It all started with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where an innocent afternoon wandering the exhibits led acclaimed LA singer and songwriter Eleni Mandell on an unexpected journey of profound musical and personal self-discovery culminating in Dark Lights Up, her tenth and most captivating album yet.
Touring the world with her two young children in tow, Mandell has always tried to work educational and entertaining stops into her routing: national parks, museums, trains, waterslides. So during a tour stop in Nashville last winter, she brought the kids to the CMHOF to learn about some of her heroes like Hank Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens, and Tammy Wynette. Instead, she learned something about herself.
"It was a profound experience for me," says Mandell, who's earned raves everywhere from The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly to SPIN and the Associated Press for an eclectic catalog that spans nearly two decades and evokes everything from Tom Waits and X to Chan Marshall and Patsy Kline. "Seeing all their lyrics and guitars on display made me reflect on just how deeply I'd been influenced by classic country." Mandell's kids fell in love with Roger Miller and refused to let her take his music out of the car's CD player for the rest of the year. "I was really struck by how simple his production was, and how central his voice and how open the sound on the record was," Mandell remembers. "It was really organic. There aren't a lot of layers, and the melody and his voice and the words—whether they're some of the sillier songs or more poignant ones—I thought they were more beautiful for it. It made me want to de-clutter and strip away and make something simple that still sounded full and beautiful."
So that's exactly what Mandell did. Co-producing the new album herself with longtime friend and collaborator Sheldon Gomberg in his Silver Lake studio, Mandell distilled her songs down to their purest cores, assembling all of the musicians together in a single room with only acoustic instruments to cut the record live in just four days. "I like working quickly," explains Mandell, "so I decided to do it this way, which is probably how Roger Miller recorded, too. They tended to work quickly and not be too precious in those days. It was so fun and fresh and different."
The result is an utterly charming, beguiling album, drawing on elements of folk, jazz, and standards with an infectious charisma, as Mandell's voice melts over the stripped-down arrangements to create a lush, sensuous intimacy. It all kicks off with the wry humor of "I'm Old Fashioned," which showcases Mandell's trademark blend of sharp wit and heartfelt sincerity, while at the same time giving a nod to the throwback approach she and her band took in the studio. "I wrote this after the first Sunday that I had The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times delivered to my door for the first time in years," she remembers. "I was so excited to start reading the newspaper the old fashioned way; to hold it in my hands; to have my kids see me reading it the way I used to see my parents read it on Sunday mornings. I’m trying to get away from looking at screens in our home, and it made me think about all the things that might be silly but I still like to do, like walking into the post office or the bank when there are more convenient ways to go through life. I’m not perfect in this regard, but I’m doing what I can to get back to a simpler way of life."
The simple things hold the most tantalizing appeal in Mandell's music, and moments of transcendence can be found in the most mundane and unexpected places. In "China Garden Buffet," she recounts a head-spinning kiss after an unremarkable dinner at the eponymous restaurant, while "Magic Pair of Shoes" imagines a world of success and riches that's just one set of stilettos away, and "What Love Can Do" tells the story of a dark time in her life unwittingly brightened by a passing stranger.
"Years ago I was trying to immerse myself in the French language by spending time in Paris by myself," she remembers. "It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done and I was completely miserable (yet, I would do it again). On my last night there I was walking to meet friends and was standing at the corner waiting for the light to change. At that moment, a man on a bicycle pulled up. Our eyes met. I shivered. His light turned green and he rode away. I was watching him and he turned to look back at me and we smiled. It was my first truly happy moment in Paris. I love those times in life where for a millisecond you feel love, even in a passing way."
While romantic desire may be a fleeting notion in Mandell's songs, she finds a much more permanent love in her relationship with her twins, who proved to be a fount of inspiration for her 2014 album Let's Fly A Kite. The LA Times called that release "a lovely record about the heart, children, commitment, joy and other Saturday afternoon-style pleasures," raving that Mandell was "at her lyrically precise best.” Writing with her children in mind once again brings out Mandell's poetic and playful side on Dark Lights Up, as she paints a vivid family portrait in "Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown."
"I used to tell my daughter that her hair was the color of toast with butter melted in it because she had been a yellowish blonde but her hair was turning to brown," Mandell says of the track's inspiration. "I have no idea what color eyes she has, so I tell her they’re 'ocean colored,' sometimes green, sometimes blue and sometimes gray. My son is such a boy, always taking things apart and asking how they work."
That Dark Lights Up is her tenth solo album is a milestone not lost on Mandell. Looking back on the arc of her remarkable career—which began with 1999's Wishbone, recorded with Jon Brion and Ethan Johns—Mandel describes her evolution as one of finding her true self as both an artist and a woman. "I like what I'm doing now because I'm so much more comfortable in my own skin, with my own way of writing," she says. "I fully enjoy every aspect of being a musician, from when you feel really good about something you write alone in your living room to playing it with other people to performing it onstage. All of it is so fun and such a joy and an incredible way to connect with other humans and understand yourself better."
One need only press play on Dark Lights Up to understand exactly what Mandell means. It's the sound of a smile from a passing stranger in a lonely city, of an unexpected first kiss after a dinner at a Chinese restaurant, of an idyllic afternoon strolling through country music history. Dark Lights Up is an ode to simplicity, a welcome reminder of the rewards that await those who travel through life with open eyes and an open heart.