Singer, songwriter, guitarist
With six full-length albums under her belt, Eleni Mandell should have the major record labels at her feet, but she has gone with an independent Canadian label for the past eight years, and the L.A. torch singer/songwriter would have it no other way. She is able to make the albums she wants, when she wants. Mandell confessed to Randy Harward in Harp, "I can't imagine being tied down to one sound and all of the label headaches."
With two side projects and a few songs recorded for commercials, Mandell continues to have a fruitful independent career. Her sound is like a sultrier Neko Case for the noir Americana set, and hearing Mandell's albums is like reading a diary full of entries on heartbreak. Torch songs, Nina Simone, country, punk, and pop music, all mesh on Mandell's albums with ease. With a different producer for almost every album, it's clear than Mandell is always in charge of her music, no matter whom she works with or what kind of music she feels like playing. "Although she tends to favor dark, torchy martini music," wrote Harward, "she's apt to rock out or don boots and cry in her beer."
While attending the University of California at Berkeley, Mandell began to perform solo material in and around campus, in a style reminiscent of PJ Harvey singing melancholic country songs filtered through Tom Waits's grittiness. Classic American songwriting and show tunes influenced her as a child. "My mother took me to shows as a kid, and I listened to the soundtracks over and over," Mandell stated on her official Web site. "Then I became very taken with the songs of Gershwin, Porter [and] Rogers & Hammerstein, as interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. That was where my parents' tastes intersected. My dad turned me onto practically everything else—Hank Williams, the Beatles, Bob Dylan." All of those influences can be heard throughout Mandell's music.
In California, Mandell met hipster and musician Chuck E. Weiss, a friend and musician of Tom Waits and the man Rickie Lee Jones immortalized in her most famous song, "Chuck E.'s In Love." His influence pushed Mandell to release her first solo album, Wishbone, in 1998. With pop songwriter/musician Jon Brion (of The Grays) producing, Wishbone was everything Mandell loved about music. "I think I've always been attracted to the past. And I kind of write old-fashioned songs," she told Mikael Wood in the Seattle Weekly. "But I don't know why I write the way I write; I don't know why it sounds old-fashioned. I just love a good story and a good melody and a pretty clarinet solo." Mandell wrote about what she knew: a current boyfriend, a former lover, a possible lover, heartache and happiness, in a style that was part lounge, part cabaret and part classic country.
After Wishbone, Mandell signed to Toronto independent label Zedtone for the long haul. In 2000 she released the album Thrill, and followed it up a year later with the popular Snakebite. Exclaim!'s Emily Orr called Snakebite "an emotional roller coaster that sticks with you long after the ride is done." Mandell went on tour to support Snakebite with a band that included Tom Waits's drummer Andrew Borger and an upright bassist and lap steel guitarist.
In 2003 Mandell gave contemporary alt-country chanteuses like Neko Case and Carolyn Marks a run for their money with her fourth album, Country for True Lovers. The record was the most traditional country album Mandell had made, yet it was produced by a punk rocker. X guitarist Tony Gilkyson recorded the album in just two weeks. Country for True Lovers included a handful of Mandell's original material and a number of cover and traditional country songs, including a fresh take on Merle Haggard's "I've Got a Tender Heart." "Anyone who was charmed by Neko Case, take notice: here's an alluring singer with more quirks, more sex appeal, and a better set of pipes, who specializes in the same brand of late-night, film-noir roots music," wrote Brett Milano of the Boston Phoenix.
Just a year later, Mandell enlisted Joshua Grange to produce the soulful album Afternoon. "With a sultry smokes-and-booze voice and a delivery that's ‘can't be bothered’ one minute and ‘pinch me if I'm dreaming’ the next, Eleni Mandell is hopeful and derisive, dramatic and playful, a Holly Golightly if she'd been written by Raymond Chandler," wrote Rolling Stone's Margaret Wappler. It was clear by this time that Mandell was receiving critical acclaim, but more important, she was getting respect from other contemporary artists, as well as from icons to whom she looked for inspiration. Taking a break from her often somber albums, in November of 2005 Mandell recorded a pop-rock record with a supergroup of musicians called The Grabs. The band consisted of Mandell on vocals and guitar, with Blondie's bassist Nigel Harrison and Silversun Pickups' drummer Elivra Gonzalez. The Grabs released the album Sex, Fashion, and Money, and they actually made some money from the side project, by licensing some of their songs. "[The Grabs] is really fun, and it gives me the chance to be more poppy. I'm kind of a little bit scared of that in my solo work," Mandell told Kristina Feliciano in Paste. Mandell was also sought after to record new versions of old standards for commercials. In 2005 she recorded a punked-up sexy version of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" for a television commercial. Mandell didn't know the song would end up in the same commercial as Paris Hilton in a bikini washing a car. The controversy over the commercial, which eventually got yanked, actually gave Mandell more exposure. HUM recordings released Mandell's version of "I Love Paris" to satisfy all those who wondered who was behind the song.
For Mandell's sixth album she included, in addition to her longtime rhythm section, Wilco's Nels Cline and X drummer D.J. Bonebrake. The album was produced by Andy Kaulkin, musician and president of punk label Epitaph Records. Mandell's choice of musicians from vastly different genres of music could only make sense for an artist like Mandell, who was able to combine all those genres elegantly. For the record, Kaulkin had Mandell record 20 songs using just the musician and her guitar. After she was done, all the other players came in and added their parts. Kaulkin helped cut the tracks down to 12, for 2007's Miracle of Five.
Similar to her other records, Miracle of Five was very personal. However, by 2007 Mandell was in a happier place, and that was reflected in her music. Miracle of Five "is not a self-pitying record," Mandell told Los Angeles City Beat's Natalie Nichols. "It's challenging to write about more positive things in an interesting way, and look more toward the future, a little bit more outside myself." In true Mandell fashion, though, she added, "There's still hints of self-obsession, but I feel definitely calmer and happier." A new love altered Mandell's life and gave her songs to sing in that vein. "Being loved almost unconditionally by someone in a romantic way has definitely changed my life and my outlook on life—and my sense of hopefulness in general," she confessed to writer Emili Vesilind in Venus Zine. "The songs are autobiographical, but I think of them as snapshots. You stop into town, shake hands with someone, then you go away and write about it."
Released in February of 2007 in North America on Zedtone and on V2 in the U.K., Miracle of Five was Mandell's fastest selling album to date. "Its songs unfold like a series of old postcards—most are brief and full of wistful affection," wrote Vesilind. "I really hope that more people will hear it and that I'll reach a wider audience," Mandell told Feliciano. When Mandell wasn't wowing people with her solo work, in 2007 she began performing as The Living Sisters: a vocal trio with Inara George (The Bird and the Bee) and Becky Stars (Lavender Diamond). "I feel like life is made of: love, death, and sex," Mandell asserted to Harward. "If you're honest and sincere and not afraid to be vulnerable, and you're hopeful and you have a sense of humor, it's never boring."
For the Record …
Recorded and self-released first album, Wishbone, 1998; signed to Toronto label Zedtone, released Thrill, 2000; Snakebite, 2001; Country for True Lovers, 2003; Afternoon, 2004; Miracle of Five, 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Zedtone, 440 Markham St., Toronto, ON M6G 2L2, Canada, Web site: http://www.zedtone.com. Web site—Eleni Mandell Official Web site: http://www.elenimandell.com.
Wishbone, Mr. Charles Records, 1998.
Thrill, Zedtone, 2000.
Snakebite, Zedtone, 2001.
Country for True Lovers, Zedtone, 2003.
Afternoon, Zedtone, 2004.
(With The Grabs) Sex, Fashion, and Money, The Grabs Records, 2005.
Miracle of Five, Zedtone, 2007.
Boston Phoenix, February 13-20, 2003.
Exclaim!, April 2002.
Harp, July/August 2004.
Los Angeles City Beat, March 8, 2007.
Seattle Weekly, February 14, 2007.
"Eleni Mandell," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (January 22, 2008).
"Eleni Mandell Q&A," Paste,http://www.pastemagazine.com/action/article/3719/eleni_mandell_qa (January 22, 2008).
"Eleni Mandell," Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/elenimandell/albums/album/5265698/review/6294678/afternoon (January 22, 2008).
"Eleni Mandell," Venus Zine,http://www.venuszine.com/articles/music/features/1083/eleni_mandell (January 22, 2008).
Eleni Mandell's Official Publicity Web site, http://www.conqueroo.com/elenimandellbio.html (January 22, 2008).