Interview with Eleni Mandell

AVIVA-Berlin: Let's start with your new album right away: You said it is full of soul music. What exactly is your definition of soul music, and how does your album "Afternoon" fit in with that definition?
Eleni Mandell: I guess, my definition of soul music is music that you feel in the pit of your stomach. I love soul music from the 60s. I was listening to a lot of that when I was writing the songs. Let me see if I can remember who I was listening to: Betty Swan, Irma Thomas etc. There's so much good stuff. I have friends that are record collectors and they made me mix tapes.

AVIVA-Berlin: Why is your new album called "Afternoon"?
Eleni Mandell: I just noticed that a lot of the songs talk about the daytime, the sunlight, the afternoon. And there is this song called "Afternoon". On every record I entitle the record after a song that especially had some meaning for me.

AVIVA-Berlin: What I noticed is that the studio work sounds like every musician was actually present in the studio and played just as they felt, without any restriction or guidelines.
Eleni Mandell: Yeah, I like to record live. I'm making a new record now a little bit differently, but for the most part, we rehearsed a lot. We've been playing together for a couple of years and knew some of the songs already. I like everybody to feel free so that everybody enjoys himself. The guys are great musicians and we all sort of know when it's working or not working. But there are always some guidelines…"Don't ever play that again!" But for the most part they are just great and I trust them.

AVIVA-Berlin: What is your approach? Do you write the lyrics or music first, and what inspires you?
Eleni Mandell: Every now and then I like to walk around my neighbourhood in the hills and sometimes I sing to myself, or when I'm driving, or I think of a word, I write the word down… Mostly, when something works, everything comes together at the same time. I'm better at doing things simultaneously. I don't usually have the music first and then add words afterwards. I really like words!

AVIVA-Berlin: What do you find most difficult about song writing?
Eleni Mandell: I only find it difficult if I'm trying to force it. Otherwise it comes pretty easy or naturally to me. I've been doing it long enough. I trust myself, I don't try to write if it's not the right time.

AVIVA-Berlin: Most of your lyrics are about love, above disappointed love. Are your texts fictitious, or do they really concern you and all your personal experiences?
Eleni Mandell: Well, I think that the most effective music is music that's honest and sincere even if it may be a little corny. So yeah, these are my real experiences. I might be a little melodramatic, and I might have a little bit of an overactive imagination but I try to be honest... and I have bad taste. But things are getting better!

AVIVA-Berlin: Is it sometimes difficult for you to reveal such intimate feelings and thoughts on stage in front of a big audience?
Eleni Mandell: You know, once I walk on the stage, I sort of go into another dimension, if things are going well. The only time that I've ever felt self-conscious was at show in LA. Usually my parents come to all my shows when I'm in LA, but this time I thought, wow, it's so strange that I'm singing this in front of my parents, but then I'm on stage and I forget. And we don't talk about it afterwards!

AVIVA-Berlin: Tom Waits is one of your greatest idols. How did you feel when you met him face-to-face in LA?
Eleni Mandell: It was incredible, it was really incredible. I met him through a friend and it's the best way to meet somebody you admire. It's hard when you meet somebody and you're such a fan. It changed my life, he encouraged me and... you know, I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan as well and I just read his book and in his book he talks about just somebody nodding at you or smiling at you that you admire and you fell like that's such a great encouragement, and it keeps you going. And so I really had that with Tom Waits and it definitely kept me going. And now I just need some encouragement from Bob!

AVIVA-Berlin: Could you say there has been a moment in your life that you felt the only thing you wanted to do is music.
Eleni Mandell: It was definitely when I met Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits. I've always been playing music since I was a kid and I tried to have punk rock bands with guys in school but than I met them, and they heard me sing and said " this is what you should do!". That was it, it was kind of crazy.

AVIVA-Berlin: You have won the "Best Songwriter /Composer 2003" Award for LA Weekly together with Elliot Smith, and you have really missed the award ceremony. How could that happen?
Eleni Mandell: Yeah, my brother was getting married the next day and I decided to wear the shoes that I was going to wear at this wedding. They were really high and my feet were killing me and Elliot and I were in competition and he was performing so I thought he was going to win cause otherwise they would not have him perform and my feet hurt so I decided to go home. I was in bed and my friend called me and said "You won!". I feel bad that I was not there to thank the people working for me but I also feel like it's very embarrassing like, you don't want to loose but you don't want to win either.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your last album meant a great career achievement especially in Europe. Although at that time "Country for true lovers" was available in France, only. Your concert in Berlin was sold out completely. What do you expect now?
Eleni Mandell: Things have never been easy for me so I don't really expect anything. I try not to expect anything. Of course playing in Berlin tonight is really exciting. It's like Paris or New York. It's the highlight of the tour. I just really, really try to have fun tonight.

AVIVA-Berlin: If you had the chance to sign with a major recording company, would you do that or would you be afraid of losing your creative freedom?
Eleni Mandell: It's hard for me to imagine that happening but I would love to find some sort of label, large or small, that would help me keep making records because it's hard to do by yourself. But I'm not too worried about it!

AVIVA-Berlin: Once you said you didn't like what today's country-music is like. What do you exactly mean and how do you see the future of this kind of music?
Eleni Mandell: Well, you know, country music coming out of Nashville seems like it's really more like pop music. It doesn't have the character that made country music so great. I love George Johnson, Tammy Wynette, Willy Nelson, Merle Haggard and some of these people are still making records, and they are still great. I really just listen to the old stuff so I'm not an expert but I think country music is soul music, that's why Ray Charles made a country record. It's so soulful and I guess it seems like it lost a bit of that.

AVIVA-Berlin: You have dedicated one of your songs (American Boy) to John Kerry, hoping that he would become the next president. Are you disappointed about the results of the US elections?
Eleni Mandell: Oh, yeah, I was very disappointed, but I was not surprised. I don't really trust the government. I try to really sort of stay out of it. I know it's irresponsible. I should be more politically active, try to do more. But it's really hard in the United States. It seems so hopeless. It just seems impossible. I think I took the election better than most of my friends just because I had so little hope. I hoped that it would happen but I did not expect it. The republicans are very powerful, they have a lot of money. It's frightening, but if you think about it too much you go crazy.

AVIVA-Berlin: What plans do you have for the future?
Eleni Mandell: Try not to eat too much cheese while I'm in Europe! I don't know how you guys do it. I mean I love German food, I love bratwurst, wiener schnitzel and cheese. I like heavy food but I don't want to get fat while I'm here. So I'm trying to not eat too much.

AVIVA-Berlin: Eleni. Thanks for your time. I wish you all the best for the future, and have fun on stage!
Eleni Mandell: Thank you, it was a pleasure!

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