Eleni Mandell’s new album Miracle of Five (released on Zedtone last week) sounds different with each listen. At first, it’s a string of old-fashioned torch songs. Then lyrics start to come forward, and things get a little quirky. You might refer to the cover art, and notice the songs have names like “Salt Truck” and “Make-out King.” And, finally, there’s an overtone of pop — not the shiny-sparkly-boy kind, but the kind that might wear a poodle skirt. In any event, it’s delightful dinner-party fare.
PopGurls caught up with Eleni with 20 Questions in hand, just as she was about to embark on brief US tour. (If you miss her this time around, she’ll be back stateside in April.)
1. Was there a single event that resulted in you becoming a songwriter?
There are so many things. Meeting Chuck E. Weiss. But we can go further back to when my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Block, got me a rhyming dictionary for my Bat Mitzvah.
2. Do you participate in other forms of writing — short stories or poems?
I am in a writing group and have been attempting to write short stories. It’s very challenging. I wrote more prose when I was in college and thought I would write novels.
3. Your album is full of old-fashioned, almost torchy, and yet quirky songs. What did you listen to growing up that inspired you to create this kind of music?
I was inspired by my father’s very eclectic taste in music; I spent a lot of time listening to his collection of jazz standards. [I was also inspired by] by my mother, who took me to see every musical that came to town.
4. Do you perform any rituals to get in the mood to create new music?
Nope. I wait until inspiration hits. I do like sitting by my front window with the guitar early in the morning, but it isn’t a sure bet. I still need the inspiration to hit.
5. What’s the single hardest thing about making an album?
6. This is almost too easy, but who’s your “make-out king”?
7. The cover art for Miracle of Five is so beautiful that I spent a day online looking for a shirt or stickers or something so I could wear the art around. How much input did you have in its creation?
I asked a friend in Paris to try his hand (no pun intended) at the cover. I gave him a couple of references and he came up with that. I do love it and am glad I didn’t try and control it. I think the paper feels nice, too.
8. You’ve been making music for a long time. Do you ever put out an album and think, “That’s it. That’s the best it’s going to get.”
Every single time. But it always gets better.
9. Fox’s show The OC kicked off a trend of bands breaking on TV shows. Your music was featured on the now-defunct Life As We Know It. Were you familiar with the show, and how the song would be used?
I thought it was hilarious how the song was used in that film (as a backdrop for a romance between a male high school student and female teacher). I do not approve of teachers crossing those boundaries, but I did think it was amusing that my song could help move the story along (the student makes the teacher a mixed tape and they slow dance to it after school). I had never seen the show until I was included on the soundtrack, but my teenage cousins watched it religiously and were thrilled when they heard me.
10. You definitely saw a surge in popularity after your cover of Cole Porter’s I Love Paris was featured in Paris Hilton’s famous Carl’s Jr. ad. Any regrets at being associated with Paris?
Actually, I didn’t see any surge in popularity after the commercial. It was just an illusion. I just got my name in the paper alongside Paris’.
I have no problem with having taken a job singing. I love to sing. If it was for guns or cigarettes I wouldn’t do it. I don’t really feel very associated with her. My mechanic really got a kick out of it, though, so now he always remembers me when I bring my car in.
11. What personal musical needs are you filling with the side project, The Grabs?
I’m fulfilling the desire to write without worrying about sounding stupid. Many fun, danceable songs don’t have the best lyrics. But I guess mostly it fulfills the teenage dream of being in a pop band.
12. Is there a trend in music these days that concerns you?
I don’t particularly like the laid back, casual, ironic, deadpan thing so much. And I don’t like the whole “ladies of the night” look.
13. Oingo Boingo was the first concert you attended. “Dead Man’s Party”: Over-played and annoying, or totally genius?
I’m not a big fan of Oingo Boingo. My best friend in Junior High got us tickets through her dad. I don’t think I ever thought about them before that.
14. Is there a band you loved, were sure would hit big, and didn’t?
When I was a teenager there was a local band (they actually rehearsed in a garage right near my parents’ house) called The Rave-Ups. They even played at my high school once. I thought they were really cool, but they disappeared.
15. Who was the last person to do something with music that surprised you?
I really like Electrelane. I was blown away by their use of a choir in one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time.
16. What’s something about yourself that people can never believe, when you tell them?
People seem surprised that I went to UC Berkeley.
17. Is there a current pop culture phenomenon of which you are a fan?
I’m suddenly a fan of the side ponytail, but I’m not sure if that counts as a pop culture phenomenon.
18. What’s the best song for dancing around your living room with girlfriends?
I really like a mixed crowd of boys and girls dancing in my living room. You won’t believe this but we danced all summer to Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” (by Joni Mitchell). I really love it.
19. What is your prized possession?
My late grandmother’s wedding band and my signed copy of a beautiful love poem by Charles Bukowski.
20. They say that each person has a role within his/her group of friends. What role do you fulfill?
Hostess of the most fun dinner/dance parties.