By embracing her own anxieties and fears, the NYC singer-songwriter has created a bold and brave new album to be admired. (Interview & Album Stream)
Prior to our chat in late March, singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson had taken a walk around her East Village neighborhood to get a bit of fresh air. The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to unfold in the United States, and no more so than in the virus’s epicenter, New York City. Still, the gravity of the danger had yet to set in for the city’s residents, something Mendelson observed almost immediately.
“I went out for like 10 minutes yesterday and the day before, just to get some fresh air, maybe get some water—you know, like in and out, not hanging out,” she says. “I walked along Thompson Square Park and it was so busy. I’m like, ‘I can’t believe how busy it is!’ So I just ducked and dived and dodged my way back home. Too many people are out and it’s freaking me out.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Mendelson probably would have kept such anxieties to herself, but the undercurrent of emotions she had been feeling for a while proved to be too much to keep inside. So she turned her fears into songs, and the result of which is her phenomenal new album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… (Royal Potato Family). The album features some of Mendelson’s most experiential songs to date and is a stripped-bare work of sonic and thematic rawness that balances outrage and optimism with the utmost grace.
“I know there was an angst that was coming from me,” she says. “I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go and I was just feeling anxious. Living in today’s world, I’m a very sensitive person and I think I’m strong to a point, but it seeps in after a while. I struggle with anxiety and depression, anyway, and I think those themes started to intertwine and it became more of a personal record. I don’t know if I set out to do that—it just kind of happened.”
As it were, such a level of personal exposure and vulnerability was something that Mendelson first had to come to terms with on her own. Her 2017 album Love & Murder was filled with tender folk songs that were rich in the tradition of storytelling, but none of the songs from that album are as emotionally stark as what Mendelson has brought to the forefront on If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…
“I had a complete nervous breakdown while recording the record. I was like, ‘This is shit. Nobody is going to like it. This is too vulnerable. I’m crazy.’” Fearing the worst, Mendelson reflected for a long time on what kind of songwriter she wanted to put forward for the masses to consume and draw conclusions from. “I didn’t think the songs were bad. I just [kept thinking] ‘Who is this? Is this the person I want to project?’ It was me, but I was so scared. I was like, ‘It’s a little too much me.’ And I was really nervous about it. But then I started to get feedback and people started to listen—and more than being like, ‘Oh, I like your record,’ it was like, ‘Oh, I can really relate to that.’”
One track from the album in particular—”Medication”—really hit home for Mendelson. She admits to struggling with antidepressants for a long time, and over a lone piano, her weariness is earnest and universal as she sings “I need some help to try and drown it out, this noise inside my head is way too loud, and I know I’m no fun to be around,” before pleading to be “taken away,” being totally exasperated by the weight of the conversation. “People were moved by it and I was blown away, because I didn’t expect that kind of connection from other people,” says Mendelson. “I’m glad I did it, but it was nerve wracking at first.”
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… also marks a noticeable shift in production style compared to Mendelson’s previous work. The title track is a rock ‘n’ roll barn-burner that provides an incredibly cathartic release upon listening, and its sonic inspiration came from a very particular source of majestic brutality and raw power: John Lennon’s debut solo album, Plastic Ono Band.
“When we started writing and thinking about the songs, I know Plastic Ono Band was a theme that Steve (McEwen, Mendelson’s co-writer) and I really latched onto as far as the themes and the production styles for the record. [Lennon] was going through Primal Scream [therapy] during that record, and so production-wise we very much kept it really simple—drums, bass, guitar, piano, and vocal.
“Also, in dealing with my own anxiety and rage, I feel like the best time to make a rock and roll record is when you’re broke and pissed off [laughs]. I think it was just the perfect time for me to start screaming a little bit more. I think I just needed to let it out. I was ready. I just didn’t know I was going to do it on my record. I was just doing it in real life.”
About Lennon, Mendelson also notes that, “His lyrics are still so profound today. They’re so relatable on so many levels and it’s an inspiring record and we definitely kind of used that as a bit of a template. He’s always been this person who speaks the truth and it’s so hard to find it these days…. I would love to hear his thoughts about Trump.”
One might think that after going through the process of creating such a personal album, politics would likely be too exhausting of a topic to also tackle. But as Mendelson sees it, after baring so much of her soul already, today’s dysfunctional political climate is tantamount to her own inner conflicts.
“I don’t even mind becoming political, because I’m just so fucking pissed off,” she says. “The problem today is that there’s such a big divide and it’s not even about right or wrong, it’s just about right and left. There’s no middle ground and there’s no common cause. I just feel like there’s a new set of rules being etched out right now and it feels like it’s just for political gain. Truth is out the window. It doesn’t matter anymore.
“I think everybody’s blood is boiling. There’s just such a mean spirited nature about what’s going on in politics right now—and with people in general. [In talking about] the title track, it’s really just about that snark. It’s got to stop.”
With the pandemic keeping the live music scene in an indefinite stand-still, it’s unknown as to when Mendelson will be able to bring the songs from If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… to the stage, something she admits is quite heartbreaking. “I had such a great little spring lined up for myself,” she laments. Last year, Mendelson opened for The Who on select dates, including their stop in New York City at Madison Square Garden. She was scheduled to do three more dates them this year, and in addition to those shows, a spring tour with Jackie Greene was scheduled, as well as a swing through the West Coast.
“I was obviously disappointed about The Who gigs because those have been awesome, but I think that things will get rescheduled,” she says. “The good thing, the positive side to all this is, yes, it’s awful: I can’t sell my record or play these songs and have that experience. But, luckily, social media is a wonderful tool. I’ve never loved it, but I want to participate. I want to be out there, because I think that people still need songs and music. It’s important. So I’m glad, at least, that I have something to offer.”
Given the power of If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, having something to offer may be the understatement of the year. But, for now, at least, the album is the closest thing one can get to a truly honest musical experience. And it may just be the inspiration we all need to begin contemplating our own emotions, as the future remains unwritten, and time is all we have for the moment.