Born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised in the wilds of Wisconsin, Mandi Strachota is the product of southern roots and Midwest know-how, a potent mix of practicality and soulful dreaming. She’s been singing all her life, belting out Willie Nelson, Whitney Houston and Sheena Easton tunes in the family living room, strong-arming her pre-school pals into elaborate musical productions of “Annie” at the local YMCA lobby, and joining in family sing-a-longs on the long rides to visit her granny in Tennessee.
Music, dance and performance have always been woven intimately into the fabric of her childhood, from her first piano class at the age of 4, to intensive violin lessons and gospel choir sessions while a mathematics major at Notre Dame. Soon after college graduation, the music still calling her, Mandi decided it was time to head south with the intent of finding a job and starting her creative life.
“My perception was that Atlanta was the R&B hub of the US,” she remembers, “so I went there. Unfortunately, my timing was terrible. A friend and I moved to Atlanta October 1st after 9-11. That meant jobs were extremely scarce.”
She eventually found lucrative work in restaurant management. “But after a few years I realized I was never going to be able to realistically pursue a career in music while working 70 plus hours a week. So I left for another position where I could restrict my hours to keep my nights open for music. That is the moment I really committed, when I decided to take less pay! I started attending jams and would sing three to four songs, usually with the house band, every night I could get out .”
Mandi became a fixture on the Atlanta scene, playing at local spots like the Northside Tavern, as well as booking a slew of wedding dates. She met singer/songwriter Larry Griffith after seeing his set at a club called Crystal’s on Marietta Square. “I ended up coming back every week until Larry offered to throw me some tips if I would be a permanent fixture. I played with Larry for six years after that.”
The two made an album together, Fly, and Mandi got into the groove of playing, not only with Larry, but also going out on solo gigs, jamming at local watering holes for tips and picking up the guitar along the way. Finally, the time came to break away and explore her own voice… and her own creativity.
Mandi started in on a new album, a work that would ultimately take her on an unexpected journey of self-discovery – a lifetime of music culminating into an array of tracks that were distinctly her own. “The main difference coming into this album is that it is all me,” she explains, “I wrote all the songs and truly put my own heart and experiences into the whole thing.”
A recurring theme in this new work? The break from a dependent relationship and a move into a true independence. “Before, I was playing other people’s songs, showing up when and where other people told me to show up,” Mandi remembers, “leaving me confused and discouraged, not only not knowing how to attain my goals, but not really understanding what my goals even were, as everything I said and did was dependent on what someone else was doing.”
A break-up, medical issues, the loss of both her grandfather and grandmother in close succession, a dark clash of bad luck and bad timing – all resulted in a period of depression, sadness, anger, but also – in a glimmer of redemption. “It enabled me to see things more clearly,” Mandi says of that time in her life, “and to want to stick up for the real me and to share that person with the world. From the moment I knew this album would exist, I knew it would be titled ‘Unleashed.’”
Recorded at The Greenhouse in Atlanta, Unleashed is Mandi Strachota finding herself – rediscovering that childhood love of music, while finding both her voice and her joy again. “This was the first time I felt I could do what I wanted to do creatively,” she says of the album, “The majority of the songs are about that transformation. You can hear the desire to get out in ‘Ready To Run,’ the state of realization of how I led myself into this corner of dependence and lack of confidence in ‘These Days,’ the ultimate rock bottom of it all when I quit believing in love in ‘Just Rain,’ and the triumphant resurrection in ‘Growing Pains,’ ‘My Time To Shine,’ and ‘These Shoes.’”
Embracing R&B, gospel and soul, with a touch of grit and country sway, Unleashed is timeless in its sound, but thoroughly modern in its message. “It is only after exploring and succeeding at risk-taking, that the confidence turns into freedom and limitlessness,” says Mandi, speaking about both herself and her music, “In other words – being set free, is only the beginning.”