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.”
Yet Mandell confesses that “Pauline,” the first track on her new CD, is about a fling she had “with this guy who had a girlfriend. I think the reason that song meant so much to me is that I did feel this connection to the woman. Even though we never met, I identified with her. In the end, I felt like he was the loser.” She adds, “Anybody that I cross paths with has to know they run a risk of being written about.”
Things are not always what they seem in Mandell‘s music. “Nickel Plated Man,” from the debut CD, appears to be about her attraction to a criminal, but she claims it’s a political song. How so? “Because I get really upset about recycling,” she says, half kidding. “I used to live on Sycamore and Beverly, and there were always homeless people who‘d come in the middle of the night, and they’d start rattling the bottles, and it gave me this sense of sadness about the world. Because there‘s so much trash! Which is maybe as political as I’ll get. It‘s also a love song.” “Sylvia,” with its gushing girl-pop chorus, sounds upbeat, but Mandell says it’s a “disguised” song. “I‘m in love with somebody, and all he can talk about is Sylvia. I don’t think you can have a beautiful, happy song without it being sad.”
The new, unreleased “Silver Lake Babies,” which was inspired by Philip K. Dick‘s novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, is ultimately “more optimistic than most of my songs. It’s still really sad, but it‘s also about how fabulous life can be. It’s autobiographical, based on my personal experience, but it‘s also a projection into the future, more imagining what could happen instead of actually having to live it. Or finding inspiration out of really small moments.”
For a nice Jewish girl from the Valley, Mandell does have a wild side, alluded to in Thrill’s “1970 Red Chevelle” and Wishbone‘s “Careless Driver.” “I love to drive on Mulholland. I feel like a race-car driver. There’s a control and a power and an aggressiveness — a danger as well. I think I‘m a great driver, but other people seem to be afraid when they’re in the car with me. There‘s something sexual about driving, unless you’re in traffic, which isn‘t sexy at all.
”There’s a romance with cars. For me, there‘s a romance with anything that evokes the past. I’m basically just a nostalgic person. I make more sense in the ‘30s or the ’40s or even the ‘50s. I can’t wear ‘70s clothes at all; I have the wrong body for it. I drive a ’93 Corolla. If I had the money, I‘d want a 1954 Porsche Speedster or an old truck. I feel like everything that I do is so that the kids that I will have someday — maybe — will think I’m cool.“