ith a fan base as loyal as a Marine battalion and a catalog littered with nine sparkling gems of diverse Folk/Pop/Rock, including the ebullient Dick Van Dyke parks-and-recreational swing of last year’s Let’s Fly a Kite, singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell had no desire or inclination to subject her creative methodology to any severe course corrections.
Even so, a chance Country music history lesson in the cradle of her album development two years ago gave Mandell the blazingly clear vision to simplify her process on what would become Dark Lights Up, her just-released 10th album.
“The last time we were in Nashville was the first time I’d ever been to the Country Music Hall of Fame or any of those kind of attractions,” Mandell says. “And I was really struck by how influential that music has been for me, even though I would always cite Tom Waits and X as my biggest influences, because I was wanting to emulate them as a teenager. Seeing Dolly Parton’s notebook with ‘Jolene’ written on it, Buck Owens’ Nudie suits, Marty Robbins’ guitar — which is the same model I play — and Hank Williams’ suit, I was just blown away.”
“People say they don’t like Country music, and I think what they mean is they don’t like contemporary Country music,” she continues. “To me, Country music is so American and the stories and songs are so great. There’s a simplicity that I love.”
Mandell’s Country affection stretches back to the standard childhood exposure (although it was X and the band’s offshoot, The Knitters, that provided her with inspiration to investigate further), and while the influence has only been tangentially reflected in her previous work, it’s almost directly channeled on Dark Lights Up. Mandell credits her 4-year-old twins with that immediate resurgence.
“I’ve been a big fan of classic Country music for a very long time; you can find hints of it on every single record I’ve put out. I don’t know when it started, but it’s almost all I listen to anymore, partly because I got my kids into it,” Mandell says. “So we’re either listening to Buck Owens or Roger Miller in the car, to the point that I’m really hoping I can move them on to some George Jones.”
Roger Miller in particular had an impact on Dark Lights Up. The album’s “Cold Snap” sounds like a Ouija-board collaboration with the late singer/songwriter (“I love handclaps, but I thought it was time to use some snaps,” Mandell says), as is the similarly toned “I’m Old Fashioned,” hybrids of Miller’s knack for Pop novelty and Mandell’s wry humor and deft songcraft.
“(‘Cold Snap’) really is a wink to Roger Miller,” she says. “There’s something about the silliness of his lyrics, but how they can still be touching and cinematic. I got his record at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and his voice is beautiful and kind of elastic and warm and the songs are big. I was amazed by how big his records sounded, and yet how the instrumentation was so simple. That was really what inspired me.”
Mandell is equally quick to point out the fact that some of the biggest Rock bands in music’s pantheon were able to sneak a little Country influence into their original music.
“The Beatles and the Rolling Stones also played Country music,” Mandell says. “I feel like people forget that, maybe because they don’t think of it. Didn’t Ringo Starr sing ‘Act Naturally’? I love Buck Owens (who originally recorded ‘Act Naturally’); I don’t know if he was a nice person, but I love his music and his style. My kids come on the road with me and I want to buy DVDs for emergencies and I wondered, ‘Ooh, I wonder if I can get every episode of Hee Haw?’ ”
Mandell cut Dark Lights Up in a mere four days in Sheldon Gomberg’s studio in the L.A. neighborhood Silver Lake. Her excellent band, including Bright Eyes pianist Nate Walcott, utilized nothing but acoustic instruments and played the songs live in the same room during recording. Further inspired, Mandell acted as her own producer for the first time, with occasional assistance from Gomberg. All of it created a familiar but completely unique recording experience for Mandell.
“It was quite different; I’ve recorded live with a band many times, but this is the first time I had the intention of recording my vocals and guitar live as well,” she says. “That was actually inspired by Mike Viola, who sings with me on ‘What Love Can Do.’ We were at a mutual friend’s party and I was telling him what I wanted to do on this record, and he was like, ‘You should record it live, like everything.’ And I was like, ‘Seriously, that sounds scary.’ He co-produced Jenny Lewis’ latest record with Ryan Adams and he said that’s what they did. That made me feel a little safer in trying it. And everybody I chose to be on the record I knew really well. And we all played acoustic instruments — no electric guitars, no amplifiers. I did fix a couple of vocals, I’ll be honest, but 90 percent is totally happening together at the same time. It was so fun; it was like a roller coaster.”
But even as she taps into a rich internal vein of Country influence, Dark Lights Up remains an identifiable part of Mandell’s brilliant canon.
“I wasn’t trying to write Country Hall of Fame music, I was just writing what I write, with the filter of the decision to record it very simply, with acoustic instruments, quickly and very live,” Mandell says. “I should probably stop saying this all the time, but I’m kind of lazy. I do not like tinkering with a record forever. It suits me much more to get in and get out. It was very different, really fun and really fast. For me, it felt more organic and intimate.”
ELENI MANDELL plays a free show Thursday at MOTR Pub. More info: motrpub.com.