Featured Interview – Liz Mandeville

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This may come off like some kind of veiled attempt at degradation, or some kind of funky insult, but that’s not its intentions. It’s really meant to be a compliment of the highest order.

Liz Mandeville is a lot like an onion.

And as with most onions, there are layers upon layers upon layers to the multi-faceted Mandeville.

She’s a highly-engaging and articulate conversationalist, she’s well-read and extremely intelligent, she has a finely-tuned eye for beautiful works of art, she’s a longtime student of metaphysics, she’s a record label executive … and oh, yeah, she’s one hell of a blues singer, as well.

And maybe most importantly, she’s a living, breathing example of what determination and will-power can accomplish.

Her resume in 2014 is in stark contrast to the turbulent and dangerously-explosive childhood she was forced to endure. But more on that in a minute.

Judging by the reaction to her latest album – Heart ‘O’ Chicago (Blue Kitty Music), things are fine and dandy in the camp of the Chicago-based Mandeville these days.

“I am absolutely thrilled that people got this album. I wrote the liner notes (and explained it) and was like, ‘OK, this is what I’m trying to do.’ Maybe I should have done that with my other records, because I think in a lot of cases, people didn’t understand where I was coming from and weren’t sure how to categorize me,” she recently said. “So this record has done exactly what I’ve wanted it to do and I’m still reaping the rewards of it.”

In a way, Heart ‘O’ Chicago’s slow but steady climb into the hands of blues lovers everywhere since its release last summer mirrors Mandeville’s own climb up through the pecking order of the blues; instead of a red-hot start, it’s been more of a continual slow burn in an upward direction.

“I think that could be the case of my entire life. That French guy – Emile Coue – said ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,’ and that fits me. I basically have started out from nothing and have done a lot by refusing to give up and by putting one foot in front of the other and by falling on my face and getting up and doing it over and over again until I get it right where I want to go,” she said. “And that’s not to say that I’m where I want to go … but I do feel that Heart ‘O’ Chicago is the best work that I’ve ever done in my life.”

No new-comer on the scene, over the course of 15 years, Mandeville issued four albums on the Earwig Records label, before striking out on her own with Blue Kitty Music.

“A lot of people really like that first record (Look At Me) for some reason, although I felt there was a maturity and depth to each record that I’ve put out, because I’m living and having the life experiences – broken hearts, people dying, good and bad things happening – and each one of those things are a learning and living experience that you can bring to song-writing and performance and stage presence,” she said. “But at this point, I’m really so proud of this record and so proud of all the people that participated in making it, because I didn’t do it all myself.”

For a lot of artists, the chore of song-writing can be akin to beating one’s head against a brick wall – or at the very least – is a task to be dreaded as much as filing taxes on April 15 can be. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth for the prolific Mandeville.

“I have been a born song-writer since the day I opened my eyes and first started wailing. My family encouraged that in me – God bless them – so all I have to do is say, ‘I need to write some tunes,’ and then I sit down with a pen in my hand and it will come,” she said. “I’m also an avid reader and have stacks of books in my house. You name it … every kind of subject fascinates me. I read physical books and also have a Kindle and read books that way … I have books on discs … my band laughingly calls them ‘my stories.’”

Mandeville’s intoxicating blend of Chess-style cool with the rawness and earthy strains of Coahoma County, Mississippi mixed in, easily comes off as the genuine, real-deal blues. But the way she sees things, the blues don’t necessarily equate being downtrodden and depressed, with no hope on the horizon.

“I do not feel as though I want to be the role model for the worst possible case in history. I want to be the role model for, ‘Yes! I’m been through this and you can go through it and triumph over it, too,” she said.

A good chunk of the material on Heart ‘O’ Chicago was born out of a relationship struck up with the great vocalist Shirley Johnson, who had asked Mandeville to write the material for a project she was working on.

“I told her that I needed to know some things about her (in order to write songs for her project), so she took me out to lunch and we sat and talked about our pasts. And some of these tunes on Heart ‘O’ Chicago are directly from our conversation,” Mandeville said. “The song ‘These Blues” which is a jazzy-sounding track, is a direct quote from her. I said, ‘Shirley, where do you see yourself five or 10 years from now?’ And she said, ‘I’ll be singing these blues till I die.’ I immediately wrote that down and that was the first lyric and became the song. The song “Silver Lining” I sub-titled “Shirley’s Blues” because that was her story.”

Mandeville’s enviable prowess at turning the particular meaning of a phrase 180-degrees, along with her knack for clever word-play, is on full display on what has quickly became a crowd favorite at her shows – “My Mama Wears Combat Boots” – a track off her 2012 album, Clarksdale.

“My husband, Carl, is in the Illinois National Guard, attached to the Army. And since we’ve been involved in these unfortunate wars, the National Guard has done the bulk of the fighting. Well, my husband was called up to do a mission in the Middle East, which was a 400-day mission,” she said. “At the deployment, I’m looking at all these people in fatigues and half of them were women. And I thought about it and realized these women are facing some of the hardest challenges that any woman in any job could face. They are expected to perform just like the men soldiers. It made me think of when we were kids in the school yard and we would shout insults at each other as a way of setting up pecking orders. Stuff like, ‘Your mama’s so fat …’ or the worst one of all, ‘Your mama wears combat boots.’ That was a horrible insult back then. But you know what? Now, it’s a badge of honor. That’s how I chose that line to be the hook of the song. Things have just changed so much in the world since I was a kid. What was once considered an insult is now something to be proud of.”

Mandeville’s father was in the Army – infantry and artillery – and did two tours of duty in Korea. When he returned home, despite being terribly afflicted with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), he went to the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill.

“The more I live, the more proud I am of my dad. He always said, ‘Lizzie, you can do anything you set your mind to. Go sing, go play your guitar. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t,’” she said. “There was nobody else in our neighborhood that had a dad who was an artist. When I was a little, little kid, my dad would take me to the art institute with him. And while he was there working on projects or writing papers, I would go play in the art galleries or look at the different exhibits. I learned so much about the world from looking at these paintings and I drew so much richness from that art.”

Mandeville’s roots go back to Milwaukee – actually to a small bungalow just outside of Milwaukee. “It was Milwaukee RFD,” she laughed. “There was a cow farm down the road from us and all our neighbors, their dads worked at the factory … so I’ve always felt like kind of a fringe player, kind of an outsider. We had trees and plants in our yard and they all had dirt patches in theirs.”

That early exposure to the finer things – despite being raised in a blue-collar part of the world – helps explain why Mandeville’s home is currently not only filled with books, but with paintings and objet d’art. She also regularly seeks out museums and art galleries while on the road in order to help feed her muse.

“Well, I’ve always felt this kind of ‘otherness’ in myself, because I’m not a blue collar kid. My mother was a really unique person. She was manic-depressive before they knew what it was,” she said. “There was no treatment for it at the time. She was a wonderful person, but she was also extremely ill and extremely violent and you never knew what person was going to show up. You didn’t know if you were going to come home from school and find a sweet, loving mother, or whether it was going to be the mother that would grab you by the hair, drag you up the stairs and beat you for the next six hours. I spent a good deal of my time hiding behind a chair in the dining room as a little kid. I tried to remove myself from the direct line of fire as much as I could.”

That sense of ‘Russian Roulette’ about what awaited her at home was responsible for Mandeville not only becoming introverted, but also sent her seeking insulation at places other than just her bedroom, or behind the kitchen chair.

“That did cause me to turn inward. I loved going to the library and hiding in the books, where it was quiet and no one could yell at you and no one could hit you.” she said. “It was calming and comforting there (in the library) and you had to maintain decorum. It was really, really, really calming and comforting to go inside a book and lose yourself in another universe. So now, I look at books as my great addiction. I love to visit inside other people’s realms of invention.”

In stark contrast to her emotionally volatile and physically abusive side, Mandeville’s mother enjoyed some of the more elegant and glamorous outings that society had to offer back then and she also wanted to enlighten her daughter in those matters, as well.

“My mother was the person that introduced me to the theatre. She’s the one who got me the library card … she’s the one that taught me to speak proper English, she’s the one who encouraged me to always learn and to better myself,” Mandeville said.

It was also her mother that said if Mandeville would move to Chicago and study theatre at DePaul University, she would pay for the first semester. Unsurprisingly, Mandeville did just that.

The struggles she was faced with as a child may have played a role in determining the stage on which Mandeville would settle onto as an adult, far removed from those uncertain and often unhappy times in Milwaukee.

“I think that was what caused me to seek out the blues, because the people in the blues are other people who have been hurt and are other people that have been wounded and disaffected and have found a way to express the pain and the rage and the torment of not understanding why they were born into this,” she said. “After the childhood I had with my mother, I found myself extremely depressed and in a terrible funk … I was traumatized by what I had gone through in my childhood. I had to figure out a way to deal with that. I mean, I saw my future as being a bag-lady on Lower Wacker Drive if I couldn’t get a grip on things. I had no clue how to carry on a conversation with someone or behave like a functioning adult in this world. There I was, at 17, out on my own doing a major life fail.”

That ‘major life fail’ was corrected with a visit to the Chicago Mental Health Resources.

“Thank God for them. The city of Chicago had a mental health program that you could go and seek therapy and didn’t have to have any money. I was flat-broke and had no idea how to support myself. My mother had completely dominated every one of our family’s lives. She was so ill, she was just a force of nature. She had everyone caught in her gravitational pull and it was a nasty planet to be a moon of,” Mandeville said. “Somewhere within myself, I discovered that I really wanted to live and to be successful. I wanted to choose up, instead of down. So I went to the city of Chicago Mental Health, and at the end of the six-month term there, I went to family services and did a stint with their therapist and I also went to several other clinics that would work with you on a sliding scale. I worked at getting well, because there is a history of mental illness in my family that goes back generations. I mean, I was on my own and I had to take action; it was either sink or swim; I chose to swim. I really, really support having community- and government- and city-sponsored mental health programs, because I am a walking example of how successful that can be.”

Even though she found herself in the heart of the blues when she first moved to the Windy City, Mandeville did not have intentions of becoming a blues singer when she relocated to Chicago.

“I didn’t come to Chicago to become a blues musician … blues was sort of a secondary idea. I knew that there was Big Bill Bronzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins, which I thought of as folk music. I was listening to that back in Wisconsin, when I was a little folkie kid with a guitar and playing coffee houses with my friends,” she said. “I mean, I’d play some 12-bar blues, but I didn’t really know the masters and I didn’t really even know I was playing the blues.”

It wasn’t long before Mandeville found out just what the blues were all about … or at least what the blues were all about to Willie Greeson.

“When I met my first husband (Greeson), he was a diehard blues Nazi. He was like, ‘If the song does not sound exactly like the record, you’re doing it wrong. There will be no improvisation.’ From my vantage point now, I think he had missed the point of what the blues are about,” laughed Mandeville. “But God love him, because he introduced me to the Chess sound. He was the guy who introduced me to Jimmy Reed. After that (meeting Greeson), I was completely hooked on and utterly love the Chicago blues. I mean, you’ll find a Jimmy Reed ‘lumpty-lump’ on all my records, going back to the earliest ones.”

In addition to her burning desire to not let the surroundings of her childhood form any kind of shackles on the adult she would become, it should also be noted that the quickest way to motivate Mandeville is to tell her she can’t do something; that, or attempt to make a fool out of her on the bandstand. After a particularly embarrassing and humiliating experience she went through at an after-hours jam at a jazz club – where she was talked into climbing on stage and singing, only to find a band-leader that was the very definition of unwelcoming – “He put his finger in my face on three different occasions and waged it and said, ‘OK, bluueesss singerrr …’ It was like he was calling me a M.F. or something. He was talking to me like I was a bad dog.” Never letting the situation get the best of her, she went ahead and sang her song and even though the band-leader continued to talk down and scold her every chance he could, Mandeville somehow managed to maintain proper etiquette and hold her head up high as she strode off stage as the audience gave her a hearty round of applause for her version of “Sunny Side of the Street.” Despite the fact that she was embarrassed by what happened, she didn’t run and bury her head in the sand.

“I was just so humiliated and filled with chagrin, the following Monday, I marched down to Columbia College and enrolled for classes. I earned a degree in music (with honors) and I said that I would never be humiliated like that ever again,” she said. “It will not happen. I’m highly motivated by anger. Some people would have hit him (the arrogant band-leader on a power trip at the jam) with a mic stand or threw a drink in his face, but I was raised to be a lady … but boy, have I gotten even!”

Mandeville also spent eight years training with renowned vocal coach Doug Susu-Mago.

“I did arrive on the planet with a gift – my voice – and thank you for that, God. But my voice was untrained and I had a real rapid-fire vibrato and didn’t know how to use my mechanism. I had been going to somebody else (vocal coach) who was teaching me the vocal book … I’ve always felt it’s important to continue your training and to work on your craft. I would go out and sing James Brown, Tina Turner and Koko Taylor and Etta James on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and give it my all, and by Sunday I couldn’t even speak. My voice was so blown-out and destroyed,” she said. “So I found out about Doug and I went to him and he said, ‘Liz, those screams and shouts and this-and-that is like art; they’re just colors on your palette and are not all there is to singing. You’re like an athlete and just like you can’t go out every time and pitch a no-hitter, you still need to know how to control the muscles in your arm and shoulder to be able to pitch inning-after-inning, day-after-day.’ I studied with him for eight years and I have to credit him with being one of the most amazing, fun, funny, influential people in my life. He really, really gave me an invaluable gift. Columbia College also did that. That experience that I got from Columbia College was so much more than I could have imagined. I found my place in the world of music there; I could never repay them for what they gave me. I paid my way through Columbia College by singing the blues.”

Her record label – Blue Kitty Music – was born largely from a conversation Mandeville had with one the all-time great bluesmen.

“It was Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith – God bless him – that encouraged me to start this label. My first husband (Willie Greeson) played for a short time with the Legendary Blues Band, so I was friends with Willie ‘Big Eyes.’ I really loved his in-the-pocket, traditional ‘lumpty-lump’ sound. I told him (in 2011), ‘Willie, I have wanted to make a record with you since 1998.’ He said, ‘What? You book the time, little girl. And I’ll tell you something else, Liz, we ain’t giving this record to none of them damn crooks, you’re going to start your own label and we’re going to put it out on your label,’” said Mandeville. “He said, ‘I did it (put an album out on his own label) and if I can do it, you can do it and I’ll help you.’”

With just a couple of phones calls, two weeks later, the first five tracks for what would become Clarksdale were in the can, and thus, Blue Kitty Music was birthed.

Mandeville is also a multi-instrumentalist who plays anything put in her hands – from guitar to washboard. But it’s her one-of-a-kind vocal prowess that captures attention and turns heads. Her voice is sophisticated, guttural and soulful … all at the same time.

“I love Otis Redding so much. I just absolutely love him. I have worn out The Best of Otis Redding. I have a huge vinyl LP collection of all the people that I love and adore and have taken things from to become a better singer,” she said. “Etta James is a huge, huge influence. Irma Thomas is the female side of the (Otis Redding) coin and they were singing a lot of the same material, they just changed up a few words, and of course she’s singing in New Orleans and he’s singing in Memphis. That Memphis sound just had such a huge impact on me. I spent so much time in my 20s and 30s learning to speak soul music and rhythm and blues so I could feel like I was really doing a service to the music, instead of exploiting it; that was a huge undertaking.”

Although music is what Mandeville uses to pay the bills these days, one gets the feeling that even if that was not her vocation, it would still play an essential part in her life.

“I am just in love with music. I have a deep and passionate love affair with music that goes all the way back to when I was a little kid and didn’t understand why mom was angry and why she would go on a rampage,” Mandeville said. “There was a soundtrack in my head and it would just turn up louder and I would hear the music and that would take me away from the situation. So I’m always interested in learning new music and exploring new parts of the music.”

The ever-fascinating Mandeville’s interests stretch all the way to Tarot card reading, which she uses as a form of self-meditation and way to communicate with her sub-conscious mind about the things going on in her life. She also sees a correlation between the Tarot deck and the blues.

“There are two parts to the Tarot deck; the Major Arcana cards, which are 22 cards that stand for big ideas. Then the Minor Arcana are what our modern-day playing cards are, 52 cards in the playing deck. They talk about the four aspects of your life; love, career, money and value and trouble and conflict and challenges,” she said. “And I look at the blues as the Minor Arcana. The blues is talking about everyday life. The blues is talking about your job, it’s talking about money and what you think of yourself … and troubles and sorrow and anxiety and overcoming that. That’s what the blues is talking about. That is the mission of the blues, helping people to explore that part of themselves; to help them find out how to triumph over whatever kind of tragedy or calamity they are facing. As a blues song-writer, it’s my job to explore all of this territory and give people a vehicle in which to travel through it and get to the other side.”

Mandeville and her mother – who passed away a little over 10 years ago – did heal their relationship after doctors discovered Lithium was a suitable course of treatment for her affliction.

“My mother had a chemical imbalance, but she was also the child of batterers. She was just carrying on the only way she knew how. Years of therapy have helped me understand this,” Mandeville said. “I now understand it wasn’t me; I didn’t have anything to do with her being sick. I learned (from therapy) that you build self-esteem by setting goals and then accomplishing them. I have survived an incredibly-horrible childhood and have triumphed. I survived something that could be the subject of a Charles Dickens novel and am living a very fabulous life.”

Editors Note: We had a great jam session after this years Blues Blast Music Awards. Here is a video of the second part of that performance that included Andy T Band (“Andy T” Talamantez on guitar, Larry van Loon on keyboards, Sam Persons on bass, Jim Klingler on drums), along with Vincent Hayes, Rachelle Coba and RB Stone on guitar with Liz Mandeville out front showing what she dows best (with a little help from Kaye Bohler). Check it out, CLICK HERE

Visit Liz’s website at lizmandeville.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine

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