Eleni Mandell Lights Up our lives
Wed. July 22, 2015 by Gregg Shapiro
There is a very lovely lesbian couple in Chicago that has come out to see me many times over the years. I’m always disappointed if they aren’t there.
Radiant singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell talks about her new album and more
Whether you admire, appreciate and even love Eleni Mandell as a solo artist with 10 consistently stellar studio albums to her name or as one the members of the group The Living Sisters (along with Inara George, Becky Stark and Alex Lilly), your respect for her will only increase the moment you hear her new disc Dark Lights Up (Yep Roc). Focusing on a retro country sound combined with a vintage pop influence, the 12 luminous songs on Dark Lights Up are so instantly irresistible that you might have a hard time not listening to them repeatedly. Illuminate your heart and soul with songs such as “I’m Old Fashioned,” “What Love Can Do” (from which the CD’s title is drawn), “Cold Snap,” “Town Called Heartache,” “Magic Pair of Shoes” and “If You Wanna Get Kissed.” I spoke with Eleni about Dark Lights Up and more in June 2015. [Mandell performs on July 25 at Schuba’s and Aug. 22 at Hotel Café in L.A.]
Gregg Shapiro: I love the list of things you sing about that qualify you as old fashioned in the song “I’m Old Fashioned.” How did you go about compiling the list?
Eleni Mandell: That’s one of those songs that sort of wrote itself in about five or ten minutes while my children were playing in the other room. We live in a nice area of Los Angeles where you can walk to a lot of stuff. I guess I was just thinking about all the things that irritate me, even though I find them tempting as well; like looking at your cell phone all the time. I do still go in to the bank, but not as much as I used to once I figured out you can deposit so easily at the ATM. It was all of these things that I’m frustrated with in my own life because I feel like we’re all so disconnected and so desperate to connect at the same time. Just a little thing like standing in line at the post office versus never sending mail anymore [laughs]. I enjoy those tiny little moments that make you feel connected to your life and the world.
GS: I have to admit to doing some of the things you mentioned, such as waiting in line at the post office to mail a letter and doing my banking in person, interacting with a teller. Do you ever worry that those things may soon become obsolete?
EM: I feel like they kind of already are. I’ve noticed at the bank that you used to wait in line 10 to 15 minutes for a teller and now there’s never anybody in there; one or two people maybe. I’m really very sad about the post office. I’ve always gotten a lot of joy out of choosing the stamps [laughs]. Although, I still do this – I’ll have some beautiful stamp and then think, “I can’t believe I’m sending this to the gas company! No one’s going to care.” Little things like that. I have so many old letters and postcards – my grandmother recently passed away – and I got a box of postcards that I had written to her that she saved. It’s amazing to have that kind of record; your handwriting, a moment in time when you were on a trip and communicating in that way. As opposed to now; what kind of record will our children have? They’re not going to print out every email [laughs]. I’m trying to teach my kids about sending postcards. They love getting mail. My sister sent them each an actual valentine in the mail. My daughter carried it around with her. I always have one foot in the past and really resist all of the conveniences of contemporary society and technology. But, I’m also really guilty of it. I have this big fear that family members will hear that song and then start making lists of all the times I didn’t send them “thank you” cards or RSVP in a timely manner [laughs].
GS: You also mention putting a needle on a record in the song. Are there plans for a vinyl LP version of Dark Lights Up?
EM: Yes, there is. I just got a new needle for my record player. My kids really love it. They’re terrible at it and I’ll often be in another room and hear “scree” across the entire record. I watch them experiencing it in such a similar way that I did as a kid. I’ll come in they’ll just be staring at the record cover. That makes me so happy.
GS: Chinese food gets name-checked in “China Garden Buffet” on Dark Lights Up as well as in “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve” from The Living Sisters’ holiday album Harmony Is Real. Please say something about your relationship with that cuisine.
EM: [Big laugh] Yes! I have a very romantic relationship to Chinese food. I love Chinese food. I think there is some kind of Jewish connection to Chinese food. Maybe it’s because you can always get it on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Going to Chinese restaurants was always a big deal growing up – birthdays, holiday, for no reason other than that we like it. It continues to this day. Some people I know that are Jewish – the idea of not experiencing Christmas makes them really sad. I find it really romantic to be out on the streets of Los Angeles when nobody else is out. You walk into a Chinese restaurant and there are three or four other couples. I guess it reminds me of film noir; it’s very cinematic for me. When I went to that Chinese restaurant (in the song) in the Midwest, the evening started out on such a magical note. I was already in this head-space of something wonderful happening because we went into this Chinese food buffet and there were so many vegetables! When you’re on tour, especially in the winter, in certain parts of the country there are not a lot of vegetables happening. That was part of it! I was in heaven. My kids loved it; just seeing all of the food out and all of the desserts. I’m not someone who goes to buffets, so it was very exciting and cool. I have a great fondness for the “Neon Chinese Christmas” song as well.
GS: You mentioned your kids and the song “Old Lady” is a total delight, containing the beautiful line about your children, “My son and my daughter, my sun and my moon.” The children also appear in the song “Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown.” Can you say something about the way Rex and Della have come to influence your songwriting?
EM: Gosh, they inspire me a lot. Certain things – like the way they use language, is so interesting to me; and the way that I use language with them. I started saying to my daughter, “You didn’t have white blonde hair, your hair is more butter blonde.” I could never figure out what color eyes she has. They’re not really blue, they’re not really green, they’re not really grey, so I’ll say, “You have ocean eyes.” I just find them so inspiring. They’re also infuriating [laughs]. I think there’s always fear that if you become a mom, you’ll never be creative again. I haven’t found that to be the case at all. When I was writing the song “Old Lady,” I was thinking about what kind of old lady I’m going to be and the influence of my grandmothers on me and how I will be with my children and their children. All of those things and questions I find interesting and inspiring and fun to write about. When you’re in your 20s and pursuing a music career, it’s all about boys and love and being cool and stuff. I find it really rewarding to move beyond that. Life is still really interesting, even though I’m a mom and not in my 20s…by a long-shot [laughs].
GS: “Cold Snap” is also enchanting and could easily be used by the Los Angeles visitors’ bureau in their promotional materials.
EM: [Laughs] I would be very proud.
GS: How does California find its way into your songs?
EM: I was just thinking about this. How I’m very attached to Los Angeles and feel like this is my town. I also feel very much like a California girl. I was thinking this just yesterday because I was emailing with this woman who does custom Western wear and I was thinking what I would want; maybe the California poppy, because I’m so California. But at the same time, I don’t particularly like going to the beach. I don’t have blonde hair. All of the things you’d associate with being a California girl are not me at all. But I have an attachment to my place of origin [laughs]. Everything about life, terrain, the planet, I find it inspiring. I always think that if you continue to look and listen you’ll never stop having things to write about.
GS: You recently posted something on your Facebook page, “Nicely done, Ireland,” cheering on Ireland in regards to gay marriage. I was wondering if you were aware of an LGBT following for your music.
EM: Not particularly. There is a very lovely lesbian couple in Chicago that has come out to see me many times over the years. I’m always disappointed if they aren’t there. They sent me a video of them dancing to one of my songs at their wedding. I would love that. I welcome all listeners and buyers of records.
GS: What can fans expect from your upcoming concert tour?
EM: I plan to look fabulous every night; rain or shine, small town or big town. I no longer tour with a band, but I do tour with my children, so I will have lots of stories. One thing that’s great about performing solo for me, and I think it’s true for the audience, I’m able to put on a more intimate show and really connect with people and talk about the songs. For me, it’s so much fun. For whatever reason, I was always more self-conscious when I performed with a band. I was always aware that these guys were onstage with me waiting for me to shut up [laughs]. Now I get a lot of pleasure from communicating with the audience and making friends and talking to people. I’m so excited to go back on the road. I just started booking hotels and Airbnb. I’m going to stay in this small town in Idaho. The woman whose house it is said, “I have a couple of extra small fishing rods that your kids can use.” We could not be more excited about that. I can’t wait to show people what it’s like touring with children. My kids are in preschool and all the parents are dumbfounded that I would take my children with me. We have a great time!
GS: After I finish speaking with you, I’m going to be interviewing Josh Groban. On his new CD of show tunes, he does duets with Audra McDonald and Kelly Clarkson. If he approached you about doing a duet, would you be interested and if so, what show tune do you think would be a good duet for your voices?
EM: Of course I would be thrilled. I’m not going to lay awake at night waiting for that to happen and wondering what I’ll wear [laughs]. The first song that pops into my mind is the duet from Guys and Dolls, [sings] “I’ll know when my love comes.” I love that song and it’s so romantic when you see Marlon Brando sing it. It just kills me. So, yes, please ask him (Josh)!
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.