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BGS 5+5: Eleni Mandell

Jun 13, 2019

BGS 5+5: Eleni Mandell

Artist name: Eleni Mandell
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Latest album: Wake Up Again

What’s your favorite memory from being on stage?

One of my favorite memories from being on stage is from Munster, Germany. For a few years a man named Volker would show up to my shows in different countries and come to say hello to us, the band and me, after we performed. He had an interesting look and demeanor, so we used to try and guess what he did for a living. I think we decided he must be a race car driver or some other exotic career. It turned out that he was the lighting guy for a special theater in Munster called Pumpenhaus. It was an incredible cultural center that focused on producing plays with adults with special needs. I believe that some were residents at the local mental hospital.

Volker, the fan that showed up in different countries, talked the theater into having me play a show there. I believe I was the first musical artist ever to perform there. I developed a special relationship with Pumpenhaus and the people who worked there. One year, one of the actors who also helped around the theater, an adult with special needs, jumped up on stage right after I finished and kissed me on the cheek. Everybody laughed and cheered. His name was Guido. It could have been weird but it wasn’t because the feeling in the room was so positive.

At least an entire year later, possibly longer, we were back in Munster for a show. They treated us like kings there. It always felt like a wonderful reunion and party. Guido came backstage before the show and shyly handed me a present. It was a framed photo of him kissing me on the cheek. I keep that photo on my mantel at home to remind me of the connections you can make with people through music.

What was the first moment that you knew you wanted to be a musician?

I knew I wanted to be a musician the first time I saw the band X perform when I was 13 years old. I had already played violin and piano since I was 5 years old and I distinctly remember wondering how I could write songs and sing with the violin. I always loved singing. My mother finally allowed me to quit classical music at 13 years old. I discovered X through one of the “bad” girls at school. Their sound and lyrics hit me on a gut level that I can’t articulate. I remember looking at them on stage and thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” The wonderful thing about this is that so many years later, John Doe (singer, bass) and D.J. Bonebrake (drums) are both acquaintances of mine. I’d like to say they’re friends but I don’t want to brag.

What’s the toughest time you ever had writing a song?

I’m not sure about the toughest time I had writing a song. Sometimes I have an idea, or am inspired by a word, and then write something that is just terrible and throw it away. Sometimes I don’t throw it away but wish I had. I do remember, though, that I had an old boyfriend that was into vintage motorcycles and trucks. He was always talking about nickel plating the tank of his bike and what kind of truck he’d get, a fleetside or stake bed. Those words made me so curious. I was also in love with him and heartbroken by him all the time. I wrote the title, “Nickel Plated Man,” on top of one page and then another and another and another. I tried a million ways to write that song. I’d write it, turn the page and try again. It just never seemed to work.

Finally, the song fell on the page in 5 minutes, but it was probably a year after I first tried to write it. It came when I started plucking out those notes that repeat throughout the whole song. That is probably my most enduring song and one of the first I wrote. I’m still very proud of it. It’s also a song that Tom Waits said he thought was cool (message delivered by a mutual friend). It takes me back to a time in my life and a person that I knew (and still do). I love that about music, that it can create a whole world full of memories and feelings. I guess the lesson is that sometimes the songs that are the hardest to come to life are the ones that stick with us the longest.

What rituals do you have, either in the studio or before a show?

My rituals before a show are not cool or romantic. I like to get one drink that I sip on throughout the night, usually bourbon. I’m not a big drinker at all but sipping a bourbon on ice puts me in the mood to perform. I need it less and less as I get older but I still like the taste and the warmth. My number one ritual, and the nerdiest of all, is that I have to brush my teeth before I walk out on stage. My father was a dentist and I worked for him after I first graduated college. I am serious about proper oral hygiene! The last thing I want to do is taste food while I’m on stage or breathe on a fan after a show. Now everyone knows. Maybe people will start bringing me toothbrushes. I also always go and hang out at the merch table after shows. I love meeting people and seeing the same people around the world over the years.

What other art forms — literature, film, dance, painting, etc — inform your music?

I feel like any artist learns and grows by experiencing art. I am a word person. I love words, the way they sound or feel in your mouth and the variety of meanings they have, in English or other languages. I love translations bouncing back from one language to another and how that can change or enhance a word for me. So, that said, I think literature always influences my work because when I read a word or combination of words or phrases in literature, I am undoubtedly influenced and inspired.

I also love photography and old movies. I am always inspired by great art that sucks me in, like an Ansel Adams photograph I saw recently at a museum. The intensity of the light and shadows made me fall in love. That euphoric feeling makes me want to pick up a guitar and sing.

Photo credit: Max Gerber

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BGS 5+5: Eleni Mandell
BGS 5+5: Eleni Mandell