting trained and fingerprinted.

What's the full process?

You have to take an orientation class. Rules. Conduct. What you're allowed to wear. It's very strict. You can't wear certain colors because they don't want you to be mistaken for either a guard or an inmate. The safest color to wear is black but I tried to avoid that because prison is such a colorless place. I always tried to wear something that could bring a little bit of color into our classroom.

I also had to be fingerprinted and visited by a sheriff to be cleared.

What was it like the first time you went into the classroom?

The very first time that I went in I was so nervous that I started to stutter. That was kind of embarrassing. But I got used to the protocol and the different women I would encounter. They were generally really grateful that anybody was willing to come in and work with them, especially on something like songwriting because they had a real desire to express themselves, tell their stories.

I had one group of women that were the most difficult. They had history with drugs and got into fights. That was a much tougher situation. I did the best I could. Tried to rope them in, get them writing songs as a group. I did witness an intense fistfight. First time I've ever seen anything like that. It lasted about 20 seconds before the guards rushed in. It was all very intense.

It was also very rewarding. I met all kinds of women. I met gangbangers and former drug addicts and drug dealers. I also met a former nurse, a former lawyer, a former teacher.

You were teaching them songwriting. Did you kind of write in front of them to model the process?

I would come up with different assignments and questions for each week. I wanted them to trust me. I needed it to be a reciprocal relationship. I would share by answering a question and I'd also share by participating in the assignments. I think, to understand the different ways that you can write a song about anything, it's important for them to watch. I would do the assignments, pick up the guitar and just start singing what I wrote.

When I first started doing that I couldn't imagine being comfortable enough to share that process with a group of people. But it became second nature.

Did you get to know their stories as they wrote songs?

I never asked directly. But little by little things would come out. It was either in their songs or in conversation. It might happen as I was coaching them through a song. Sometimes I would look them up if I couldn't put off my curiosity any longer. There are times where you can't find information on them, especially if they have a common name. But there were a couple of women I learned more about.

Interestingly, that didn't change my daily interactions with them at all. I think what it did was made me understand how any type of person can make mistakes and have regrets. I guess it was sort of scary for me. I used to think, "I'm not that type of person. I don't break the law." But when you read about and actually meet people who also weren't that type of person and ended up there, you realize that it's a fine line we walk and how we have to be so careful.

I imagine you encountered students who made you take notice. "This is so great. This person has a real talent for this."

One woman in particular had never held an instrument, never written a song. She was 29. I had to teach her how to play guitar in order to give her some sort of independence in songwriting. I taught her two chords and said, "That's really all you need." She wrote one of my favorite songs that I heard in two years. It wasn't a great song because she was an inmate but it was a great song to have in the world. I wish I could have a recording of it. We weren't allowed to make any.

How long did it take before you knew the experience was going to come out in your art?

After about a year, I thought, "I can feel that tingling I get when I know I'm going to write something." I couldn't figure out how to do it. "Circumstance" was the first song that I wrote that was inspired by the experience. I often thought about what brings a person to that place. "How did I get here? What did I do? What does the rest of my life look like?" Those sorts of thoughts were always swirling around.

My maternal grandfather had been incarcerated. That was 60-70 years ago. I never met him. But, growing up, I always wondered that too. Why did he make those mistakes? Why did he leave? What leads a person to do that? I think I was drawn to the work because of those questions I grew up with. Whatever I need to figure out in my life gets figured out by writing about it.

Did it become difficult to leave the women and the classroom behind?

I still think about it all the time. Probably every day. I started teaching 13-year-olds English in order to make more regular income and get healthcare for my kids. I talk to them about it. I would love to go back into that world. I felt that I was contributing to make the world a better place in a very small way. But I hoped that the women would leave there some day with one more thing to support them and keep them from getting in trouble again.

Is one of your hopes with the album that maybe women who have been incarcerated will hear it and the stories and the music will resonate with them in some way?

I would love that. You're never sure how someone who inspired your work will take it. I spoke with the journalist John Horn for his show The Frame. He said something I think is true: Anybody could feel this way about anything in their lives: Either they're in a circumstance they didn't expect or that they have regrets they have trouble overcoming. I would hope that someone who had been incarcerated would feel seen and not forgotten when they heard this music.

I think it's really beautiful that Wayne Kramer has done this after his own incarceration experience.

When I first started at the larger of two prisons I volunteered at, and one of them I did get funding from the William James Association, which was awesome, I had been assigned the most difficult women. They were sort of forced to take the class. I was having a hard time engaging them and keeping them focused. I asked Wayne if he would come with me one day and he did. It really meant a lot to them that someone who'd had a similar experience got out, changed their lives and was now giving back in that way. He's incredibly articulate about his experience and I think it's an incredible organization.

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