Ballad of a Boomtown Babe
By Stacy Davies
Eleni Mandell is a rocker. Sometimes. A deftly layered singer-songwriter—capable of both actually rocking you with heavy twanged, rat-ta-tat riffs, and conversely lulling you with breathy, bittersweet sketches—whichever side Mandell’s dipping into, her crafting and delivery keep her firmly planted in the center of rocker cool.
Now on her seventh album since her 1999 debut, Mandell claims her latest release, Artificial Fire, is the liberation of her inner teenager; after last year’s sultry “late night, lights-low” Miracle of Five, she was ready to kick up the fun again, and boy does she. This variable change-up in style is of no surprise to her legions of fans, of course, who follow whether she’s churning out classic country or torchy noir—in fact, it’s expected. Mandell is an original, and her guidelines are her own.
Next week she’ll make her first-ever tour stop at the legendary Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown and it seemed like the perfect jumping off point for a phone chat—like most indie acts, Mandell gets to soak up a lot of smalltown Americana while on her way to various metropoli and Europe, and some of it must invariably seep into her storytelling.
“I always want to be more adventurous that I really am,” she says, “but I never really dreamed about going to Minneapolis—I never even thought about Minneapolis—and now it’s one of my favorite places to play. It definitely has an influence—I mean, the first time I drove through Iowa City, I ended up writing a song called ‘Iowa City.’ [laughs] I love that I get dragged around to all of these random spots around the world. I mean, I never thought I’d be in a microscopic town in the mountains of Austria hiking up to a cottage where I was served breakfast by a dwarf.”
While the dwarf has yet to appear in verse, songs such as “It Wasn’t the Time (It Was the Color)”—a KCRW favorite earlier this year—evolved after Mandell was contacted by a boy she’d kissed in eighth grade. Other song ideas don’t always seem as obvious—like “In the Doorway,” which she wrote at an airport in Quebec City, and “Salt Truck.”
“I started taking notes for [“Salt Truck”] while we were on a harrowing winter tour a few years ago,” she says, “and I remember reading the notes to my drummer Kevin and he just looked at me like I was crazy. Like, ‘Salt Truck, I love you, you’re so great, thanks for clearing the road…’ [laughs] It was really hard to see how it would become a viable song.”
Mandell knows her limits and her landscape however—and pursues her objective even if, at times, mega success seems against the odds. She is, in fact, often unwillingly pitted against those invisible, arbitrary odds: in 2001, the New Yorker described her as “the best unsigned artist in the business” and in 2003, Slate magazine’s subhead on her in was “a great singer-songwriter who can’t get a record deal.” While invariably meant to be compliments, or even outcries, hearing so often how you haven’t made it can be a bit of a bummer.
“I’m basically being asked ‘why are you such a loser?’ [laughs] I mean, I just came back from the East Coast and was giving a radio interview and the host asked why I thought I’ve never made it—and even if that was a legitimate question to ask, I don’t think I’m the person to answer it. I’m definitely biased!”
Instead of asking why Mandell hasn’t been accepted by the establishment, who has a long history of snubbing visionaries who don’t fit a specific mold (recently deceased author James Purdy and the iconic Laurie Anderson come to mind), a better question is how Mandell’s remained such a consistently vibrant and challenging artist in a world that worships cookie cutter and mediocre—and been able to pay the bills doing it.
“I’ve adjusted my ideas of what I think success means,” she says, “and at this point, besides being able to make a living playing music, which is a pretty big deal in my book, I think success is being creative and inspired and liking what you do and being proud of it. And on top of that, I really think I’m working with the best musicians around.”
It’s an easier route to take than to maintain, of course, and being on the outside of the corporate fishbowl is not for timid swimmers. But while Mandell hopes to see the reemergence of quality instead of quantity again one day, she doesn’t let the state of the industry overwhelm her.
“Right now, the market is completely flooded, I can’t think about it too much because I want to keep making music. It’s such a great feeling to get to write and sing and play. Each of us has to stick to our guns and be true to our art and our craft and hope that someone hears it or reads it and appreciates it.”
And for those who seek to follow her exemplary yet often woeful path?
“Playing music is so enriching for anybody’s life, but to pursue it as a career, you have to have an incredible passion, naiveté [laughs] and feel like you really have to do it. Because if you don’t really have to—save yourself!”
Eleni Mandell, Hello From Reno at Pappy & Harriet’s, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.elenimandell.com. Thurs., April 2, 7PM; Free!