She likes to say shes easily embarrassed. But shes learned how to deal with it. We can tell. At a distance where she can smell us, here in the dark back closet of the Tangier restaurant in Los Feliz, Eleni Mandell sings about the feelings and the fingers and the kisses. She sings almost to herself, smiling a touch as if remembering. That slight margin of distance it comes in handy when shes spilling the intimate stuff.
Knowing were crammed like crayons in a box to hear her, shes nevertheless not quite pleased. I was done being nervous about 10 years ago, she scolds like Mom, but you guys are so quiet. Well, if we clapped too hard, wed probably slap an adjacent cheek. And about half the young men are too transfixed to applaud, mooning over her open-faced good looks, her unaffectedly melodious voice and her focused lyrics (You were some kind of friend like a scorpion).
Mandell fakes a frown, threatens to tell a joke if we dont loosen up. This drumless alternate version of her band Ryan Feves thrumming and bowing his bass, Woody Jackson extracting weird repressed fuzz from his guitar as Mandell frets jazzy chords on her miniature Martin cha-chas into Afternoon, the title song from her new album. And she gets the big response, all right. Therell be mash notes in the green room tonight.
Sometimes a performer needs to demand her props. Mandell has been doing her thing quite a while now (first album was in 1998). Cant you see Im soulful? she sings, and yeah, we know she is, but sometimes a gal needs to kick her heels, the way she does onstage while chugging through Just a Dream, and let people know they cant treat her like old carpet just cuz shes local talent. She seems to be waving some flags lately to announce that, songwriterwise, if youre gonna talk about your Tom Waits or your PJ Harvey, you better be talking about her, too.
Shes doing very well. Her six CDs have been received with increasing buckets of critical drool. She tied with Elliott Smith last year for the L.A. Weekly Music Awards best songwriter. She packs em in around town, just returned from a successful European tour, and is heading out on another American one. She gets radio airplay all across this great land. Sometimes shes amazed at the ways her bit o fame gleams forth.
We just played in Columbia, South Carolina a show booked a week before we got there, says Mandell. Shes dressed daytime-summery, her hair several shades lighter than her usual boho black. My friend whos from that town got me a show on a Sunday night. He was, like, This is probably gonna suck. She lets that trebly, mirthful laugh escape. The audience were probably 15, 20 people, but these college kids were singing along and calling out requests. That really blew my mind!
Small venues are good for Mandell; she gets a Superglue connection from nearness, both live and on record. Not a belter, she needs to make sure her usual band Feves on bass and Kevin Fitzgerald on drums gives her voice some space in demitasse-size rooms. She likes the fact that Fitzgerald, who bought his first pair of brushes when he joined her, also plays with those vet punk moshmen the Circle Jerks.
I figured out a few code words to help him eyelashes, feathers. We were in this tiny club in London, where I was basically standing over his cymbals. And I said, Cut me some slack. And he said, You want me to blink at the drums?
Mandell and her band enjoy one another. Part of the rapport comes from her musicianly scope, broader than most singers; before finding her own way on guitar, which she fingers with ease and distinctive style, she was tortured through classical violin and piano lessons from the age of 5.
I hated it, Mandell says cheerfully. Well known for her Americana bent, she doesnt cop much of a buzz from the Old Countrys music, except maybe the folk end. That minor, dark sound, the thing that drew me to Tom Waits . . . I think the reason I was attracted to that was because of my heritage East European Jew. I hear a minor chord, and Im, like, Ah, my people!
In addition to her textured nocturnal-pop work, Mandell has served up a country album (Country for True Lovers) and a jazz EP (Maybe, Yes). And thanks to the production and guitar of rootsman Joshua Grange, Afternoon sometimes bucks with the feel of cooled-out rockabilly. The reason her songs lend themselves to a variety of slants she often plays different arrangements live is that theyre sturdy and uncluttered. She says she discards a bunch for every one she performs, which explains her consistency. And her vivid lyrics stay in your head because shes naturally observant, a skill she honed in college when she worked at a tobacco stand, amusing herself by guessing what type of customer would buy what type of smoke. (She doesnt puff herself, unfortunately for her discarded café-poet image.)
So Mandell is a serious artist, but you get the feeling shed do anything to avoid pretension. She says she learns a new chord only every couple of years; she practically brags that she cant resist buying clothes when she goes to the mall. Asked her reasons for picking her favorite guitar, she says, I think it was my biological time clock. I walked into the store and I was, like, Ooh, that ones cute! Look how small it is. Like a baby!
Mandell knows nobody likes a pompous egomaniac, but no worries; that tag would never stick to this easygoing former waitress. Still, as her song says, she wants to be treated like shes heavy, and when the subject of favorite songwriters comes up, Bob Dylan ranks toppermost. Shes even premeditated how to break the ice if she ever meets him.
Im gonna say, Hey, do you know a good dentist? Because my father is a dentist, and you might want to switch.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Show biz is tough. The clock ticks. The big money doesnt roll in. Once in a while theres a depressing gig.
I remember Iowa City a couple of years ago, says Mandell, being sandwiched between the two local frat cover bands. Whoa. I dont know how much more hair I need to grow on my chest. But every time I complain that Ive paid enough dues, my friend Chuck E. Weiss says, Right. You aint seen nothin.
Mandell keeps a positive attitude, cultivating it in small ways. This morning, I woke up to a story about pollution in China, how horrible it is. So she learned something from that. I guess, she says, you should never have your alarm clock set to a news station.
Eleni Mandell plays Spaceland on Tuesday, November 9.