Leslie Mendelson Continues To Steal The Show (INTERVIEW)

Leslie Mendelson certainly has a way of stealing a show even if it’s not the unassuming singer-songwriter’s intentions. Take last Saturday night (11/13) on Austin City Limits where renowned rock legend Jackson Browne decided to welcome to the Moody Theatre stage in his own words- “my very good friend Leslie Mendelson.” While it would certainly be an honor to appear on the longest-running music series in television history, but to appear on television with Browne on “”Human Touch,” that Mendelson helped compose from 2021’s comeback LP Downhill From Everywhere, that was also written for the documentary film 5B.

“When I was asked to write a duet and do a duet, I thought of all kinds of people that I know that I could write a song with, Because I hadn’t heard Leslie, it just pure beautiful blind luck that she turned out to be the writer that she is and singer,” said Jackson upon introducing Mendelson to the ACL stage. And as Greg Leisz laid the weeping pedal steel down; Browne and Mendelson shared their harmonies; it was pure angelic and delicately incisive. It would be safe to say this version of “Human Touch,” stole the show. 

Yet Mendelson has that effect, including in September 2019 at the all-star tribute concert to honor the Neal Casal at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester NY. The poised singer-songwriter dazzled on the piano with versions of Casal’s “Feel No Pain” and Browne’s “Rock Me On The Water” which sparkled with a fervently emotive ‘70s Laurel Canyon vibe And yes, Mendelssohn has even opened for The Who at Madison Square Garden – twice! And while it’s safe to say she didn’t one up Daltrey and Townshend, the Brooklyn resident easily made a thousand or so new fans.

Mendelson released her third LP titled If You Can’t Say Anything Nice... during the pandemic, yet was unable to tour and promote the album. The songs reach into a vulnerability that Mendelson has not revealed in her past work, yet has earned her another step into being the career artist in the vein of Carole King and Norah Jones.

Glide was able to catch up with Mendelson mid-tour during an early fall outing with Jackson Browne as opener/Mendelson speaks and writes without filters and she is not manicured. She is a breath of fresh air in a world filled with pretense and has navigated the doubts and disappointments of everyday life. S

Do you come from a musical family?

I do. My dad is a trumpet player. He still plays. He taught music and conducted a jazz band. He taught music for a long time. My grandfather was a singer during World War II. He played in USO bands. My great grandfather was in the Yiddish theatre, kind of like Vaudeville. I come from a long line of Jewish entertainers.

You write most of the music you perform, right?

Yes and I have a co-writer. I write with Steve McEwan and we’ve been writing together for well over ten years now. I write mostly the melody. He’s a far better lyricist than I am.

How long have you been in the music business?

(Laughing) Since I was born. I was always doing something. I was doing musical theatre, a little bit when I was a kid. I was in bands and I’ve always been playing.

Jackson Browne mentioned that the two of you were friends. Is that a fact?

We became friends around the time we were writing the song with Steve. We all became fast friends. He’s a great guy. He’s fun, interesting and he looks out for his musicians in the band. It’s nice to work for somebody like that. Because he doesn’t have to be like that. He’s very generous.

Shifting gears, who releases an album during a pandemic?

Someone with nothing better to do. We just didn’t know. I was talking to Kevin (Calabro – Royal Potato Family) who runs the label and we were going to hold it back. We thought maybe we could release it in the summer. We started thinking, ‘People are at home. I think that it’s not such a bad time to put out an album. A year later, I’m finally able to tour and play those songs live for people.

I got to do the dome concerts which in the beginning were a blessing. They were one of those things I remember the first time I did one it was a month or so since I had seen people. All of a sudden, I’m doing a live stream and all of these people are on and it feels like a community. I realized how much we all longed for it. I thought they were beneficial in the beginning. A lot of the themes on the album I felt dealt with the anxieties that we were going through with depression and isolation. It was really a pre-pandemic record but it came out and felt like the subject matter was the right time to come out with a record like this. I feel like in the end it was a good decision.

You said in another interview that this was a much more introspective album than your previous releases. Can you elaborate?

Well I feel like it deals with mental health more than my other records have. It dives into those feelings, fears and anxieties that I hadn’t really sung about before.

Was this a reflection of what was going on in your life at the time?

Yes, I think I finally came to terms with things that I had not even thought about writing about before. It just seemed like it was the right time for that. It’s been pretty stressful for the last few years. Even before the pandemic.

I think the music business has a way of doing that more than people realize.

I think so. We have a lot of anxiety with the news, social media. It’s a lot and I think people are dealing with it all now. I think more and more people are talking about it now. More people are singing and writing about it. It kind of came to a head. I think it’s a good thing.

Who is your musical muse?

I don’t think I have a specific muse. I’m inspired by lots of things like music, movies, books and everyday life. And conversations.

Dead or alive, who would you like to meet?

I always think about this one. (laughing) I think I would have liked to have met John Lennon.

Same question except who would you have liked to have seen perform?

Freddie Mercury. He’s my favorite. I love him so much as far as being a performer and entertaining, his charisma and being funny and irreverent. Same with John Lennon being witty and irreverent. I like that kind of personality. You could just have a good time and lean in.

What would be your dream project?

What I am doing right now and building it out and adding a few more instruments and being able to get in the studio and record a new record and be able to have that live as well. It’s hard to tour with a big band at my level. I’d like to be able to get to that point and have a little more color on stage.

You mentioned new music. Are you working on new music?

Yes, I’m starting to write again. I’m putting some stuff together that I’ve been working on for the past year with Steve. We have some basically finished stuff. Stuff I still want to work on. I have a good amount of stuff I want to work on right now. It feels like a new record is near.

What is your method of songwriting? You mentioned you write melody primarily.

We have in the past just sat down and we have an idea. Having an idea is easier but sometimes I’ll sing something over or something I’m playing or Steve is playing and trying to find a way through that. It’s definitely harder without the idea. Somehow being able to sing kind of random or stream of consciousness, sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you sing something by accident and you think that’s a nice idea that you can draw from that. Sometimes it takes a while and sometimes it’s quick. It depends. I have hundreds of voice memos on my iPhone. I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll hear something that makes me want to jot a melody down.

What is the worst job you ever had?

I’ve had so many horrible jobs. (Laughing) I’ve been working since I was 16. I worked at food courts doing fried food. I was a horrible waitress in my early twenties when I was going to school.  I did band gigs. I kind of preferred manual labor. So, I would paint or do siding or kick carpet

I think it’s called survival.

Yes, music paid the bills. I did random jobs for a long time.

Who is your biggest influence musically?

I don’t think I have one.  I really draw from the great songwriters. I’m such a huge fan of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson is up there. And then there is The Beatles and Bowie. I love so many genres of music. If it’s a good song, I don’t care what genre it is.

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