April 12th, 2007 | Interviews

dan monick

Eleni Mandell grew up in the Valley as the daughter of a dentist and is now one of Los Angeles’ signature singers. She has just released a record called Miracle of Five on Zedtone. She speaks over a single cup of coffee at Café Los Feliz.

What happened to your novel?
It’s at my parents’ house—God forbid anyone finds it. God forbid my parents find it. I thought I wanted to be a writer and I guess when I decided to be a musician, I let go of that. And now I am a writer—of incredibly microscopic short stories. Which suits me.
Did you ever meet Charles Bukowski?
No, but I did get his address before he died. I was a really big fan and I couldn’t think of anything worth writing. I was gonna write a letter but I felt in a way it was too phony. I didn’t have anything interesting enough to say. I mostly love his stories. Recently Charlie Wadhams and I read a few of his books out loud to each other. I know he’s not considered high literature, but I really enjoy his books a lot.
Have you ever read anything about you that didn’t use the word ‘sultry’?
I try not to pay too much attention to reviews—I did read a couple bad ones. One said I sounded like a deflated balloon. I’ll never forget that. I think people get lazy. Or I am just hands-down sultry and there’s no getting around it.
Your press has you going from unknown to beloved—what was the middle ground?
I’m all middle ground. It’s interesting being on a really slow gradual climb which has definitely not reached anywhere specific yet.
You were in the New York Times crossword.
Which was kind of the pinnacle, so I guess I’m on the downslope. I feel like when you’re young and you start off wanting to perform, you’re just hungry for love and admiration. You want to be recognized and sell records and all this—there’s so much you want. And then as you get older, you know you need those things to make a living as a musician, but they’re not important—not as interesting. You have moments where you realize what you do makes somebody really happy for five minutes. That’s a nice feeling.
What kind of things did you have to give up wanting?
Pretty much everything—I had to give up the idea of a big record deal and having a career like the careers of my heroes. I adjusted my vision of success many times. I feel really lucky for the career I’ve had. I’m just really surprised at myself looking back—that I wanted to do this so badly and felt so strongly and passionate about it that I was willing to forge ahead despite all the rejection and disappointment. That seems weird to me—like such a bad idea! I can’t believe I thought it was a good idea. Even when I talk to friends of mine that are struggling, who want to be recognized—I wanna say, ‘Don’t you know what a bad idea this is?’ But I can’t be hypocritical—I made the same choice. I wanted to make the music I wanted to hear. Even if I didn’t have commercial taste.
Someone told you that?
‘You’re not commercial,’ or ‘you’re overqualified,’ or ‘Jewel has really big boobs.’ I always had a feeling of sort of being invisible—dating back to seventh grade.
What happened in seventh grade?
Nothing—I wasn’t unpopular and I wasn’t tormented. I just felt people wouldn’t remember me. I always felt like the outsider. The first guy I ever kissed was one of the most popular best-looking guys—of course that was a totally momentous occasion for me, but I never saw him again. Recently he emailed me because he read about me—‘Are you the same Eleni?’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you remember me?’ It felt like a gift from God.
Did you go to your high school reunion?
I went to my ten-year—my friends had to convince me to go by paying for me. And it was one of the most hilarious nights of my life—and strangely again, I was completely remembered. Which really shocked me. I had one person say he had a crush on me in sixth grade and another guy tried to get me to have a threesome with his wife and him. I never stopped laughing all night long. I got to tell the bully he wasn’t nice. All the girls who were really popular got fat and had a bunch of kids. It was satisfying in so many ways.
You’re an L.A. native and you never moved away—why?
Part of it is guilt from my family. And I didn’t really find some place I liked better. I feel like in L.A., if you find your niche, it’s a total paradise. When I was more insecure and felt constantly rejected, I felt like there was nothing for me here—but I think that was all in my mind. I feel there’s so much more to tap into—so many interesting people doing cool things. All that shallowness can be avoided.
I don’t go out that often and I don’t go west of Cahuenga.
What was your most memorable day as a dental assistant?
There was a lot of embarrassment. My dad would never stop talking about my career. I’d have the mask on, not looking my best and pulling the suction, and he’d be like, ‘She’s a musician!’ I remember a moment of I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life—a patient came in and needed their dentures fixed, so I put out my hand—my gloved hand!—and they put them in my hand, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is my life. I’m holding someone’s dentures in my hand and it’s totally normal.’ My dad would look up while he was working and I’d shake my head like, ‘Great, thank you.’ And there was blood everywhere. Another great moment was when I fell asleep while assisting a root canal. It was right after college and I really resented having a job—I had to be at work at 7 AM and I’d stay up til 4, and I was doing a root canal and I woke up when my dad grabbed the instrument out of my hand—I was supposed to hand it to him.
Who is the strangest person you ever shared a song with?
Ryan Adams asked me to write with him.
No, he had it—he had it waiting for me. That’s the only time anything like that ever happened. It was pretty surreal. I’d never bought any of his records. I wasn’t intimidated like he was a superstar, but I realized it could be an opportunity. And I’d heard about his reputation with the ladies. It’s actually really embarrassing to write with people you don’t feel totally comfortable with. You’re the first journalist I’ve told this to! I remember being pretty nervous and just uncertain of what I was supposed to do, and he had a typewriter and he started playing and typing, and I’d throw out a suggestion, and he’d look at me kind of blankly and then go back to what he was doing. He was completely uninterested in my suggestions. He just wanted me as a witness. It got weirder, but I don’t wanna get sued.