“I live in the City of Chicago and I live on a block that is very mixed. A lot of the people on my block are from the same village in Mexico and they’re all Chavez. I’ve lived here in the same spot, I’m a Capricorn, I’m like right on the cusp of Capricorn and Sagittarius so half of me wants to be the boss, put down roots, never leave. So that part of me owns this building and has been here on the same address since 1993. And the other half is Sagittarius which loves to travel, meet new people, do new things, have new experiences, eat new food. So the Blues has really satisfied both sides of my personality to that extent.”
Liz Mandeville, the exceptionally original and talented Blueswoman, creates her art and by extension her life, in relation to people. Known by the children in her neighborhood as “Tia Blanca,” Liz is in constant search of connection and commonality: from expanding her formidable song writing skills to include collaborators to engaging with her audience and fans individually as friends to being a trusted adult to the children in her close knit neighborhood. In the past 6 years, Liz has been forced to reevaluate her art in relation to life altering experiences, most recently the COVID crisis. Liz has used these experiences and the times of forced reflection that came with them to fuel creativity and push into new ways of engaging.
Liz Mandeville has built her career business model on building friendships and being connected:
“You know what I think I can credit Tommy Castor for hipping me to how to do business in the Blues. I looked at Tommy and I said ‘This man is so successful I want to interview him and find out his thinking process. I want to find out how this successful person manages to keep going even though it’s a recession. He was kind enough to grant me a breakfast interview, you know for me that’s 11 o’clock (hahah), actually I had to be there at 8 (haha). I went a talked to him and he said ‘I make relationships with people, like I want to be on the Blues Cruise so I don’t sleep when I’m on that boat. I go around and I talk to people and I work with different musicians and then I put together the Blues Review with people from the cruise and then I make a record.’ I thought wow he’s brilliant, that is brilliant, but I wanted to do it on an international level.”
“So I was playing the Lake County Fair and I was on stage, and I heard people in the audience speaking French. I jumped off the stage and ran up to them as soon as my set was over and said ‘Bon Jouir.’ They’er like ‘what she’s speaking French.’ Turns out they were from Lyon and they were musicians and they were friends of Maurice John Vaughn. I invited them to my house and said ‘hey I’m gonna put out an afternoon charcuterie, and we’re gonna jam, I got musical instruments.’ I said ‘I don’t know anyone from Lyon, all my friends are from Paris, so please be my guest. ma maison es tu maison.’ (chuckles)”
“I don’t have a huge following but the people that do know about me, I know their names (laughs). I go and see them. If I go play in Tallahassee I know Peggy and Jim are gonna be there, these people I’ve known for 20 years. They invite me to their house and they know I like French wine and always bring me a Chateauneuf du pape. There’s people like that in every town I go to.”
Liz has not only looked internationally for inspiration but she has had long standing relationships with Blues hotbeds such as Clarksdale.
“I go to Clarksdale every chance I get. There was a period there I was going to Clarksdale 5-6 times a year. It was cheaper than Paris, let me tell that first (chuckles). And so many cool people I got to be friends with T-Model Ford, there’s a whole bunch of people who live down there and have business down there that I’m friendly with. I got to be really tight with Cindy Hodack and Teo Dasback who have the Rock and Blues museum there. Man, so many really talented amazing people in that town. Sean Apple is a good example of somebody who creates that kind of groove. His groove has more playfulness and dance and let’s’ get the girls to shake their hips kind of thing so I can watch (haha). Sean he’s a very lusty healthy young man (chuckles). That was the first place that I saw that guy Kingfish to, the new phenom. That cat man I think 15 or 16 years old first time I saw him and I’d been drinking wine with Watermelon Slim and I think I scared the living crap out of that poor kid. Because I was like this drunk white lady he didn’t know from shit comes up to him on the street.”
After a lot of struggle throughout her life Liz has a healthy attitude about herself: “Once you get to a certain age you should frickin’ make peace with your childhood and take responsibility for where you are. It’s not my childhood anymore. I have made my own life and I have made my own way.” This strength is born out of challenge and struggle. Liz had her first recent life altering challenge in 2015.
“I had pneumonia, pneumonia almost killed me in 2015. I had a near death experience, I left my body. And when I came back into my body I no longer had the desire to smoke pot, or drink coffee, or eat meat. I mean it was the weirdest thing, I’m a lifelong carnivore and all of a sudden. And it was after that when I was trying to bring my voice back from the pneumonia, because I performed with it, I didn’t realize I had it and I worked with it for like 3 or 4 months. I had a fever, I had a cough, I just like soldiered through and it’s amazing that I’m still alive. I seem to have 9 lives or something, God wants me here for something.”
Catching pneumonia in the early Summer of 2015 and working through it at 100 miles per hour, her illness brought Liz to the brink and created a commune with some of her dear friends and mentors whose spirits walk with her but whose physical presence have long since gone.
“(In 2015) the last gig of the season was in October and I had time booked out after just to rest and recuperate. It was the last gig, that October gig, I came home from the gig, I brought my guitar in the house, I laid down on the bed and said ‘that’s it, I’m done, you can take me now.’ (haha) I’m sick of coughing, I’ve had a headache for 3 months, I feel like shit, I’m singing like Louis Armstrong, this is it. And God’ s like ‘aha really, that’s what you, really, seriously?” Right at that moment I just floated up out of my body, that was just insane what I experienced, I went down. People are gonna think I’m crazy. I literally went down these stairs, I was like in a bar room with a casino on one side, I’m not a gambler so a casino didn’t interest me, but it was a bar full of people and there was a band setting up in the back. I was like looking around and everybody was saying like ‘hey Liz is here.’ I was like greeting people. People were going ‘hey you want to come over and have a drink?’ And I was thinking ‘man I feel so good, I haven’t felt good in forever.’ But I said ‘no, no I’ll come back later, I want to go back and see who the band is.’ I go back there and it’s Willie Kent and the Gents. Willie Kent was one of my favorite people in the Chicago Blues scene, I’ve had a lot of favorites of that generation. When Aaron Burton up and quit our band right after we put out a couple of records on Earwig, Willie Kent was the one who stepped up and said let’s marry our bands. Willie was a straight up business man and a really nice person so it was wonderful to see him but I wasn’t the star of the show. Here I was in the afterlife and I was going to be the person sitting in. And there were no windows and once I realized I’m goin’ around ‘hey you guys how you doing?’ Here’s Jake and here’s Kenny, and here’s Dave Jefferson and here’s Bonnie Lee. And I’m huggin’ everybody and all ‘Whoa you guys I missed you so much I haven’t seen you since you died… oh.’ And then I realize the bartender was Tommy from the Wise Fools Pub who’s been dead for over 20 years. And people sitting in the bar were people I’ve known over the decades from working in bars and you know gotten to be friends with, patrons. So I said ‘oh, I’ve got things to do guys, I’ll see you later on. I’ll catch you on the flip flip flop ah. See ya see ya later” So I hustled my butt down that hallway, ran back up those stairs and jumped back into my body and sat up and called the doctor.”
Liz used her near death experience, her fever dream of loved ones long gone, to blaze a new path. She doubled down on what had been her natural skill and passion for connection and friendship to create her outstanding Stars Motel record.
“It was a long slow haul to recover from (pneumonia), but the upshot of that was, man, I felt so happy to be alive and so filled with purpose. Cause I had tons and tons of music I’d recorded that I hadn’t finished. So that was the impetus for getting the Stars Motel out, was that I died, I came back. In order to get my voice back, cause I felt like I was a complete jerk for disrespecting my instrument so badly. That I had worked with pneumonia, that my voice had been reduced to a few, all be it juicy fabulous, notes, it was not the four octaves I was born with (laughs).”
Liz’s new lease on life opened her to the possibility of deeper collaboration.
“The Stars Motel record was a collaboration, I was gonna try to see could, I write with other people, cause everything else I’d done I’d wrote myself. I thought well I’m wondering if I can set my ego aside enough to entertain somebody else’s creative ideas (chuckles) and how that worked. I got a phone call from somebody down in OK (Scott Ellison) that I had released a record at the same time as he did. This was like 2010 after the last crash, Chicago was really slow to feel the pinch from that crash from that ‘Recession.’ What happened was the clubs in order to stay afloat stopped offering hotels. So he called me and said ‘I’ve got gigs in Chicago and a day off in between and no where to stay, and I don’t know what to do, what do you think?’ And I was about to say Heart of Chicago because that’s the motor lodge I named my 2nd album after, on my own label. Well that’s a cool place, not expensive. Then I thought ‘well I have got a studio in my basement.’ So that’s how it all got started and I wrote three tunes with him and he and his band stayed here.”
“Stars Motel was co written with 4 other artists. I did 3 tracks with Scott Ellison, 3 tracks with Rachelle Coba from Miami, 3 with Dario Lommbardo from Torino Italy, who was Phil Guy’s guitar player, and I think 2 on that record with Minoru Maruyama who plays with me on a regular basis in my band. Also Doug Demming recorded a solo for that record, I absolutely love Doug’s style, oh man he’s a swinging mutha fo yah. Oh my God, really swinging. So that was awesome.”
The artistic revelations and new inventions that Stars Motel offered Mandeville lead her into her next record and her next major obstacle to overcome.
“After it was all over I think it was kinda like the post wedding let down, the baby Blues kind of thing (chuckles). Everybody had come up here for the record release parties and we had tons of them, they were all over. I’d booked my butt off. There were gigs like all the way from Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Chicago. We did a record release party at Buddy Guy’s Legends, it was off the hook. Every place we played everybody loved everybody and everybody got along with each other, no egos, and it was so fun. And then everybody went back to their lives.”
“I had a gig the night before Thanksgiving at a place on the North Side. The night before Thanksgiving is a great gig if you’re like 20. But when you’re my age you are the people that those 20 year olds are in the bar avoiding talking to (chuckles). And the people that are my age are like oh I have to go home and put my turkey in the oven and do my side dishes and clean my house. So the gig was over by 11:30-12 o’clock and I was packing up my stuff. It was one of those nights where everybody was drunk and crashing cars all over the place. All I could think was I just want to get home, I just want to get home. A little light smattering of rain just making it hard to see. I’m driving down the road thinking ‘oh man what am I doing this for this is crazy, I’m too old to be in this business, I should just quit. Nobody would care if I never sang another note, nobody likes my guitar playing.’ You know all these, play the violin (mimics weepy sounds), poor me, kind of Bluesy kind of thoughts. I’m certain that God or the universe or whatever you want to call it is listening to me going ‘oh you asshole, (haha) I can’t believe you think this, seriously you really think that? I’ll show you.’ And wham I bammed right into this guy on the Edens Expressway and I’m sure he thought he’d pulled off the road because I think he was asleep. No lights on, I didn’t see him until I had flattened his car. I turned his sedan into a hatchback. And I had just speed up, I had just moved over into the ‘let’s get the heck off this road lane,’ and hit this guy head on.”
“First thought in my mind ‘oh my God how’s my guitar? Where’s my Gibson, where’s my baby?’ But I had a concussion, I had knocked the crap out of myself. I’m only 5’ 3” so I sit real close to the wheel anyway and I was staring out the window real hard because it was hard to see with the rain. So when I hit my head on the steering wheel the bag exploded into my breast bone. So it was like a double whammy there.”
“Well I couldn’t work, I had to cancel gigs for the rest of the year. I had the most booked up schedule that I’d had in years because people had loved the album (Stars Motel). But that was it. With that I could not look at screens. So I couldn’t do my DJ gig, I couldn’t look at TV, I couldn’t look at Netflix or YouTube, I couldn’t read a Kindle, I couldn’t go on my Facebook I could’t look at my smart phone. It was kind of like this COVID thing Except with COVID I had the internet, but it was another forced period of being isolated. I couldn’t be around people because my chest was so brutalized I was full of contusions and bruising on my heart and lungs. I didn’t break any bones, but I couldn’t be around people. I couldn’t risk catching a cold.”
This forced slowing down of her life and removal of devices allowed Liz to again delve into her muse and blaze even more new paths.
“I had a chance to really reflect. I read books and I listened to public radio. We have a wonderful station in Chicago WDCB that’s Jazz all day and then Roots blocks at night. So it’s Tom Marker and Hambone’s Blues Hour and Blues from the Rooster and all these different shows, and then also Celtic music one night. So I’m listening to all this music and I rediscovered that I love Jazz (chuckles). I was so blinders on about Blues that I had completely stopped listening to all other types of music. And with this break I had had a chance to listen to Bossa and listen to Coltrane.”
This round of reflection and introspection ignited the spark of her newest record Playing With Fire.
“I really loved the process of creating music with other people (on Stars Motel). It’s so wonderful to get to know another artists and what’s their background, how did they come to the Blues, what’s their approach to songwriting. Because I have this studio in my basement I also have an isolation room, but it also has a TV and a queen size bed in it and there’s a coffee maker and like little Pullman type kitchen and a bathroom down there. So people could come and stay and just hang out and it was really chill to, you know, take your time. With Rachel Coba she was here for like a week before the Blues Blast awards. With Dario, Dario came from Italy for the Chicago Blues Fest and ended up staying like a month. And he and I have become great friends and we tour together, I’ve been over to Italy a couple of times and he’s come over the US and tour with me and my band.”
“When I came back from that accident the first person to come over was Peter Struijk from the Netherlands, he’s a slide resonator player. He’s the guy who introduced me to Tail Dragger. Because he’s like 20 years younger than me I think of him as this kid. He’s been such an inspiration to me I was so blessed to meet him at the Fondemi Blues Festival back in 2008. We’ve been friends ever since because he coming over to stay with Tail Dragger. I said oh come over and have tea with my husband and me. Peter’s a vegetarian and a non-drinker and it’s like hey man I don’t know what your eating on the West side of Chicago because it’s like the rib capital of the world. He did come over and he and my husband became great friends.”
“The wonderful thing about making Playing With Fire was not only did I feel as if I was experiencing a rebirth as an artist but also the forming of relationships with people, which I think is so important. I mean I’m not a 19 year old pop phoneme, I kinda find a lot of the pop music really offensive and vulgar which people would probably think is funny cause I write a lot of songs that are double entanda and humorous. But I’m not coming right out and saying it. To me that’s whoa, put your clothes back on. I like to tease better than to strip.”
Then COVID hit, a third roadblock in the past 6 years that Liz engaged with creativity and insight.
“I had put this record out and because it is my own label I invested my own money in it. I had scheduled all these promotional tours, including in Europe, in Germany and in France. COVID happens, all of that’s postponed. I did the first record release party which was at Buddy Guy’s Legends. That was March 15th and that was the last date anybody played live music in Chicago before the quarantine. And all of the other in store appearances, and radio appearances and promotional appearances, all around the Mid West and everywhere in the United States and a tour to Florida, which is one of my big markets I tour to Florida at least once a year, I mean all on hold. Immediately I sat down and I started out I was ‘okay this could be really good, how can I turn this to my advantage?’ Everybody’s going to be sitting home, nothing to do, it’s going to be a captive audience (chuckle). I will perform twice a week, I’ll do a Happy Hour. I will encourage people to forget about the pandemic for an hour on Thursday with me and an hour and half on Saturday with me. I’m also a yogi. I’m a certified yoga teacher, I’ve spent time on the ashram, I have certifications in sound healing and pranayama. I knew that if I didn’t have accountability I probably wouldn’t continue my practice because it would be just too easy to just stay in bed and watch TV. So I posted on my website calendar and on my Facebook, I’m going to be teaching yoga if by donation, if you want to donate cool, if not karma yoga whatever, hatha yoga three times a week Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with meditation on Sunday.”
Liz Mandeville is full of gratitude. Liz has been nominated for a Blues Blast Award in 2020. “I’ve never been nominated for anything. I’ve been actually professional since ‘83, I’ve been writing music all my life. This is the first time I’ve gotten any attention from the Blues world other than in 2013 I was inducted in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.”
Liz has been happily married to her life partner for 11 years. “I put an order in with the universe and I said ‘listen if I can’t have this I would rather be alone.’ I need somebody who understands what I do, who doesn’t want to change me into something else and who supports me in what I do. I was walking my dog and literally yelling at God: ‘hey, I told you, I want.’ I got exactly that with my husband, he’s a wonderful person and I am so very lucky to have finally found a winner.”
The universe is lucky to have Liz sending beauty, love and compassion into it.
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Or on her website: https://www.lizmandeville.com/