Interview: Leslie Mendelson

Is she the next big female singer-songwriter? We find out

By Paul Lester, October 28, 2009
Confessional songs from Leslie Mendelson. Embrace the dark side, “you can come up with brilliant stuff,” she says

Confessional songs from Leslie Mendelson. Embrace the dark side, “you can come up with brilliant stuff,” she says

When Ellie Greenwich, the co-writer of 1960s hits like Leader of the Pack and Da Doo Ron Ron died recently, the subtext of many of the obituaries was: where have all the classic female songwriters gone? As though to answer that question, here comes Leslie Mendelson, hailed by Jac Holzman, the legendary record label owner, as a new take on the all-time greats.

“This is one of the tastiest pop albums of recent memory,” said the Elektra Records boss. “And I say ‘pop’ in the Carole King sense: great melodies with wondrous curves that take you places. No album of this genre has touched me so deeply. Most important, the songs stick to you like swan feathers caught on rubber cement.”

Mendelson, a singer-songwriter from New York, liked the Holzman quote so much she used it for the title of her new album. Swan Feathers is a collection of breezily sung melodies, played on piano and lightly orchestrated, that you could indeed imagine bearing the names of her illustrious forebears.

“Jac sees me as a throwback,” she says, delightedly. “It’s music that gives people a good feeling.”

It was inevitable that she would do well — after all, she says: “I come from a long line of Jewish entertainers.” Her great-grandfather was a member of the Yiddish theatre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he showcased his whistling and spoon-playing. Her grandfather was “blessed with a wonderful baritone voice”; his forays into musical theatre landed him a role in the historic Broadway production of Winged Victory. Her father studied trumpet, toured the world with the Millikin Jazz Ensemble.

Her family gave her a strong musical grounding; a strong religious one, too. As she puts it, “It’s good to be a Jew.” The best things about going to Hebrew classes were “the Bible stories and the opportunity for reflection provided by Yom Kippur”. A loner at school, she got into grunge and rap in the ’90s, before studying jazz piano at college. She found jazz too intense, so got more involved in New York’s flourishing singer-songwriter scene, sharing bills with the likes of Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin. She joined a songwriters’ circle that would meet each week and critique each other’s performances.

“There were definitely some cruel people there,” she laughs. “But once I was singing God Bless The Child thinking I was pretty hot sh*t, embellishing it, and this woman said: ‘You know that thing you do? Don’t. I want to hear the song, not your voice’. That was the best advice I ever got.”

How would she fare in a show like X Factor or the US equivalent, American Idol? “I wouldn’t last a round! I’m not a belter. I don’t do all that vocal acrobatic stuff. I have my own style. I love pop music and sometimes go for it in the car or shower, but I wouldn’t record it.”

Nor would she record anything too miserable, even though her songs often concern love’s downside. Her view is: “Don’t neglect it, deal with it.”

“When I started the album I thought, ‘Why do I only write about things that make me sad?’ I wanted to write about things that made me happy, or if they were about sad things I wanted to write about them in a way that found the humour in it, or that made them more palatable. You have to embrace the dark side. But if you can channel it right, you can come up with some brilliant stuff.”

Swan Feathers is out now on Rykodisc

Last updated: 5:02pm, October 28 2009