Country Time for Eleni Mandell and Carol Van Dyk

Country Time for <b>Eleni Mandell</b> and Carol Van Dyk
Sure, country has more recent cachet than it has in 30 years, but why would two musicians with some serious career momentum choose this moment to take a country detour? "I can be sadder - and more fun!" says L.A. singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell, who has just released her fourth album, Country For True Lovers. "With the other stuff I do, I have this idea that I can't sound a certain way. I feel freer with country."

Carol Van Dyk is one half of the country duo Chitlin' Fooks, although she's known primarily for fronting Dutch band Bettie Serveert. For her and co-frontman Pascal Deweze, "it's the joy of singing together," says Van Dyk. The two met when Deweze, of the Belgian pop band Sukilove, arrived to sing on the last Bettie Serveert record. "We discovered that our voices work really well together," she explains. "We both love old music, old roots stuff and country, but also blues, gospel and ragtime. For us, it's like treasure hunting."

Neither Van Dyk nor Deweze explore country in their main projects. Likewise with Mandell: none of her primary country influences - Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Merle Haggard - are overtly apparent on her three prior releases. "On all of my records, there is at least one country song, but with different instrumentation," says Mandell. She is decidedly unconcerned that her shift in direction will leave her fans behind. "Like [hip-hop star] Eve said, they're just gonna have to come with me. But I decided at least a year ago, if not longer, that I wanted to make a country record after [last year's] Snakebite."

Mandell found writing country material much more deliberate than her usual process. "I decided to write straight, traditional country songs and at first it was hard because it seemed that I had to write differently," she says. "And yet, in a way it's a lot easier. You just take out all the metaphors."

The Chitlin' Fooks self-titled 2001 debut was half covers, but their new album Did It Again contains only originals, most co-written by Van Dyk and Deweze. "After we finished the first record - a day later - Pascal and I already started writing new stuff. It was logical for us to make another record." Indeed, the Fooks' second foray is miles ahead of the first. More self-assured, the arrangements are looser, as if they fully digested their country influences. "It all sounds more like a live band, it's a little louder," Van Dyk says. "We didn't want to repeat ourselves. In a very natural process, Pascal was tending more towards old blues, and a few of the songs are almost ragtime. We're both from pop bands and we like to experiment, so that's how this record came to have horns."

While neither Van Dyk nor Mandell emerged from a country "scene," respect for a writing tradition drew them both to it. "It's still very personal in a way," explains Van Dyk, "but I tend to be aware of a certain tradition, whether old blues or country. There are certain rules to it that you have to respect. We wouldn't really use a lot of modern words in the lyrics." Mandell's approach is similar. "I try not to be too wordy, or quirky. It's a rule that I gave myself. I wrote a song with the line 'the rain came down like two tons of sheet metal' and thought, 'that might just be too quirky for country music.' Country music changed a lot over the years, but I'm trying to write like it's 1962."