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Music

Female inmates’ stories fuel L.A. musician Eleni Mandell’s single ‘Circumstance’ and next album

Eleni Mandell, Songwriter, Los Angeles, Calif. 11.4.18
Eleni Mandell recently spent two years coaching female inmates to express their stories through song in the Jail Guitar Doors program, an experience she taps in her new single, ‘Circumstance’
(Max Gerber)

Imagine a world in which the only colors are dull shades of blue and gray. That idea sets up the opening of “Circumstance,” a new track from L.A-based singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell that The Times is premiering ahead of the June 7 release of her new album, “Wake Up Again.”

“I live in gray and blue/That’s the colors that they choose,” Mandell sings in the opening couplet of the hauntingly atmospheric track also defined by the sense of disorientation and alienation conveyed in guitarist Milo Jones’ leads and fills.

The idea wasn’t something that sprung from Mandell’s imagination but out of her recent work with female prison inmates as part of the Jail Guitar Doors program established by Wayne Kramer of Detroit proto-punk band MC5.

“Looking around and seeing their lives there — the lack of color, the drabness — that’s both the metaphor and very literal: Those are the only colors they are allowed to wear,” Mandell said in a recent interview during a break on her day job teaching English at a Los Angeles middle school. “I always thought that if color is something you take for granted, how much it must feel like it’s the end of the world to live in a place where you can wear only one color.”

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“Circumstance” was informed primarily by stories shared by two of the dozens of inmates at the Lynwood Jail and then the California Institution for Women in Chino whom she worked with over a two-year period.

The connecting thread between the two was that both felt they landed in prison through circumstances thrust upon them, rather than as the result of their own decisions. “It wasn’t me who did these things,” Mandell sings. “It was my circumstance.”

“One of the women just blurted out one day, ‘I didn’t do what they said I did. It just happened,’ ” Mandell said. “She’d been in prison for 29 years, and I thought ‘Wow, what is that like? You’ve done something that could land you in prison for 29 years — more, because she wasn’t getting out anytime soon — and also believe at the same time, ‘I didn’t do it; it wasn’t me.’ ”

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Many of the songs on “Wake Up Again” emerged from the Jail Guitar Doors experience.

“I’m always inspired by words,” said Mandell, who also has worked in the past decade in the Living Sisters with singer-songwriters Inara George, Becky Stark and Alex Lilly. “It got me thinking about the roots of the word ‘circumstance,’ which are ‘circum,’ meaning ‘circle,’ and ‘stance,’ or standing, I thought, wow, how apropos that was.”

What Mandell discovered was that the learning process was a two-way street.

“I would give them on-the-spot assignments, and I would also do them with them,” she said. “I wanted to expose parts of myself to them as an artist. To show them my process, I could write a few lines, pick up a guitar and show them what happens.

“When I was writing the song ‘Air’ in front of them, I remember saying, ‘Wow, this is really stupid,’ ” she said with a laugh. “But then when I started playing it, and then actually sort of liked it, I kept going with it. That song ‘Oh Mother’ was written entirely there in a matter of two or three hours. It was definitely interesting to write in front of people.”

It wasn’t her intention volunteering for Jail Guitar Doors to create an album of her own, but she did have a sense early on that it would lead to something, even if she didn’t know just what that would turn out to be.

“For about the first year, I felt like, ‘I know I’m going to write about this,’ ” she said. “But I don’t write in a self-conscious way, like, ‘Oh, today I’m going to write about prison.’ I didn’t know when, why or how it would come out.”

Mandell said she hasn’t shared the songs that emerged from her time in Jail Guitar Doors with any of the inmates she worked with, because she didn’t want them to think she was exploiting their circumstances.

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“I don’t know—when you hang out with a writer, you can feel like you’re always up for grabs,” she said. “So no, I didn’t play them the songs.”

“I would hope if they do hear them someday they’d really get something from them, find them inspiring. I don’t think there’s anything negative in any of them. There’s no mean-spiritedness. I just didn’t want them to feel self-conscious.”

She would, however, like to keep going with the program — the challenge being the commute time between L.A. and Chino along with her responsibilities as the mother of twin 8-year-olds and her teaching job.

“I very much want to continue that work,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. I feel like I’m doing something important, something to make the world a better place, even in the smallest way. If they leave there with that feeling that they can express themselves in a positive way, then they’ll have this thing, this music that would bring them into a community. If this helps give them a sense of life and joy, that’s great. I miss going out there.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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