A slumming angel
Eleni Mandell may be the greatest singer you’ve never heard. So, why isn’t she hugely famous?
No, the 34-year-old Los Angeles singer isn’t Britney Spears, or Christina Aguilera, or any of the other ingénues who have achieved mega-stardom in recent years. But why hasn’t Mandell garnered the kind of adult-market renown enjoyed by, say, Lucinda Williams or Diana Krall?
Yes, it’s a question that certainly has occurred to Mandell. “As I’m getting older, I’m sort of going, ‘What am I going to do when I grow up?” she said via phone from her home in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz district. “'How am I going to pay for the little house? How am I going to make the next record?’ You know—those kinds of things. ‘How am I going to keep touring?’”
After five reasonably exquisite albums, including the just-released Afternoon, along with a fine jazz-vocal EP from last year, it’s understandable that Mandell has been wondering why her ship hasn’t quite come in yet. Last January, two weeks before embarking on a tour of Europe, she contracted pneumonia—“It’s the sickest I’ve ever been in my life,” she said—but she mustered the strength to go anyway. It was, just as countless American jazz musicians and other artists have discovered, somewhat of a love feast, at least when compared with America—nice hotels, good food, great concerts and fans who get the music. “And then I came back,” she continued, “and it was like, ‘What’s the point?’”
Before you think Mandell is yet another frustrated artist whining about not being accepted by the mainstream, realize that her opinion from late last winter was colored by residual pneumonia, and she was experiencing a career crisis point—a crucible through which many artists pass. When you have chosen the path of making music that doesn’t adhere to the dictates of the commercial marketplace, sooner or later you are confronted with a few questions: Why am I still doing this? Will anybody ever get what I’ve been doing? Is it worth it?
If the artist is fortunate, he or she will get a sudden insight that helps put such angst into perspective. For Mandell, it came when she heard that novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream) had died. “There was a great little thing about him in the LA Weekly, where he talked about his feelings about art, and how hard it is, and what you do it for,” she recalled. “And that snapped me out of the crisis I was in.”
So, Mandell worked through a mid-career reassessment, and just in time. “Right now,” she said, “what I have is: I’m playing with great musicians, I have work I’m proud of, and I get to travel and play music—which is some of the most fun you can have.”
Afternoon, recorded this time with her band—Mandell on vocals and acoustic guitar; Joshua Grange (who produced and engineered) on electric guitar, pedal steel, piano and organ; Ryan Feves on bass; and Kevin Fitzgerald on drums—is a fully mature, musically eclectic work that touches on everything the dusky-voiced singer-songwriter does well. It’s also a band record, rather than the more sideman-oriented outing Mandell has done in the past. “I wanted it to be really simple,” she said. “I was listening to a lot of ’60s soul music just before we made it, so you can hear that, a little bit.”
You can. And given that soulful music is currently resurgent, perhaps Mandell finally will get the acclaim she’s worked so hard to receive. Until then, she can enjoy a few morsels of appreciation from people who already appreciate her particular genius.
“Hang on a second,” she said. “They just played me on KCRW, and I think every member of my family just called to tell me.” Coming back on the line a few seconds later, she added, laughing: “Ah. My grandmother.”