Leslie Mendelson: All Come Together
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For her third full-length release, Leslie Mendelson uncorks her most personal set of stories yet, transcending ego and self-awareness on a jam-adjacent LP seemingly written for the age of uncertainty.
Leslie Mendelson certainly didn’t expect her album-release party to go down like this. In the past three years, the singer-songwriter had played with Bob Weir and Steve Kimock, opened for The Who and co-written a song with Jackson Browne, slowly building a loyal, cross-generational audience that hugs the hippie, hipster, coffee shop and society crowds. All the while, she’d been steadily, and methodically, crafting her third album—eventually lining up a big Earth Day show at New York’s Town Hall and a tour with Jackie Greene that felt ripe for collaboration as part of its rollout.
Yet, instead of a packed club gig that would serve as the launch of her next artistic chapter, the New York-based musician found herself celebrating the release of her third LP alone in her Christmas-light-adorned living room, performing to an audience she could not see.
“I was a little nervous, telling myself not to fuck it up. But I looked into the camera and told myself, ‘We’re all here. We’re all in this together,’” Mendelson says of her April 18 performance, which she streamed live on Facebook. “It was so intimate and personal, and I felt so open. I knew we were all feeling this incredible weight. The days are long. We have too much time on our hands. But an artist’s job is now more important than ever—we can lighten the mood for an hour. We can take your mind somewhere else.”
While Mendelson played stripped-down versions of the songs from her new record, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, comments flooded in from quarantined fans around the world: “Thanks for bringing some light into this dark time.” “We are here with you—so real and so special.” “Thank you for your vulnerability. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Mendelson closed the set with an old song that finally found a home on her new album—the rousing, grab-your-neighbor singalong “All Come Together”—taking her hands off the piano keys to clap as she sang. She wrapped the song and looked straight into the camera, making digital eye contact with a few thousand viewers.
“I don’t really wanna end,” she said with a smile, “But my battery is gonna die. I love you all so much.”
Though If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… was written and recorded in 2018 and 2019, it feels like the perfect soundtrack for 2020. Mendelson’s prior works—the lovely piano-pop of 2009’s Swan Feathers and the haunting acoustic lullabies of 2017’s Love & Murder—explored her heart in deeply personal ways. But If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…’s 10 tracks are really a showcase for Mendelson’s voice, a raw, powerful instrument, capable of taking on some of today’s biggest issues—mental health, prescription drugs, gun violence, social isolation and the despair caused by 24-hour news. The music is rock-and-roll stripped bare, boasting a pulsing guitar and a piano heartbeat; it drops listeners right into the studio alongside Mendelson. Yet, as topical as they are, these tunes belong to another time altogether—throwbacks to Vietnam War-era America, when people truly believed music had the power to move the masses.
“We danced the line on this record,” Mendelson says. “We’re dealing with big, broad topics that could come off as preachy. But we’re not preaching to anyone. This music comes right from the heart.”
Or, maybe—as Mendelson’s collaborator, friend and self-proclaimed fan Jackson Browne believes—it comes from somewhere even deeper.
“Leslie is a master of writing from her subconscious,” Browne says. “Something comes out of Leslie when she begins to write a song. It’s not from the mind; it’s from somewhere the mind can’t comprehend. Then, you return to the song and you might add details that your mind knows.”
Today, Leslie Mendelson belongs to a class of jam-adjacent artists, musicians who don’t play improvisational rock-and-roll on their own but have still been adopted and absorbed by the bands who do—and the fans who love them. For several years, she’s been a welcome member of the extended Grateful Dead family. But when she first entered the New York City music scene in the early 2000s, she exuded a very different appeal.
“There was this downtown, Lower East Side, avant-garde experimental scene happening. The sound of the city was so interesting—just really fucking cool,” she remembers. She first hit The Big Apple with her band Mother Freedom, a funk act with a full horn section, before shifting gears to focus on her jazz-influenced solo work.
From there, things progressed slowly but steadily. In 2005, Mendelson self-released Take It As You Will, which caught the ear of the influential jazz producer Joel Dorn—a connection that proved to be transformative for the budding singer-songwriter. A few years later, Mendelson co-wrote her official debut, 2009’s Swan Feathers with Steve McEwan, a professional songwriter who has penned tunes for Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood. Dorn co-produced the record, and it was even nominated for a Grammy for Best Engineered Album.
But then, Mendelson seemed to hit a wall. In the eight years between Swan Feathers and 2017’s Love & Murder, she wrote and recorded two albums worth of songs that never saw the light of day, including a collection helmed by the legendary rock producer and engineer Glyn Johns.
“That was a fascinating experience, but the record never came out,” Mendelson says. “Though he did give me a version of ‘Let It Be’ that was super amazing and very rare.”
She appreciated those silver linings, but frustration bubbled up within her. Mendelson knew her musical output just needed to line up with a label; she needed a right-time, right-place scenario.
In 2015, Mark Howard, another legendary producer, helped put the pieces together. He’d had already worked with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Peter Gabriel when he called Mendelson out of the blue.
“He said to me: ‘I found you. I really love your voice. What are you doing right now?’ I told him, ‘Well, nothing,’” she remembers. “He asked if I had management. Nope. A label? Nope. And he said, ‘Shit, let’s do it anyway.’”
Howard had fortuitously already been recording an album at a rented house in California’s Santa Monica Mountains and agreed to use the space to also work with Mendelson. The microphones were still in place when she arrived, armed with a collection of songs.
“I had years of material to pick and choose from,” she says. “Some were new, some were old, some were covers. But I got my head together and said to myself, ‘Stop not releasing things and just do it.’”
Love & Murder, released on Royal Potato Family, was a sparse, folk-influenced album but reflected the vast network of friends and fans that Mendelson had amassed since her early solo efforts. (The label was started by keyboardist Marco Benevento and Kevin Calabro, who worked closely with Dorn and now serves as Mendelson’s manager.)
Around the same time, Bill Kretuzmann’s filmmaker son, Justin, introduced Mendelson to Bob Weir after seeing a video of her covering “Friend of the Devil” in the Relix offices. Weir invited her to his studio and performance space, Tamalpais Research Institute, where she met guitarist Steve Kimock and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, and joined one of the recurring Weir’s Here sessions. And, during the next few years, a veritable royal court of the jam scene luminaries grew into vocal supporter; Kimock took Mendelson on tour and Weir lent his vocals to the cover of the Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” that appears on Love & Murder.
Then, in late 2017—at a house party in Brooklyn—film director Paul Haggis approached Mendelson about writing a song for the closing credits of his upcoming documentary on the first AIDS ward in the United States, 5B. The ward opened in San Francisco in 1983, when HIV/AIDS carried a massive stigma and fueled vehement homophobia. Haggis explained that he was looking for someone to collaborate with Jackson Browne. Mendelson jumped at the chance; she and McEwan set to work on the gorgeous ballad “A Human Touch,” and sent rough demos to Browne. Eventually, they decided to finish the song in person.
“I remember him coming up the escalator, and I just ran up and hugged him,” Mendelson says. “We got into the writing room, and he began playing piano. It was almost too much to handle.”
To Browne, writing a song to close such a powerful film was “a formidable—even forbidding—task,” he says. But he drew upon the first lines McEwan and Mendelson had written: “You call it a decision/ I say it’s how we’re made/ There’s no point in shouting from your island/ Proclaiming only Jesus saves.”
“We couldn’t go back and reiterate the film. But you hope to say something meaningful, to get to the heart of it,” Browne says. “I felt that first lyric almost internally. It makes you think: ‘Well, what does save you, then?’ And the answer is love. Love saves you.”
After a short, intense first writing session, Browne continued to tweak the tune, calibrating its lyrical truth-telling. “You look at a lyric long enough, and finally say: ‘OK, right there. That’s not really true.’
You allow the song to tell you what isn’t true to you. And you interrogate yourself about what you really want to say,” Browne says. “The debate can go on for weeks about just one line. In the end, we were really lucky. I love the song dearly, and I’ll always sing it with conviction.”
When the film was released in 2018, “A Human Touch” felt like the perfect conclusion: heartbreaking and hopeful, thoughtful and undeniably beautiful. And the experience working together had helped Mendelson and Browne grow into true friends.
“I feel a kindred spirit in Leslie. I hear a turn of phrase that reminds me of Leonard Cohen, a melody that reminds me of The Beach Boys. I hear her Beatles influence: John Lennon, but also McCartney. I haven’t detected Bob Dylan, but I’m sure it’s there These influences grace her music without being derivative— they’ve grown inside her,” Browne says. “Her music presents vulnerability, but this music isn’t fragile at all. It represent Leslie’s strength.”
Mendelson toured extensively to support the Love & Murder, even joining Browne for a string of dates. And, this time, she made sure not to lose the momentum she’d finally built back up. A year after Love & Murder was released, she regrouped in New York City with co-writer Steve McEwan to begin work on a follow-up.
“Leslie is a lot of fun [to perform with]. She’s never afraid to go for it. But for me, the main thing about her has always been her work ethic,” Kimock says. “She’s a no bullshit, no apologies hard worker. And I’ve got nothing but respect for that.”
When Mendelson and McEwan first began writing again, they let a classic guide them: John Lennon’s 1970 iconic Plastic Ono Band, a raw rock record, musically and emotionally, that featured key tracks like “Working Class Hero” and “Mother.”
“We listened to that album a lot. It’s simple: drums, bass, guitar, piano. It’s nothing too elaborate—just a tight-knit core of players,” McEwan says.
Adds Mendelson: “We used Plastic Ono Band as a template for the sounds of the album, but also the themes. That record completely holds up. It was timely then, but those lyrics remain classic.”
When pressed to pick a favorite Beatle, however, Mendelson balks: “What is this? Sophie’s Choice?”
Early writing sessions found McEwan and Mendelson transcending ego and self-awareness, tapping into some of the most personal tracks either musician has ever produced. The album is full of stories about fear, faith, love, doubt, isolation and the need for community. On the gorgeously aching, acoustic song “The Hardest Part,” she sings, “To those who believe in the things they cannot see/ May God provide you everything you need.”
Mendelson, McEwan and an intimate group of players recorded If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… in Brooklyn in early 2019. The album is a singer-songwriter’s showcase—on all 10 tracks, the pianos and guitars serve the material, pushing Mendelson’s words directly under a spotlight. Whether onstage with a band, or alone in her living room, the songs are truly human stories—sometimes stubborn and sometimes sensitive, uncertain of the future still but pushing forward. The album cover echoes that vibe. It’s is a double exposure shot of Mendelson, her finger over her lips, staring right at you twice—both in and out of focus.
“The best songs are written when there’s no filter—when you get with someone and you can completely be yourself. Then your subconscious fills the space,” McEwan says. “It’s very rare to meet someone who I can work with completely cold, with nothing prepared. It’s a huge risk: It might be brilliant, or you might fail horrendously. But with Leslie, we give each other the space to mess around until something develops. 99% of everything we create is embarrassingly rubbish. But that 1% shines through—it’ll be great.”
The sessions quickly revealed that Mendelson and McEwan had big ideas lurking in their subconscious. With “Would You Give Up Your Gun?” Mendelson reframes a question shouted everyday in America, with a softer, humanist approach. “I know you think it’s your right. Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? But one pull on the trigger, and every right you’ve got will be gone,” she sings over a plaintive, strummed acoustic guitar. “Could you give up your gun to save someone?”
“I wish we had way stricter gun laws, but I’m not preaching about laws in this song,” she says. “I’m asking: ‘How close to home does tragedy need to be to affect your views?’ A lot of ideas on this album come from my desire to simply discuss things. Because I fear the divide.”
On “I Need Something to Care About,” Mendelson addresses the numbness brought on by depression, singing over rich piano chords: “I can’t feel a thing for anything/ Thinking that my mind’s desensitized/ The light I thought I had has long burned out/ I need something to care about.”
“At the beginning, I thought, ‘Oh, we’re really going there,’” Mendelson says. “That song came out of being in a dark hole and not knowing how to get out, but desperately wanting to. That song is for people who’ve lost their direction. And now, as we’re stuck with so much time on our hands, it feels even more real today than it did when we wrote it.”