ELENI MANDELL: The Love of Love Songs

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Eleni Mandell, whose sixth album-Miracle of Five-has just been released on Zedtone Records, has a delightful way of punctuating even her deepest, most serious thoughts with a short, self-deprecating laugh.

Eleni Mandell, whose sixth album-Miracle of Five-has just been released on Zedtone Records, has a delightful way of punctuating even her deepest, most serious thoughts with a short, self-deprecating laugh.

And so she does, sitting inside a small bakery-café in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood on a sunny November day, when she explains what’s new and what has changed about her songwriting.

“I just write about what inspires me,” she says. “To me, there’s nothing better to write about than the fine details of the theme of love. But also, I’ve been thinking about the universe”-and here she briefly laughs at the idea of such a weighty concept-“so I’ve sort of expanded into bigger themes…like the meaning of life,” she laughs.

The truth is that some of the exquisitely crafted songs on Miracle of Five do indeed address life’s meaning, albeit in a poetically observant and sometimes mysterious way. The minor-key “My Twin,” for instance, wrestles with the unsettling notion of having a “perfect twin” somewhere in the world.

Another, “Salt Truck,” equates true love with the safety of following a reliable salt truck on a highway in freezing rain. “Dear Friend,” despite its reassuring title, obliquely gets at a universal feeling-how to maintain meaningful relationships in a dangerous world.

Others are lighter and use humor to make their points; “Girls” wonders whether a man wonders about the girls from his past. “Make-Out King” worries the singer will be judged crazy for “kissing the make-out king.”

From the care that Mandell puts into her lyrics-the spare and finely turned phrases that paint pictures rather than shout feelings-it’s evident that her songwriting is the result of intense, hard work. Those laughs in conversation might just be a way to let off steam.

“I’ve had friendships or romances with people who are very unique, so I find inspiration from a lot of real people in my life,” she says. “And I wait and let it come. I trust I’ll be able to write, so I don’t force it…and I spend a lot of time alone in order to write.

For her new album, producer Andy Kaulkin asked Mandell to try something different-to record the songs solo with a nylon-string guitar, and then let the other musicians overdub. (They include her bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, plus Wilco’s Nels Cline on electric guitars.) That was the best way, he felt, to highlight her voice’s special qualities, a laconic yet delicately sensual dreaminess.

“I’d been opposed to working that way for a long time,” she says. “I wanted everything to be live. But when I first played songs for Andy in my apartment, he thought my voice sounded better than he had ever heard it…I think it really worked. If I can hear better, I’m more relaxed.”

The 37-year-old Los Angeles-native has been seriously writing and performing since graduating from University of California at Berkeley with an art degree 15 years ago. Her first album, 1998’s Wishbone, was produced by Jon Brion. She has been earning a living singing for the past six years, and in 2004, Los Angeles magazine selected her “best local singer.”

The fact that she does for-hire voice work contributes to her livelihood in Los Angeles. Perhaps her best-known for-hire song is a version of “I Love Paris,” which ran in the racy Carl’s Jr. burger-chain commercial featuring Paris Hilton. The song proved so popular it wound up on iTunes.

“I really enjoy it because I really love singing all different kinds of things, especially when I’m getting paid,” she says. “That was just a job…I figured I’d have a little pocket money and no one would even know.”

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