Eleni Mandell is on a straight stretch of interstate somewhere in Iowa, racing against the clock. The Los Feliz-based singer-songwriter has a show in Portland, Oregon in less than 48 hours, but a snowstorm after her last gig in Chicago slowed her progress. There's a good chance she'll have to cancel.
Despite this, she sounds happy, about this tour, her new record (the just-released Let's Fly a Kite), and the Iowa scenery - "Grain silos and water towers and massive amounts of sky." Life in general, really.
Fans of Mandell's earlier records might be startled to hear her sound so upbeat. Even as her albums skipped across genres, from skeletal, Tom Waits-ish blues-rock (Wishbone) to whiskey-soaked alt-country (Country for True Lovers) to twinkling folk-pop (Miracle of Five), they were always filled with wistfulness and heartache - a through-line that mirrored her personal life.
"When I was younger, I almost wanted to be married to anybody, just to be married," she admits. "The years I was childless and single, I felt really bad about myself."
But as soon as she made the decision to become a single mom, everything changed. "Now I just feel like, if I met the right person, then I would consider [marriage]. But by no means do I feel like it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow anymore. It's a great, liberating feeling to have gotten over that and just be like, 'Hey, there's so many ways to live a life.'"
She's made this latest tour a family affair: no band, just her, her twin three-year-olds, and an ex-boyfriend who serves as the twins' "nanny" while she's onstage. It feels like more a vacation and less like work. "We've done dinosaur museums and public pools and water parks. It's such an incredible way to see the country."
She continues: "At some point in the last few years, a big attitude shift happened in me. I'm gonna sound all rainbows and sunshine, but I just love performing and I'm as happy to perform for two people as 200." Crappy weather has dampened attendance at many of her recent East Coast shows, but she doesn't mind. "I feel like I've really connected with people at every show, even the smaller ones."
That newfound confidence and exuberance is all over Let's Fly a Kite, which she recorded in London last year with Nick Lowe's backing band. "Put My Baby to Bed" is both a lullaby to her children and a sexy double entendre; "Wedding Ring" pokes cheeky fun at its subject matter over an insouciant clarinet and gently swinging groove. Emotionally unavailable men still inhabit many of her songs, but now, instead of succumbing to their charms, she keeps that at arm's length: "'Maybe' doesn't make me hot," she chides a non-committal love interest on "Maybe Yes."
The twins, Rex and Della, seem to enjoy life on the road as much as their mom does. And they've developed a taste for the same traditional country music Mandell loves: Buck Owens, John Anderson, "Rock Island Line."
"Of course I have these fantasies that one will be a bass player and one will be a drummer and we'll have a little band someday. And then I also have fantasies about them being doctors and lawyers."
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Motherhood has played the biggest role in brightening her outlook, but she also credits her work with The Living Sisters, the harmonizing girl group she's recorded with since 2009. The Mandell-penned Living Sisters song "How Are You Doing?", just featured on a episode on HBO's Girls, is a perfect example of the sort of "goofy little song" she never would've recorded or performed earlier in her career.
"I think that was a great lesson," she says, putting pedal to the metal and hoping to make up for lost time. "You can have a goal of making people happy. You can also pour your heart out, but it doesn't have to all be a big pity party."
Eleni Mandell plays McCabe's in Santa Monica on Friday, Feb. 28th.