The title of Eleni Mandell’s latest album, Let’s Fly a Kite, refers to an activity she enjoys with her preschool age twins. But they’ve been up to something else on the morning I reach her by phone.
“We’re already at a crazy place in St. Louis called City Museum, which is like a gigantic playground that encompasses a four-story building,” she explains, with squeals of delight barely audible in the background. “My son, when we started climbing through these tunnels and caves, said, ‘Alice in Wonderland!’ And that’s the best way to describe this place.”
Seeing the world through her kids’ eyes has impacted the L.A.-based singer-songwriter in ways she never thought possible.
CMT Edge: All along, you’ve recorded songs that display the influence of classic vocal pop, but on your early albums, those elements were combined with shadowy sentiments and skewed narratives. Back then, could you have envisioned yourself heading in as straightforward and sunny a direction as you have on Let’s Fly a Kite?
Mandell: I think I spent so many years writing from an emotional place and needing to do it therapeutically and having a pretty dark outlook on the world and on relationships. So, yeah, I don’t think I ever could have imagined feeling as happy as I do now.
And I definitely couldn’t have imagined being inspired by that happiness. I think a lot of young songwriters think, “Oh, if I’m happy, then I won’t be able to write anymore.” So it’s been a really pleasant surprise to find myself as inspired, if not more inspired, than ever.
You’ve said your songwriting process changed by necessity, not least because parenting responsibilities cut into your writing time. Since that different process yielded different results, has it changed the way you relate to your older material?
There are some older songs that sort of make me chuckle when I’m requested to sing them. For instance, I did this Pledge [Music] fundraiser to raise money for my tour, and one of the incentives was that I would write a song lyric out by hand. Four people chose the same song from my fourth record — a song called “Dangerous” — that I have not sung in probably 10 years.
It’s definitely one that feels a bit juvenile to me. I had to go back and listen to it to be able to write out the lyrics for people. But there are a lot of those older songs that I’m really proud of, too. I try to play something from all my records at every show.
Besides working with vintage sounds, you’ve dealt with happily-ever-after romantic fantasies that I identify with pop of a certain era. Only, you’ve written about them not coming true, including your new song “Wedding Ring.” Why has that theme held your attention?
Gosh, I guess the search for love never gets old. I haven’t found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What I like to do now, like in “Wedding Ring,” is to kind of take a step back. I’m in such a different place in my life. And I don’t feel any more like I need to find a Prince Charming.
So, for the song “Wedding Ring,” I thought, “I’m always telling people how happy I am not to be married. Maybe I should really think about that and try to write about it.” It just came to me. I’ve been in a room full of women before and looked around and everybody’s got a wedding ring on, and just wondered, “How does that happen? It looks like it’s so easy.”
That’s definitely a different angle on the conversation about romantic love and why expectations can lead to a letdown.
Now that I have a daughter, it’s really interesting to think about what fairy tales and stories I want to sort of protect her from. And her growing up with a single mom, doing what I’m doing and singing the kinds of songs I’m singing, I’m sure she’s gonna have a different perspective. I’m excited to be able to say [to her], “It doesn’t always work like that, but that’s OK, too” — which is not the message that I got.
You once described your album Country for True Lovers as being the first project that really challenged you to sing, and you named Tammy Wynette as a vocal influence for that album. She was more of an emotionally demonstrative, heartbroken singer, so how did you draw on her influence? How would you say you convey emotion with your singing?
Partly, I think she has a beautiful, interesting, deep voice. Partly, our voices are a similar range, and I think that was inspiring to hear another woman who didn’t sing very operatically. … I think that really drew me to Tammy because I felt like I could relate to that.
Also the heartbreak. I felt so heartbroken at the time. … We definitely lived different lives and had different heartbreaks and disappointments, but I learned a lot from listening to her records, and I feel like I can really tap into that place.
I stumbled onto a video of a musical tribute to you held last year. Did you learn anything that night about what your body of work means to people?
It’s really hard to express how much it meant to hear other people do my songs — and do them so well and from such a loving place. Also, my peers that I really respect, to have their respect … it made me feel legitimate because I’ve never had mainstream success in the music business.
When I see the Grammys or something like that, I think I’m not even in the same business as those people. So to have someone like Jackson Browne sing my songs and Inara George and all of these amazing, talented people, really made me feel like, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”