Los Angeles singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell released her latest album, I Can See the Future, July 10 on Yep Roc Records. The album is Mandell’s first official label release, but I Can See the Future is significant for reasons far more personal than signing a distribution deal. The album was written and recorded in the aftermath of a difficult breakup and her subsequent search for a sperm donor, pregnancy and birthing of twins. It was one of the most trying periods of Mandell’s life, but now, at 42, she is happier than ever and is about to start touring in support of her new album with twins in tow.
We caught up with Mandell before the release of I Can See the Future to discuss recording the album during this period, how having twins has changed her life and connecting with producer Joe Chiccarelli.
Your new album is called I Can See the Future, and I read somewhere that the title might have been inspired by a visit you made to a tarot card reader 10 years ago.
Eleni Mandell: Well, not exactly. I did see a tarot card reader. I think I’ve had my cards read about three times. With everything I write, the title comes from a song title and a song lyric and it just sort of falls out of my head. I don’t really think that hard. I guess it was a moment of hope that everything was going to work out okay.
You recorded the album during an extremely difficult time in your life. You sought out a sperm donor and were able to get pregnant with twins. How did all of this unfold exactly? Were you writing and recording while you were pregnant?
Mandell: I wrote the songs when I was touring for my last record and afterward, which was the really horrible couple of years. Not just because I was trying to have kids on my own, which was a big decision, and I felt very sad about it and weird for a while—now I’m really excited about it. I did the right thing—I was also going through a really hard time, realizing that my band I had been playing with for 10 years was kind of falling apart because everybody’s lives were moving in different directions. It was actually really heartbreaking. I do still work with them here and there, but I felt like we were in this thing together, and everything was kind of falling apart at the same time. Then I started on this path to have children on my own and finding a sperm donor, which felt really science-fiction and weird. Then I got pregnant, finally, and when I was eight months pregnant we started recording the record. So it was intense. I wasn’t very spry at that point.
Was writing the songs during this time a cathartic experience for you?
Mandell: When I was writing the songs and was really depressed and feeling really sorry for myself, I guess it was cathartic. I sort of had to do it because I was so down. Recording the songs was interesting because it was the happiest time of my life—I was going to have these kids. I was really, really huge. To me recording is always really fun. It’s hard work and there are stretches where you’re sort of bored. But getting to play with these musicians was such a thrill for me. I love it. I’m just so honored that these guys wanted to play with me. It’s always kind of a surprise. And then doing that while I was eight months pregnant, it was really fun. I just thought how my kids are going to think I’m so cool. I’ve yet to find out if I’m right. It was physically difficult. I wasn’t singing that great so we had to wait and finish my vocals afterward because I was 197 pounds.
I was going to say, I feel like when you’re eight months pregnant would be the last time someone would want to start recording an album, to start going to work, basically.
Mandell: I was actually hospitalized for observation after a couple of days after tracking. The reason we were waiting that long was because we wanted Joey Waronker to play the drums, and that was as soon as he was available. I really thought it was pretty cool that I got to do this when I was pregnant. It made me feel really tough. When I was four months pregnant, The Living Sisters, my other band, were shooting a video that was directed by Michel Gondry. He knew I was pregnant and that I had really struggled to get pregnant, and so he said, ‘Okay, we won’t make you do anything too difficult,’ and then I had to ride on the back of a motorcycle and climb out of a bus and all of this crazy stuff. But again, i just thought, ‘Wow I’m really tough. My kids are going to think I’m so cool.’
They’re going to think you’re a badass. How old are they now?
Mandell: They’re 20 months. So four months shy of two years.
This may be a really broad question, but how has that changed your life, having kids? Are you still writing songs? Are you still able to be creative?
Mandell: I’m such a better person. I’m a happier person. I’m more fun to be around. I’m more relaxed. I’m not so bitter and melancholy. I don’t write music as much as a I used to. I do sing to them constantly—really, really stupid songs about everything. I’ve always been a little bit lazy, though. I’ve never been the kind of writer that sits down and writes every day. I always expect that there are going to be periods where I don’t write as much. I kind of just feel like, ‘Hey, I just made a record, I don’t have to worry yet.’
You also released this one on Yep Roc. What has it been like working with them?
Mandell: I really like them. They’re really great people. I got to hang out with them in Austin for SXSW. They have other great people on their label that I really admire like John Doe and Dave Alvin and Nick Lowe. So far the thing that has really been nice for me is that I finally have a real record deal. I’m 42 years old, this is my eighth record as a solo artist. Somehow it just feels so great. My expectations at this point in my life are pretty reasonable The way the music business has changed and the economy and everything. I just feel really honored that they like my record so much, and I’m really looking forward to getting out there and touring.
You’re about to head out on a pretty good-sized tour. How are you feeling going into that? What are you going to do with the twins?
Mandell: I am bringing them with me. I actually contacted Laura Veirs and Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond. They’re both moms and they both tour, so I got in touch with them and asked them to give me some advice. They were both really great and helpful, but they were like, ‘You’re taking twins on the road? Are you crazy? You’re going to have to tell us what it’s like?’ I think both of them toured with their children when they were babies, and mine are toddlers. I’m really nervous, but also really excited. I kind of feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life being down and negative and kind of having a dark outlook, so the fact that I’m so positive about this, I hope that’s a good sign.
Do you have a nanny or someone you’re bringing with you?
Mandell: I’m actually bringing my ex-boyfriend as the nanny. We broke up because he didn’t want kids, and he loves my kids. So that’s pretty funny.
You also recorded this with Joe Chiccarelli. How did he get involved? What was it like working with him?
Mandell: I got hooked up with Joe through an amazing singer/songwriter named Daniel Martin Moore. He and I met on tour. I love these amazing things that happen when you’re playing music out in the world and you make these amazing friendships. Daniel was opening some shows for me out in the Midwest, and later came to L.A. and we did a show here and he heard the title track from the record, and he said I had to work with Joe. It’s kind of funny because he emailed me a month after that show and said, “I’ve been thinking about that song, and I know it’s not my business, but I think you should work with Joe Chiccarelli. Here’s his email address.” I didn’t really have a plan, so it’s nice that somebody saw something in the music. I wrote to Joe and we started talking about it and it took a long time. I was really nervous that he would not want to work with me because I was pregnant. It seems weird now, but it’s sort of like the classic quandary: ‘Oh you’re not going to be able to do the dance moves now that you’re pregnant.’ But of course, he didn’t care.
Who are you taking on your upcoming tour? Is it members of the old band or the people who you recorded the album with?
Mandell: I’m actually going to be touring solo. It’s sort of terrifying. I’ve done it, but I haven’t done it for a long time. I’m really nervous about it, but I’m really excited because it will give me a chance to talk to the audience and tell them my stories. And to have them experience the songs in a more intimate way.
Throughout your career your music has been described as noir-ish. What does that term mean to you?
Mandell: Sad and lonely [laughs]. Just kidding. I relate to that description. You think about sort of old noir films, black and white movies. A lot of them were located in Los Angeles. There’s something really romantic to me about that sensibility. That vision of the world. The tough waitress. I don’t know. It’s dark, but it’s also romantic. I like thinking of my songs as little stories and I feel like in that way they have a little bit of a cinematic quality that fits with that old movie kind of thing.
You’ve had some great music videos in the past. Do you have anything in the works for I Can See the Future?
Mandell: Yes indeed! The premiere [for the “Magic Summertime” video] is on IFC.com. I’m really excited about it. Charlie Wadhams, who is a great singer/songwriter who has starred in a lot of my videos, we used to date and now we get to be friends again. I asked him to be in this video. I’m really excited about the video. Jeff Martin from this band, Idaho, directed it.