I first met Eleni Mandell in 1999, at the Turf Club in St. Paul. She was in a summer dress, and I was wearing an old sailor uniform. We were two young songwriters with big dreams. Suddenly, 15 years passed. CDs are dead, hardly anybody records to tape anymore, and everybody is taking their interviews from cell phones in the van/bus/private jet. I called hers up to talk about how the songwriting process refines itself, in Eleni's case, by giving herself what she calls "song assignments."
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Mark Mallman: We met 15 years ago, around the time of your first record, Wishbone. There's been a big change in your the style of your songwriting in that span of years. On the cover of Wishbone you are being chased through a library, or on Thrill you are falling from the sky -- these are stressful situations. Your new record, Let's Fly a Kite, is a lush country-scape of love songs. What happened?
Eleni Mandell: I guess the simple answer is that I had kids. I think I was always in a panic to find a relationship, and to push to a point where we would get married and have kids. Then I finally just had kids by myself, and I'm super happy. I think it's great to be a single mom, so I thought, "Let's explore that." I wrote this song called "Wedding Ring," where I gave myself an assignment to write about marriage. It was great having the perspective to still tap into an emotionally authentic place instead of just being sad.
When you say, "I'm going to challenge myself with an assignment song," does that mean you start with a title?
Yes. A lot of my songs start with a phrases or a word that I like. Because I'm not an accomplished guitar player, starting with music doesn't really work for me. I get inspired by words or phrases and it all kind of happens at the same time. "Like Dreamers Do" was another assignment song. I had written a number of songs for my daughter and I wanted to write one for my son so he didn't feel left out. I've been telling people on stage that I want them to imagine a romantic scenario when they hear these songs. But the assignment was really to write a song about trains, airplanes, helicopters, kites -- all of Rex's favorite things. It also happened quickly. The reason I didn't title the song "Let's Fly a Kite" is because of a song from Mary Poppins. Also, I repeat the phrase "Like Dreamers Do," so it seems like a good title.
A songwriting rule that always haunted me is, "Don't start a song with the title, it'll be the best part about the song." Maybe you've heard that before? I disagree. For instance, I've always liked the title "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" by the Pet Shop Boys. You gotta be pragmatic when you title songs. Led Zeppelin titles always confuse me.
I think a good title is a very good thing. I've got a title I'm waiting to write called "Thank You for Breaking My Heart."
Oh, like "Congratulations" by Bob Dylan, I love that song. I remember, in the days of long distance calls, you and I would have these late night calls from Minnesota to California. You would go on and on about Bob Dylan.
I was on a huge Bob Dylan kick for a few years back then. I wasn't trying to write like him or sound like him. There are so many things that influence you that you can't really identify. I don't consider Dylan a huge influence, but he's in there.
We are more defined by a musician, a book, or a even movie, when starting out. Then as define our sound, those influences mean less. In your case, your children became your songwriting influence.
I think the biggest change in my songwriting is that I don't try really hard to sound like anything but me anymore. It's partly age, where I'm no longer worried about coming off cool. Yeah, I can be really jaded when I hear somebody being obviously very influenced by an artist. Then I remember we've all done it, including Bob Dylan. It's nice when you wake up one day and you're like, "Oh, I'm just me. I can just write what I want to hear now." In the early days I was so influenced by Tom Waits. I was trying to find a really noir language that would be like something he used.
One thing you do have in common with Tom Waits is both of your catalogs have gone through a big change in attitude and style. In his case, we hear him go through these changes from jazz guy to carny. In both cases, the early records are just as strong as the new ones. Some your new songs have a horn section too, like Tom Waits. How significant a role did the horns play in your new record. Did you think, "horns are going to play a big part on this album," as you were heading to Europe to record?
Horns are prominent on a couple of the songs. I wrote these songs and I told Neil Brockbank, one of the two producers, "I want it more stripped down cause I know I'm going to have to tour solo." Then of course I got to the studio and the songs took on their own life. I'd already come back to the states when I was thinking how perfect horns would sound on "Little Joy." Then I got a call from Neil and he said, "We've added some horns, I hope you like it!" When you meet somebody, like a producer, that you have a connection with and you trust, that is a great person to work with. The record sounds the way it does because it was fun to make. I was never stressing about what we were doing.
It's a great collection of material. Times have changed, but your songwriting has stayed consistent. You're truly a master of your craft to be able to get it to come across so nonchalant.
It's not always that songs effortlessly write themselves. I used to love sitting in the morning with a guitar and just zoning out. That's not possible anymore with kids. It's why I have to really focus and give myself assignments. "Okay, the kids are asleep, I gotta write some songs." What's cool about giving myself assignments is it doesn't make it boring. Let's Fly a Kite is certainly that way. I didn't fly a kite for a good 30 years, and then doing it with my kids I saw how it's a great representation of a moment of joy.
Eleni Mandell plays Friday, February 14, at the Turf Club, where we first met. Maybe if I wear a summer dress, she'll get on stage in a sailor's uniform. Her new record, Let's Fly a Kite is out now on Yep Roc.