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Eleni Mandell Interview

| January 31, 2007 | 0 Comments

Eleni Mandell
30 Love


No one just picks up tennis 10 years into one’s career; there must be some ulterior motive. Perhaps the quiet life needs a jarring sport of starts and stops, lobs and rifled shots. It’s also an obvious outlet for someone who’s singularly competitive — le tenis is probably the most physically and mentally multifaceted of the mainstream one-man sports. It’s a lifestyle decision. For Eleni Mandell?

Appearing: June 3rd at Schubas in Chicago.

“I had some friends that were playing every Friday evening right near my house,” she says, “and then they’d come here and I’d barbecue for them. Then I was like, ‘Hey, I wanna try that.’ [But I need] to get my game together, so they’ll actually let me play with them. I’m the kid that doesn’t get picked for the team.”

Maybe it isn’t the most exciting reason, but it’s a reason nonetheless. Mandell doesn’t need epiphanies or revelations anyway, because she has already had hers. After spending nearly a decade in song not getting the boy, on her latest album, The Miracle Of Five (Zedtone), she does.

“Yeah,” she dreamily sighs, “the makeout king. He’s been dethroned.” This “makeout king” is the subject of the last song recorded for Miracle, about finally landing the boy a lot of girls have kissed but never been able to bring home. Don’t get it wrong — the album isn’t all puppydogs and ice cream — but it marks a considerable shift in tone for Mandell despite segueing smoothly from the lazy, country jazz feel of her last two albums, Country For True Lovers and Afternoon.

For every “True love/just like honey in my tea,” there’s the mildly insecure, Liz Phair-ish lullaby “Girls.” Her lusty “Beautiful” isn’t quite on par with a James Blunt sapfest, and as a plus it has the title track in support, which basks not only in hand-holding but other things fingers are known to do.

Hidden behind all this was a fundamental change in recording method, a reversion to first album Bloom, from 1998.

“In a way I kind of went back to the way I first recorded when I worked with Jon Brion,” she says. “We worked in a similar way, for the most part, where I did most of my parts and Jon and [fellow producer] Ethan Johns played after. And then I was like, ‘Ya know what? I really love playing with a band. I wanna feel that really organic live band sound.'”

The challenge from there was not to set Mandell loose — aside from the neurotic Thrill her albums have become increasingly demur — but to bring her back in. For Miracle Of Five, producer Andy Kaulkin (Bettye LaVette, RL Burnside; Epitaph Records president) felt Mandell was being underserved by the arrangement.

“When I started working with Andy,” she says, “he thought my voice sounded the best when I was the most relaxed, which is when I was just playing songs in my living room. So he wanted to capture that and the way we discovered it worked best was for me to be alone in the studio and record my parts and have the band do their parts after. It’s not the most fashionable way to do it, but I really liked it. It kind of brought out different things in everybody.” Really different.

“It definitely isn’t easy for the drummer [Kevin Fitzgerald]. I have decent timing,” she jests, “I think it’s mostly a challenge for him. But then he could play as loud as he wanted, and I think it had a cool effect. Like on ‘Girls.'”

Mandell has proven masterful at obscuring the source of her provocative lyrics, which often have autobiographical traits that are successfully exaggerated. Judging tracks like “Pauline” from Thrill, she’s a covetous slut waiting for any opportune moment to execute a fantasy. Yet the general picture on *Miracle Of Five* is an almost Rockwellian simplicity, where love, once it comes, is all. Was she ever the makeout queen?

“I wouldn’t say so,” she says without hesitation. “I had a pretty sheltered childhood. I was raised to be a good girl and there’s something in me — I can’t break the mold. I like to *hang out* with people that are a little wilder than I am. Everyone has many layers of their personality, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a real rampage. I’ll check with a couple people and see if they agree.”

But what is it they say? In every story there’s a layer of truth.

Steve Forstneger

For the rest of Mandell’s tennis dreams, grab the February issue of Illinois Entertainer, available throughout Chicagoland.

Category: Features, Monthly

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