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Turn Me On: Singer/Songwriter Leslie Mendelson
In the past year, Leslie Mendelson has toured with Jackson Browne and opened twice for The Who at Madison Square Garden. This spring, Mendelson is releasing her third album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, a rapturously satisfying song cycle that proudly lives in the singer-songwriter tradition, while seamlessly incorporating a range of influences to create an album that’s equally resonate, delightful and unapologetically mind-blowing.
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… may be best described as an album that incorporates the best instincts of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses and The Moody Blues’ A Question of Balance. While If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… is very much a “full band” record that takes the listener on a vast and captivating sonic journey, Mendelson’s insights and resilience are centered in a way that makes the experience refreshingly interpersonal and intimate. Mendelson recently spoke over the phone with Rock Cellar about making If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… alongside her co-writer and guitarist Steve McEwan and bassist and engineer Lorenzo Wolff.
When asked what informs her perspective as a songwriter, Mendelson reflected, “I tend to write a lot about whatever I’m facing, whether it’s anxiety or depression or insecurities. Whether it’s politics or the media and how that affects me. In an ever-changing world, we’re just trying to keep our feet on the ground and our heads up. It’s a constant struggle. I think I tackle a lot of those struggles. Most of it’s because of the avalanche of whatever’s being put upon us daily.”
On how If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… was initially conceived, Mendelson shared, “This album was actually very much inspired by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. There are a few aspects of it. The rawness of his voice, and the way that the songs are just stripped down to the bare minimum, whether it’s piano or guitar, bass and drums. Very sparse arrangements. And what he’s singing about is so personal. That was a point where he was in his primal scream phase of just expressing from such a raw place. I was connecting with it. Because I feel like I was going through a similar feeling at that time. So I used a lot of that album as inspiration.”
One of the standouts on If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… is the rousing anthem “All Come Together Now,” which has long-served as Mendelson’s sing-a-long show closer. Of how the live staple came to be prominently featured on If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… Mendelson recollected, “We were gathering the songs. And that was part of the message and the vibe and just the feeling. So it fit in there perfectly. That song just has that lilt to it. So it feels very natural. When I went to record it, in my head, I was hearing, Sly & The Family Stone, ‘If you wanted to stay, I’d be around today.’ It’s also got a little bit of Eminem, ‘You gotta lose yourself in the music.’ Those songs were kind of my inspiration of where to go production-wise with it.”
Much like the singer-songwriter records of the 1970s from which Mendelson drew so much inspiration, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… is constantly blurring and crossing the line between the personal and the political. The recently released single, “Medication,” vulnerably explores the timely struggles of mental health of pharmaceutical addiction, as lived by a friend of Mendelson’s who took her own life. Similarly, “Would You Give Up Your Gun” is another centerpiece that examines timely national anxiety.
Mendelson, McEwan and Wolff recorded the album in two weeks at Wolff’s studio in East Williamsburg. When asked if completing the album in that time frame proved challenging, Mendelson reflected, “I feel like we made this record that just fit our lives. Budget was definitely a thing. But what we needed to do wasn’t that complicated. It just seemed like, here’s the song, and we didn’t really put a lot of bells and whistles on it. Because we didn’t want to. Going back to the John Lennon album. We kept that template. So everything, it’s so self-contained. We weren’t going to put string sections on things. But we were going to add textures. I think Steve did such beautiful guitar work. He’s got that atmospheric tone that takes up that kind of place. We didn’t overdo it. We just used it sparingly.”
When asked what song evolved the most over the course of making the album, Mendelson offered some thoughts on “Speed of Light,” which after repeated listenings feels like the most resonate emotional apex on an album that contains several beautiful peaks and a ceaseless flow. On finding the perfect arrangement, Mendelson shared, “I’ve always wanted it to feel like, somehow the song exists in outer space. Like, a floating, suspended gravity kind of song. It’s been really hard to find the right rhythm. Because there’s a franticness to it. And it also is totally gentle at the same time. I always heard the beat that’s in there, without it being so pronounced. So I feel like it was just a matter of trying different things in the studio. Our drummer, Zach Jones, he’s wonderful. We said, ‘Let’s try some stuff on the toms.’ And he was really willing to work and bring some ideas in. And we finally figured it out. So I’m really pleased, and it was really touching.”
In addition to making If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, Mendelson has also spent the last several years working with Jackson Browne, a friendship that began with a collaboration on “A Human Touch,” a song used in the recent AIDS documentary 5B. “I remember in the summer of 2017, doing a house party in Brooklyn,” Mendelson recalled. “It was one of those, kind of tastemaker house parties. They’re different people, actors and directors and musicians there. At the end of my set, Paul Haggis, the director, he directed Crash, screenwriter for Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima. He came up me and he said, ‘I love what you did. I’m working on a new film right now. It’s a documentary about the beginning of the AIDS crisis.’ He went into it a little bit. He said, ‘I would love to have an original song for my movie.’ He was saying, ‘I’m also friends with Jackson Browne and I’m trying to get him involved. Would you be up for a collaboration?’ I said, “Okay, sure. Yeah, call me.’ And I just figured, ‘Hollywood people.’ Sure enough, he called in about a month. He said, ‘We got the budgets passed. It looks good.’”
Of the writing process, Mendelson shared, “So my co-writer, Steve McEwan and I, we watched the movie and sketched out pretty much the bones of the song. It wasn’t complete still. But we gave a large chunk of it to Paul. Paul said, ‘I really like it.’ Then he passed it on to Jackson. Then I heard from Jackson, saying, ‘I love it. I really think I can add to it.’ I thought, ‘Fantastic.’ So we met in New York, the three of us, sat down. I played it for him first. He said, ‘You should sing the first verse.’ I said, ‘Really? Okay.’ I figured I would sing with him. But instead we made it this duet. We finished the song. He really put his stamp on the song. I love it so much.”
After 5B played in limited theatrical release in June of 2019, Mendelson sang “A Human Touch” with Jackson Browne during all four nights of his run at the Beacon Theater in New York. The experience was so mutually enjoyable that Mendelson ended up joining Browne on the road for the rest of his “2019 Full Band Electric Tour,” which found Mendelson singing co-lead vocals on “A Human Touch” and joining background vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart on others. “It was such an amazing experience,” Mendelson beamed. “He’s one of my heroes. I’m such a massive fan. To work with him, and to sing with him, and to share something like that with him, it was just one of the great experiences of my life.”
Mendelson’s recording and touring as of late are helping cultivate a fan base that in recent years has included an expanding crossover with the national jam band community, both associated with the Grateful Dead, as well as on a broader scale. Mendelson’s work with Bob Weir includes recording a cover of “Blue Bayou” for her 2017 album, Love and Murder, and playing it live with Weir and an all-star cast at Sweetwater Music Hall, the intimate venue Weir co-owns in Mill Valley.
When asked how her professional association with Weir came to be, Mendelson reminisced, “I was living in London at the time. Justin Kreutzmann, whose father is Bill Kreutzmann, Justin’s a filmmaker, and he was over there doing a documentary on Pete Townsend. I was being managed at the time by The Who’s management. So that’s the connection there. They liked what I was doing and they brought me over. I had just moved there and I was doing a show. My manager, Robert Rosenberg, invited Justin and his friend Chris McCutcheon, along to a show. Chris McCutcheon was running TRI at the time, Bob’s studio. And before they came down, they checked me out on YouTube. They found this video of me, a couple of years prior to me living in London doing promotion for my first record. I did a stop at Relix. I did a cover of ‘Friend of the Devil.’ They saw that. I heard this American voice in this smattering of Londoners shouting, ‘Friend of the Devil.’ That was Justin. We talked after. He said, ‘I think Bob would really love your voice and your style and your interpretation of the song.’ So he got it to Bob. And Bob did like it. They invited me down to do one of their Weir Here’s. They were doing that weekly at the time. That’s when I met Dave Schools and Steve Kimock. And that whole crew. It kind of was formed from that. We had such a great episode. I am still close friends with everybody in that group. I just worked with Dave Schools last week. I recorded a record with Kimock. It’s just an amazing community.”
Mendelson further expanded her audience by opening for The Who twice last year at Madison Square Garden, once in May and again in September. On her experience of opening for one of the greatest bands of all-time in arguably the famous arena on earth, Mendelson shared, “In 2018, I opened a bunch of shows for Roger Daltrey. He recorded a record and toured with that. They wanted something acoustic. And they asked me to do it. Roger is a fan, so I hear. I did three tours with him. I love his crew. There was a real family vibe. They took care of me. We were easy. Because we just got on and off. We were just two guitars. So they didn’t have to worry about a band. So when it came time to do the New York shows, I was talking to Robert Rosenberg, He said, ‘The crew wants you. Roger wants you. They think it would be great.’ They wanted me. I couldn’t believe it. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“I get these great gigs. I get to play in theaters. I’ve done some festivals. I’ve played for a decent amount of people. But I’ve never played the Garden. To be fair, I did do the National Anthem in 2017. But that’s so different. That’s crazy, too. But it’s just different. But to be on the MSG stage in front of a crowd that size. It was pretty full. The second time, it was even more full. And the sound was so good. The first show, I was super nervous. I remember feeling incredible. The first time it was just guitars. I brought my Wurlitzer to the second show. I could really hear myself. Which to me, made it more intimate. All of the sudden, I’m at MSG. But I could be anywhere right now. Because I hear myself as if I would in a regular club. So it wasn’t such a foreign feeling to me. So I felt like that show in particular was really special. Because I was actually in the moment. And I could enjoy it and be like, ‘Oh my god. Here we are. Look at us.’”
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MSG 9/1/19 – So much love for The Who and their incredible crew. And to all the folks who came in early and hung out for my set, thank you! I still can’t believe it happened… again! ❤️🇬🇧❤️Photos by @larufoto @officialthewho @msgnyc @royalpotato #openingforthewho #thewhomovingontour #bestnightever #livenation #nyc #msg #lesliemendelson #stevemcewan #ahumantouch #jacksonbrowne #suchanight #drjohn #yesthatsakazoo #wurlitzer200a #bigwrenchpiano
Mendelson has been planning on supporting the release of If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… by touring with Jackie Greene, another superlatively talented singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has a long history of playing alongside Bob Weir and Phil Lesh when not headlining his own truly epic rock shows. Mendelson spoke of Greene with an abundance of heartfelt reverence and mutual respect. “We’ve always been fans of each other’s. We met doing those shows that get put together by promoters, whether it’s celebrating an artist or a tribute. We’ve done three or four them at the Brooklyn Bowl or Sweetwater. We kept meeting. And enjoying singing together. We just always have fun. The last time he played City Winery, he asked me to come and sit in with him. He said, ‘Why don’t you just come sit at the piano bench with me?’ We have this way of making things like we’re not in front of an audience. Like we’re just sitting around the piano together. I like that vibe that he and I have curated. He invited me to do the tour with him. So I’ll open and then I’ll join him on stage at some point and we’ll do our thing our together. I’m really looking forward to it. Not only is he talented, he’s fun and we have a great friendship. I’m looking forward to playing and doing that tour.”
To turn yourself on to Leslie Mendelson, visit lesliemendelson.com for merch, videos, tour dates and more. When asked if she engages with any of her social media platforms personally, Mendelson revealed, “I love Instagram. I have a Facebook fan page. I get back to people. I’m not too weird. I like to comment and talk to the fans. My friends, friend-fans. And family members. Who knows? Those are probably the best ways to get to me. I’m out there, in more ways than one.”
February 25, 2021