Just when you thought romance was dead, Eleni Mandell is here to surprise you. Miracle of Five is the singer/songwriter’s sixth studio album and the first to garner some much deserved attention. But don’t let the word “romance” fool you – Mandell is no push-over, she has simply found a softer lyrical side to match her sexy sweet vocal delivery. With Tom Waits as a long time musical hero, Mandell’s voice was once caught up in her attempts at copying his, but growth and perseverance in the all-too-often fruitless music industry have shown Mandell that a talent like hers is not to be tucked behind mimicry. Now, past some darker times, Mandell is taking a look outside of herself and talking to FLARE about the challenges that it can present, as well as the band she covets, her questionable driving habits, and the concert t-shirt she wishes she’d hung onto.
Flare: This, your sixth studio album, finally seems to be the breakthrough point for you. Why do you think this seems to be the one?
Eleni Mandell: I think part of it is that the songs all fit together. There’s a common thread running through this record and, in the past, I’ve jumped around between genres. [The difference] was really thanks to my producer Andy Kaulkin. Plus, Rob Schnapf [who mixed the album and has previously worked with artists such as Beck and Elliott Smith] really gave it that extra sparkle. And I’ve been playing with the same drummer and bass player [Kevin Fitzgerald and Ryan Feves] for seven years. They are amazing musicians and we’re all really good friends. Now with Jeremy Drake, who is my new guitar player, I think I’ve finally found the perfect combination.
LL: It’s nice when it becomes almost a family affair.
EM: It really does, if you’re lucky.
LL: Do you think that you’ve been growing throughout the other records and this may be the pinnacle of that?
EM: I definitely think that is true. I’m also just more comfortable with myself and the songs that I’m writing. I’m not trying to sound like anybody else anymore. In the beginning, I aspired to sound like my heroes – which is a really good way to learn who you are as an artist because you’re experimenting, and eventually you end up where you’re supposed to be. So, I think I’ve finally arrived at who I am.
LL: You seem to be in an optimistic place. Is that a better place to be as an artist creatively?
EM: It’s challenging. I had gotten really used to writing about the difficult times in my life and it was comfortable, so over the last few years, I’ve been trying to look outside of myself. I was going to write a song about my friends and I started writing about the guys in my band which was a fun way to start not being so self-centered with what I was writing about… so self-pitying.
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LL: Do you write songs as you’re inspired or do you take a more disciplined approach?
EM: I’m completely undisciplined. When I’m driving and there’s nothing on the radio, I’ll turn it off and start singing to myself. That’s been a good way for me to write. Sometimes I’ll pull over to the side of the road to write things down or I keep a stack of postcards in the car and I’ll grab one and scrawl on it while I’m driving…it’s actually kind of dangerous! Also, I live near Griffith Park [in Los Angeles] so I can walk up into the hills and sing to myself. I’m sure I look insane, muttering to myself as I’m walking, but I’ve written a few songs that way. Maybe I’m like a child –you know how you often see children singing to themselves? Generally though, I wake up early in the morning and that’s usually a good time for me to write.
LL: I read that you had wanted to lower your voice range when you were younger, so that you’d sound less like a girl. Can you elaborate on that?
EM: My hero was Tom Waits and when I started writing songs, I really wanted to sing lower and lower because I thought I’d sound more like him. I just thought that he was so much cooler than a lot of the female artists who were singer-songwriters, so I was very conscious of not wanting to sing operatically or airily or in a girlish way. I really wanted to have a grittier voice. But now that I’m more comfortable with who I am, I’m using my higher range a lot.
LL: Growing up in the San Fernando Valley , you were probably more aware of celebrity than most. Is that something that you have been striving for, or are you frightened by it?
EM: I don’t feel any need to be a celebrity. I think obviously, because I’m a performer, I want to be recognized and admired, but when I was younger I hungered for that more than I do now. I’m very well aware of what’s important and I don’t think that being a celebrity is important. I’m conscious of the downside to being famous. I just enjoy what I do and love meeting all the different people that I meet. I love making people happy for the few minutes that they might enjoy my music, and I feel like celebrity and fame doesn’t matter.
LL: You mentioned that Tom Waits was a hero. Were there any other a major influences?
EM: There was a band called X – a punk band in L.A – and I was a one-band-at-a-time person, so when I was into X, that’s all I listened to. And then I discovered Tom Waits, but of course peppered in there, were the English Beats, Adam and The Ants, The Blasters and a lot of great L.A. bands. Actually, I went and saw The Smiths on their first American tour and I still kick myself that I threw out the t-shirt. Isn’t that terrible?
LL: What do you listen to now?
EM: I still listen to a wide variety. I’ve been really excited to download some hits from my childhood. Just this morning, I was listening to Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, which was awesome. I’m finding that nostalgia definitely changes my taste because when Duran Duran first came out, I thought they were really uncool because I was into X, which was the opposite of Duran Duran, but now I’m like ‘Girls on Film’ is a great song. And Boston – who ever knew that I was going to be so excited about the song ‘More Than A Feeling’? But I think it is a great fist-pumping song! I think what I’m really excited about when I listen to music now is when it makes me wanna dance. I really love dancing, so I’m excited by anything that makes me run onto the dance floor. For instance, ‘Hey Ya!’ by Outkast, may be the best pop song ever written…may be. I always wanna dance when I hear that song.
LL: In terms of fashion, you’ve got really unique personal style, how would you describe it?
EM: I’ve always been into an awkward sexy thing. And not sexy in a Paris Hilton way – I think you can be sexy and still be covered. I might be the only person who feels that way, actually I have a couple of girlfriends who feel the same way, but I have no idea what kind of success we’re having translating that to the general public. Plus, I got into buying vintage clothes when I was a kid and I’m still really into the treasure hunt. And I also really love making clothes. I mostly make them from vintage patterns that I’ve altered. But mostly, I think humour is important in fashion.
LL: How about stage wear?
EM: With stage wear, I have a rule about wearing dresses and colour on stage, but it took me years of experimenting to figure that out.
LL: What gives you the most satisfaction?
EM: Singing harmonies. I do that with my side project called The Living Sisters. It gives me a sense of calm.
LL: What’s your favourite material possession?
EM: I have three things: my grandmother’s wedding ring, one of my few beloved guitars – I don’t know which one I’d pick, I’d feel guilty – and a signed poem by Charles Bukowski.
LL: What’s the first thing you do every day?
EM: Check my email. Isn’t that so unromantic?
LL: What’s the last thing you do every day?
EM: Watch Charlie Rose.
For more information about Eleni Mandell, visit www.elenimandell.com and check her out on tour when she visits Canada this summer.