Whether she's crooning the loungey noir of "My Twin" or whispering her fantasy that "the make-out king is starting to care," Eleni Mandell's voice has a smoky, old-timey timbre that instantly gets under your skin. With her sixth album, Miracle of Five, produced by Anti- Records head Andy Kaulkin, that voice is seducing a wider audience and earning comparisons to such indie sirens as Cat Power. As she talks via phone from her Los Angeles home, Mandell's getting ready to start her tour with longtime bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, new guitarist Jeremy Drake ... and a sunnier lyrical focus.
So for Miracle of Five, you recorded vocals first, then the other musicians filled in parts around them? I think Van Morrison did that for Astral Weeks ...
I don't think it's the most popular way to record. But it worked really well for me, because I was just able to relax more and hear more, and kind of set the tone for the record to be an intimate record. And then, the band coming to the recording session with my vocal already done made them play in a specific way as well, and really listen to what I was doing. Which isn't always the case.
You've said in No Depression magazine that your subject matter was moving from darker topics toward "Love and crafts." What does that mean?
It's kind of a joke and it's kind of true. I really love to sew. I really love to make things. I was an art major in college, and painted and did printmaking. I love all kinds of creative activities; sewing is one of them, and I did write a song called "Needle and Thread," which will be on my next record. So it is kinda about love and craft. I just love the idea of people kind of getting away from being consumers, and being self-sufficient. And also, handmade things just have an organic quality that you can't get from store-bought things. There's a lot of love and time that goes into making something.
Like ... music?
I decided, with my band, that we should make a tour-only CD for this tour -- a limited edition. It's from a couple of live shows we did in Europe, two months ago. I don't know how we ended up getting it done in time. After this interview, I have to go to my guitar player's house -- we're going to assemble everything, put it together ourselves. It's kind of unique packaging.
You don't get many songwriters who will talk about their music as a "craft." They want to talk about it as an art form.
I think it possibly has art-form status. It definitely can when it's done well. For me, I try to do it well -- I'm a little bit lazy, and I like to do things quickly. I'm not a perfectionist, unfortunately. But that was one thing about making this record that was a little bit different than the others: [Kaulkin] was more careful about us taking our time to get things right. That was a first for me -- I usually just blow through them.
Much has been made of you "getting happy" on this record.
You know, one of the exciting things about getting older for me is getting happier. And just feeling more comfortable with who I am, and having less self-doubt. Which is something 10 years ago I couldn't have imagined.
That actually happens, then? Whew.
It kinda starts to happen when you turn 30, and you're like, "Wow, this is pretty cool -- getting older rules!" And then also just being in a good relationship for the first time in my life ... Crying and moaning about bad boyfriends just got kinda boring.
One thing you always hear, though, is "So-and-so got married and got happy, and now their records are boring."
Well, I'm lucky I have a good role model: Tom Waits has been married to the same woman for God knows how long, and has kids, and I dunno -- he seems pretty happy. Still making great records. I've thought about it: "What if I get happy and can't write anything anymore?" But I've kinda made a lot of records. That might mean it's time to do something else! But so far, I think I'm still ... pretty good. I'll let the people judge.
A lot of critics think Miracle of Five is your best yet.
I recently read a Jim Ford quote -- he's a songwriter and singer from the '60s and '70s -- and he said, "Sad songs sell beer, happy songs sell records." So, there you have it!
Eleni Mandell with Great Lake Swimmers and Pairdown. 8 p.m. Sat., June 9. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $7. All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com