Over the course of nine impressive albums, Eleni Mandell has worked with famed producers such as Jon Brion and Joe Chiccarelli. She’s collaborated with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, as well as Tony Gilkyson and DJ Bonebrake of legendary punk band X. Her latest album, Let’s Fly a Kite, was recorded with Nick Lowe’s band in London, where Mandell received plenty of positive feedback from the wizened pub-rock guru over the course of the sessions.
At the moment, though, Mandell is sitting in the parking lot of her children’s nursery school in Los Angeles. She just got back from the rotary club with her lawyer brother where she was taking in an inspiring motivational speech by—wait for it—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Of course.
“He’s been practicing yoga since he was a basketball player,” Mandell says, making little effort to contain her enthusiasm. “He looks amazing…and he can still touch his toes. I’m actually way more into college sports than pro, but when he was introduced—and this was a fairly small room, maybe 100 people—I squealed and started to get all teary-eyed. I didn’t even know I cared that much!”
Before long, the conversation returns to music, to Mandell’s new record and how it came to be. Back in 2012, the veteran Los Angeles singer/songwriter had the pleasure of opening a month-long tour for Nick Lowe, producer of Elvis Costello’s early albums and the writer of classics “Cruel to Be Kind” and ”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” “Nick is not only charming, funny and handsome,” Mandell says. “He has an incredible voice and great songs. Just being on tour with him was a huge inspiration—I felt like I was in school, in a master class. And his hair looks amazing.”
Traveling with Lowe on that particular U.S. run as sound engineer and tour manager was his go-to producer Neil Brockbank, with whom Mandell immediately became friends. “We’d spend so much time together backstage talking about music and history and all of these random things,” she says. “I was pretty shy about it at first, but finally, in Denver one night, I said, ‘Maybe we should work together someday,’ and he said, ‘I tricked you into thinking it was your idea, but it was really my idea that we should work together.’”
When the sessions finally went down in London earlier this year, Brockbank and Lowe’s drummer Bob Treherne co-produced. “I had a blast,” Mandell says. ”[Nick’s band] are a salty bunch. I liken them more to sailors or fishermen in the 19th century. They’re such characters—they smoke tons of cigarettes, drink a lot of beer, and they’ve got so many stories. And the weirdest thing of all, they drink a lot of tea.”
Which accounts for Lowe’s entrance into the sessions. “Nick was involved in that he brought us biscuits for tea one day,” Mandell says. “He encouraged me and gave me a lot of helpful advice when it came to mixing the record.”
Loungey, playful and full of unique vintage sounds, Let’s Fly a Kite will suck you willing and blissful into mid-’60s cocktail-party mode. The festive combination of strings, brass, vibes, accordion, compact organ and clarinet creates the perfect backdrop for Mandell’s bell-clear voice, which is gorgeous, timeless and inviting in equal measure. With so much wistful melancholy peppering her back catalog, it’s just plain wonderful to see Mandell and her new pals having so much fun on record. The undeniably positive mindset that made this possible has much to do with some major changes in Mandell’s life over the past few years.
Like her last record, I Can See the Future, this new set of songs was colored by Mandell’s experience being the single mother of twins via artificial insemination. “I’d always wanted children, and I was 39 years old,” she says. “My boyfriend didn’t want kids, so we broke up…People still think it’s pretty weird and it makes them a little uncomfortable, but I guess I get to be an ambassador to make sperm donors more normal.”
The twins—son, Rex, and daughter, Della—are now three years old. Mandell takes them on tour with her when she can, and her parents offer plenty of support, too, helping raise them. And in an interesting twist, Mandell’s ex-boyfriend—yes, the one who didn’t want kids—has stepped into the role of nanny. It’s all very Modern Family. “I feel like we have a really unique situation that isn’t going to be so unique someday,” Mandell says. “I love my life right now. I love having my ex, Rob, be such a huge part of my children’s life, and really my best friend. And I love that my parents love my kids so much. Everything has just worked out so great. The only thing that I would like that I don’t have is the ability to thank that sperm donor—to just let him know, ‘You’ve got some great genes. Look at what you did!’”
The experience has shed new light on her career as an artist, encouraging her to explore new themes in her music. “I’m able to write from a different perspective now,” she says. “I find it easier to get outside of myself, my personal experience, to think about things that interest me and other people I might want to write about—it’s fun and intellectually stimulating. And it’s hugely freeing to not be writing sad songs about bad boyfriends.”
You can hear the difference on Let’s Fly a Kite. Mandell’s heart is open. Her perspective has been broadened, her curiosity piqued and her sense of purpose renewed. “People always talk about how when you have kids, you see their excitement about the littlest thing—a bug or a kite or the first time they go to the beach. It’s amazing to stop and appreciate [life] through them and realize how amazing all these things really are. Being parent forces you to stop thinking about yourself so much because you have to be thinking about your kids. I’m trying to be a better parent all the time—reflecting on my behavior and what I say. The gifts of parenthood are endless, and of course the challenges are, too—I’ve got a giant bruise on my leg from where my son bit me!”
On Let’s Fly a Kite’s penultimate track, “Cool Water,” Mandell takes stock, singing, “If I hadn’t missed the boat, I wouldn’t have collided with my fate.” Casting off regrets, she embraces the unexpected but beautiful turns her life has taken. It’s a subtle yet constant force that anchors the new record—a sentiment to which she deeply relates.
“It really fits me,” she says. “I always want to better, but sometimes I feel like I can’t get a break. I’m still such an underdog, and on top of being an underdog, now I’m an old underdog. So I have moments of frustration. But I have so much self-satisfaction, too, and I’ve always gotten to have artistic freedom, so I feel really grateful. I know how lucky I am to even get to make any money at all playing music, and to get to live my life exactly the way I want to be living it.”