Next Monday, June 24th, Eleni Mandell kicks off her latest tour of the Northeast in Boston. And that Wednesday, June 26th, will bring her once again to World Café Live Upstairs. And although we’ve never officially covered Mandell, we are friends of her sonic sisters, Inara George and Becky Stark, with whom she shares the folk supergroup The Living Sisters, and we’ve enjoyed her a handful of times at World Café Live already. Eleni is touring behind her recently-released 11th studio album, Wake Up Again, which was inspired by her time teaching songwriting classes to female inmates. Last week I got a chance to chat with Eleni and she admits that, although she’s proud of all her work, Wake Up Again feels like her most intimate album in a while: “I think in a lot of ways – I don’t wanna say it’s like the real me, because I think all my records are the real me – but this one is especially personal. For the last record, everything was acoustic and everyone was acoustic and this one was more electric and the drummer is the drummer I’ve been with forever and the bassist is the bassist I’ve been with forever and Milo Jones, who’s now my husband, is on guitar, so it felt more organic in that the people I’m playing with are my people.”
Although the whole band won’t be on the road, Mandell tells me that the live show will certainly be comfy, cozy, and intimate.
“It will be Milo, my husband, and I playing as a duo. We’ll be doing most of the new record. I think we’re great. He’s just an incredible guitar player and not show-offy. It’ll be a very solid, good-sounding, love fest [laughs].”
Eleni Mandell’s recent experience teaching female inmates came courtesy of Jail Guitar Doors, an organization founded by Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Billy Bragg, and the William James Association. While discussing her time she tells me that there was one particular experience that especially stood out: “There was this one woman – and I don’t know what she did – but her parents had to take custody of her kids, because she was going to be away for so long, and they didn’t let the kids visit, because they didn’t want them to see her in prison and didn’t want to think about the situation, but she mailed them lyrics that she’d written and it changed the way they felt about her and the whole thing.” However, she admits that the whole experience in general was very satisfying and made her feel as though she was contributing something meaningful to society.
“I loved that experience. I felt really grateful to give back. The thing about songwriting is, it’s very accessible, anyone can do it… I felt like, in a way, I was making the world a better place, in a teeny, tiny way. But also, now I have a job where I have healthcare and I can take care of my kids, which is another way to make the world a better place in a teeny tiny way [laughs].”
7th grade English teacher is this new job that Eleni speaks of. She teaches middle school English to students primarily of immigrants, and her students certainly seem to serve as a big inspiration. When I ask her if she’s gotten any particularly memorable feedback for Wake Up Again, she tells me that that the best reaction actually came from her class: “I guess my favorite reaction was when the vinyl arrived and I brought my children’s portable record player to work and watching my students watching it spin and them being like, ‘Wow! Is that a big CD?’ But they liked it and it wasn’t K-Pop, which is what most of them listen to.” In addition, she also tells me that her students at times even help guide her taste in contemporary music. I ask her what she’s been listening to recently and, while she admits she’s not super up on current music, she has become a big fan of ones of our favorite bands: “My kids only wanna listen to pop music and I’ve started teaching – now I have a day job for the first time in as long as I can remember – so the only time I really listen to music is going to and from work. But there is this song and this band – and a student introduced me to them – and it’s the first band that I got into in a really long time, and I saw them and it was even better, and I just really love them, and… Are you ready for the big reveal? It’s ‘Paul’ by Big Thief. That song just had a bigger impact on me than any new song I’d heard in such a long time.”
*I’m sure all of our readers are quite familiar with Big Thief, but we actually published a chat with singer/guitarist/songwriter Adrianne Lenker on the very day that their debut album, Masterpiece, and Eleni’s favorite song of recent years, “Paul,” first hit the shelves. If you haven’t read it, or need a refresher, check it out here, and come see them November 9th at Union Transfer.