By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Los Feliz singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell is a card-carrying member of the L.A. Conservancy, with a passion for saving endangered local landmarks like the Ambassador Hotel, Farmers Market and the old Van de Kamp bakery. But her best acts of preservation come in her chansons, such as “Too Bad About You” from her new album, Thrill (Space Baby). It‘s a love song about a boy, and a travelogue through Manhattan and L.A.
“I was going on all these architecture tours downtown when I wrote the song,” she says, “and then I was in New York, and I was looking out the window at the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. It gave me a feeling, a connection, being there thinking about this guy and being disappointed about him and somehow relating to these buildings.”
While Thrill’s spare acoustic interlude “Bedford (Avenue)” is also, as she says, “a New York story,” Mandell remains at heart an unrepentant L.A. homegirl, born in Cedars of Lebanon hospital (now the site of a Scientology center) and raised in Sherman Oaks. “The thing I love about L.A. is that there‘s sort of an ugliness, an emptiness, here,” she says. “It’s exciting in a strange way; it allows you room to imagine and to dream. I understand why people don‘t love L.A., but I’ve always loved it, and my two biggest influences, X and Tom Waits, sang a lot about Los Angeles.”
Mandell admits that the greatest thrill in making Thrill was getting to meet and record with X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, whose cool marimba tones imbue tunes like “No Good, No More” with a noirish eerieness. Her clear, melodic vocals and pop acoustic settings don‘t really sound like either of her heroes, although there are occasional instrumental flourishes on Thrill and her debut CD, Wishbone (released on her own Mr. Charles label), that recall Waits’ carny exoticism. Like Rickie Lee Jones, Mandell ended up meeting Waits through longtime Hollywood scenester Chuck E. Weiss, who was the first to encourage her to perform live. She even recorded a slyly confidential version of Waits‘ “Muriel,” which was released on the CD New Coat of Paint (Manifesto), a collection of Waits tributes. “I felt like I was betraying Tom by doing it. I was very flattered to be asked, and I like my version of his song, but for the most part I don’t think people need to cover his songs. They‘re so specific to him.”
She has other talented friends. Wishbone was co-produced by multi-instrumentalist wunderkind Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright), who embellished radio-friendly songs like “Sylvia” and “Careless Driver” with unexpected musical twists. Thrill, which segues from austere balladry to the more rocking “Pauline” and “1970 Red Chevelle,” was recorded with drummer Danny Frankel (who also plays with Victoria Williams) and upright bassist Sheldon Gomberg (Shivaree), and produced by Brian Kehew.
For all of her albums’ inventive arrangements, Mandell prefers to perform solo, especially since she can‘t, at this stage, afford to tour with the pros who play on her records. “Because I sing in a low register,” she says, “it’s often hard to hear over a whole band, so I‘m not singing quite as well as I do when I play by myself.” Performing solo does have its disadvantages, though, especially when she bombs: “You don’t have anybody else to soak up the emotion with you. You have to take responsibility for the bomb all by yourself.” She‘s just returned from an extensive national tour, accompanied only by an extra driverroad manager. “I love being on the road. I feel like it’s a suspended reality, doing what I love and not worrying about a day job or my rent.”
Mandell worked for six years as an assistant to her dentist father, and most recently toiled as a waitress at Millie‘s diner in Silver Lake, alongside such local luminaries as Popdefect’s Charlie Hutchinson and artist Aaron Donovan. “There‘s something romantic about taking a coffee cup around,” she says, “but you still have the experiences where people treat you like a servant, which I really hate -- especially weekend shifts, because that’s when the tourists come to eat.” As a customer, she loves the Pantry (“I go there just for the waiters”) and Netty‘s (which has “the single bitchiest waitress”). “Sometimes you hate people so much when you’re waitressing. Although I‘ve been called the most sullen, morose, bitchy waitress, I still can’t understand it when it happens to me!”
Mandell doesn‘t seem destined to be a waitress forever, though occasional interest from various major labels hasn’t yet panned out into real success. “Some friends once said to me, ‘We think that it’s because you‘re too nice -- you’re not this wild, dark creature that you imagine while hearing the music. Record people get disappointed that you‘re not jumping on tables or having a tantrum.’ I feel like my own life really isn‘t that exciting. I don’t get wasted all the time or have tons of affairs.”