​Eleni Mandell Takes Control on 'Dark Lights Up'

​Eleni Mandell Takes Control on 'Dark Lights Up'
Photo: Laura Heffington
Eleni Mandell released her sixth album, Miracle of Five, back in 2007. The fact that the L.A.-based singer-songwriter's upcoming new album, Dark Lights Up, is her 10th could perhaps be considered a minor miracle, given that the critical respect Mandell has long received has never come close to translating to significant commercial success.
However, Mandell is ambivalent about the milestone. "Some of my favourite bands only put out three records," she tells Exclaim! "I vacillate being very proud of that, and feeling similarly to how many years I have lived in the same apartment, which is now 19. Is that a good thing or does it make me a loser? My underground status has not changed with that figure."
Advance reaction to Dark Lights Up has been positive, and Mandell says that "I'm kind of in love with it. I guess you're always in love with the most recent thing you've done, but I feel especially proud because I decided to make a commitment to being my own producer. I'd always been afraid to do that, even while feeling it was something I wanted to do. It felt good to have a clear idea of how I wanted to sound and then to achieve it.
"I really respect and admire every producer I've worked with, but pretty much on all the records, there is something on there I didn't feel thoroughly represented me. For instance, on Miracle of Five — a record I really love — there is some harp on there that I didn't think fit the song. The harp player was the girlfriend of the producer, so it was tricky to go 'No I don't want it.'"
The sound of Dark Lights Up was inspired by the sparse simplicity of famed country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, an epiphany that followed her visit to Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame.
"Miller's music is so amazing," she explains. "It doesn't sound dated and there is so much space. That really inspired me to go for the acoustic instruments and a more open-face production."
Mandell chose to make the album quickly. "It was four days to record the whole thing, and from the first rehearsal to it being mastered was two weeks. I'm not a historian, but I understand that is how many of my favourite records were made. They weren't slaved over or over-thought, and I wanted to capture that spontaneity."
Over the course of her extensive discography, Mandell has traversed wide musical terrain. "That is definitely not a marketing decision," she says. "I have not been an artist that is easily pigeonholed. I just love so many different kinds of music. I remember being criticized earlier in my career for jumping from genre to genre, but I feel like everything melds together now."
Mandell's musically restless spirit and prolific songwriting has also found other outlets. She fronts L.A.-based rock band the Grabs (Nigel Harrison of Blondie is a member), and they've released two albums.
"When I feel I need to rock out, I have the Grabs to do that with," she says. "I also now have a harmony project with Mike Green, who drums on Dark Lights Up and has an amazing voice. We recorded almost an entire album of our stuff, as soon as we finished my record."
She is also a member of acclaimed female folk combo the Living Sisters, and they've released three albums since 2010. "It is great to have these side projects as I can write in a different way," she reflects.
Despite all these bands and her own prolific solo career, survival as a full-time musician is precarious, Mandell frankly admits.
"I worry about the finances of it. I worry about not being able to continue in this business. It feels very much like it is my identity of who I am, but now I have children and I have to be more responsible and practical. It is harder to be a bohemian. They may not be too excited about that in 20 years — 'No, this tent is so comfortable. We can live here.'"
Dark Lights Up arrives July 24 on Yep Roc.