On Stage: Eleni Mandell learns from work behind bars

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Eleni Mandell

Singer/songwriters have a wide, wide array of topics and experiences they use as inspiration for their songs. It’s safe to say that Eleni Mandell has tapped into a source probably never used before – teaching songwriting at a women’s prison.

Mandell, who will headline a show on June 26 at the World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com), us touring in support of her new album, “Wake Up Again,” which was released earlier this month on Yep Roc Records.

The recording of the album followed Mandell’s work with female prison inmates as part of the Jail Guitar Doors program established by Detroit’s Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame in partnership with English musician Billy Bragg.

“All but one of the songs on ‘Wake Up Again’ were informed by my prison experience,” said Mandell, during a phone interview last week from her home in Los Angeles.

“I did it for about two years and the influence creeps in. Many of the songs are portraits of people there. Many were songs I wrote there in front of them to allow them to be part of the process.

“One day, one of the women came out and said — ‘I didn’t do what they said I did. It just happened.’ She had been in prison for 29 years and still believed ‘I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.’

“One thing that came to mind – anyone can make a mistake. People that don’t know think that prison is all gangsters. There are lawyers, doctors – people who made mistakes. It made me realize that I take my own freedom for granted.”

In her song, “Circumstance,” Mandell sings, “It wasn’t me who did these things. It was my circumstance.”

According to Mandell, “I really enjoyed the experience. I was inspired by the stories and surprised by the laughter I heard there. And I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, by how many different kinds of people were there: teachers, lawyers, nurses, and also people who grew up in poverty.”

The result is a set of compellingly personalized portraits and vignettes, probing looks into the lives and minds, the regrets and guilts and hopes of those she met, but ultimately also of her.

“I found that working with these women to be very meaningful,” said Mandell, who has a day job teaching English to seventh graders at a Los Angeles middle school. “I could reflect on my own ways. It was very intense.”

Mandell is and always has been an Angeleno.

“I grew up in L.A. – in the Valley,” said Mandell, who also been a musical partner in the Living Sisters with singer-songwriters Inara George, Becky Stark and Alex Lilly.

“I went to college at University of California Berkeley and then came right back. I love the city and love living here. My husband and I live in Los Feliz.

“I recorded ‘Wake Up Again’ about a year ago in L.A. and then had to wait for it to be released. I went back to grad school to work on a master’s in education at USC. The album was recorded during spring break, so I had to do it quickly.

“I did at Carriage House — my friend Sheldon Gomberg’s studio in Silver Lake. We recorded everything live – even the vocals. We finished the recording in four days, but the mixing took longer. I went in with 13 songs are there are 11 on the record.”

Video link for Eleni Mandell – https://youtu.be/MI3g9MPE-xQ.

The show at World Café Live, which has Saleka Night as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

On June 26, another Yep Roc Records act will be performing across town in Philly – The Minus 5 at Johnny Brenda’s (1201 North Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, 215-739-9684, www.johnnybrendas.com).

The Minus 5

The Minus 5 is a rock/folk/pop collective captained by Scott McCaughey with Peter Buck often aboard as navigation officer. By design from its inception, the line-up for recordings and live appearances is completely fluid, dependent on musician availability, whim, and wind direction. Collaborators regularly feature friends from R.E.M., Wilco, Decemberists, and Posies.

The band has always had McCaughey as its core. Around a year-and-a-half ago, The Minus 5 – and the music world – almost lost McCaughey.

In November 2017, McCaughey was walking in San Francisco in an area known for its large homeless population. McCaughey got dizzy and fell to the ground in a semi-conscious state.

“I was just walking through the Tenderloin to North Beach to go to Café Trieste,” said McCaughey, during a phone interview last week from his home in Portland, Oregon.

“I didn’t know what was happening. I had a stroke and lost my ability to move. Eventually, an ambulance came 45 minutes later. It’s kind of amazing that I didn’t have brain damage.

“I was in an area where it wasn’t unusual for people to be stepping over a body on the sidewalk. People thought I was having a seizure or a drug overdose. I was unconscious by the time I got to the Emergency Room.

“The doctor in the E.R. didn’t believe I was having a stroke. He thought I was drugged out. So, I didn’t get an MRI for 24 hours.

“When they realized it was a stroke, they flooded my brain with blood by raising my blood pressure to dangerously high levels to flush out the clot. I just feel really lucky to still be functional. Luckily, I got really good care eventually in San Francisco.”

Less than three days after a doctor predicted he would never play music again, McCaughey began writing his next album — while still in the ICU, unable to speak coherently, his right side just waking from being paralyzed.

“It’s not easy to do what I do – but I’m still doing it,” said McCaughey. “I did these therapy sessions where I would try to do a The Minus 5 show doing covers of Beatles and Neil Young – just working to get my memory back. I couldn’t remember one word. I was talking gibberish. It’s still difficult to find words. I use cheat sheets.

“I was in the hospital for three weeks and then came back to Portland. Luckily, I was able to remember how to play chords. It’s a different part of the brain. I started writing new songs. I can’t memorize any of the words. They come from my brain, but they won’t be memorized. I really need the crib sheets.”

But instead of wallowing in misery, McCaughey channeled his omni-positive spirit and began to write down whatever incoherent thoughts crossed his mind. He turned those stream-of-consciousness notebook pages into his 13th full-length Minus 5 release, “Stroke Manor.”

“Stroke Manor,” which was released on June 14 by Yep Roc Records, is a capsule of weeks in a hospital bed and recovery back at his Portland home, where he recorded the album with significant contributions from Peter Buck, Joe Adragna, Jeff Tweedy, and more.

The results are often head-scratching, tongue-tying spats of confusion, as the lyrics nudged him to experiment with voice-altering effects, to match the singular new outer-space characters he felt he was singing as.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said McCaughey. “But I also feel a little exhausted. Every day feels like a Monday.

“I’m back home in Portland for five days between tours – a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time rehearsing. I toured with Filthy Friends just before this. We just had our second album come out.”

Filthy Friends is a rock supergroup based in Portland, Oregon. The band, which just released its sophomore album, “Emerald Valley,” on May 3, is fronted by Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney) and guitarist Peter Buck (formerly of R.E.M. and Tired Pony) and also includes bassist Scott McCaughey, guitarist Kurt Bloch (The Fastbacks) and drummer Linda Pitmon (The Minus 5).

“Now, Peter and I are doing The Minus 5 Stroke Manor Tour,’” said McCaughey. “The band for the Philadelphia show will also have Mike Mills, Linda Pitmon, Kurt Bloch and Joe Adragna.”

Video link for The Minus 5 — https://youtu.be/MZUHr1vfE5U.

The show at Johnny Brenda’s, which has Summer Fiction as the opener, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

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