|Photo by Autumn de Wilde|
She likes to say she’s easily embarrassed. But she’s 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 she’s spilling the intimate stuff.
Knowing we’re crammed like crayons in a box to hear her, she’s 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, we’d 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 don’t 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. There’ll 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). “Can’t you see I’m 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 can’t treat her like old carpet just cuz she’s local talent. She seems to be waving some flags lately to announce that, songwriterwise, if you’re gonna talk about your Tom Waits or your PJ Harvey, you better be talking about her, too.
She’s 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 she’s 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. She’s dressed daytime-summery, her hair several shades lighter than her usual boho black. “My friend who’s 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 doesn’t cop much of a buzz from the Old Country’s 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 I’m, 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 they’re 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 she’s 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 doesn’t puff herself, unfortunately for her discarded café-poet image.)
So Mandell is a serious artist, but you get the feeling she’d do anything to avoid pretension. She says she learns a new chord only every couple of years; she practically brags that she can’t 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 one’s 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 she’s heavy, and when the subject of favorite songwriters comes up, Bob Dylan ranks toppermost. She’s even premeditated how to break the ice if she ever meets him.
“I’m gonna say, ‘Hey, do you know a good dentist? Because my father is a dentist, and you might want to switch.’”
Show biz is tough. The clock ticks. The big money doesn’t roll in. Once in a while there’s 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 don’t know how much more hair I need to grow on my chest. But every time I complain that I’ve paid enough dues, my friend Chuck E. Weiss says, ‘Right. You ain’t 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.