Leslie Mendelson was blessed with a unique vibe and a pure voice. She doesn’t have to turn her dial up much past three to reach nearly unattainable vocal levels. The thought of her over-singing seems improbable. Mendelson is set to release her third album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice on April 17. While talking with her about her upcoming release, she had the same easy-going spirit to her that comes through in her music.
Mendelson’s superb vocals have been on display for over a decade, dating back to her 2009 debut Swan Feathers. Love & Murder, 2017’s follow up, was noticeably edgier both lyrically and sonically. For the new album, Mendelson and her longtime collaborator Steve McEwan intentionally kicked things up a notch again, aiming for a more immediate reaction.
Despite her continued shift towards a more urgent sound, Mendelson wants to assure everyone all is well.
“Yes. I’m fine. There’s always a balance. There was a younger, more innocent feeling during my writing back in the Swan Feathers period,” Mendelson say. “I’ve changed. The world has changed. It’s never easy to be vulnerable. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I feel like why mess around the point?”
Mendelson used John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band as a guiding point for this album, wanting to mirror the album’s simplistic recording process. She adds working on three plus albums with McEwan, has solidified their writing and recording process.
“He’s a brilliant writer. I can come up with melodies for days. When it comes down to lyrics, it is so difficult,” she says. “Because we’ve been working together for so long, he understands my voice and point of view. Whatever I have, he makes it better.”
“Lay It All On Me” has no introduction and literally kicks the album off from note one, with Mendelson banging on the piano singing “I don’t want to shut you out. Only want to let you in.” Despite the urgency throughout, this is meant to be a love song. Mendelson says picking this song for the opener had a purpose.
“It’s very direct. There’s no bells and whistles and it gets the message across,” the singer comments. “So that’s the template of how we wanted it to sound sonically and the mood of it.”
Mendelson pays tribute to a friend who couldn’t find the proper balance of medicines to treat her depression and ultimately killed herself in “Medication.” The piano ballad paints a somber tale of someone desperately looking for relief, about which Mendelson explains that she needed “some help to try and drown it out. The noise inside my head is way too loud.”
The garage band sounding rocker “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…” sees Mendelson step away from her “ballad queen” persona and pick the pace up for the first time in the album in a song that came together almost instantly with McEwan, but that fast pace is short lived with the Leonard Cohan-esque “Would You Give Up Your Gun.”
Mendelson made it clear she isn’t preaching or trying to make a political point with the song. “When we wrote it, it was the time that things kept happening every other week and it was like, what do we have to do to make this stop?”
The song is the highpoint lyrically for the album, as Mendelson posits “I know you think it’s your right. Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? One pull of the trigger and all of your rights are gone.”
After a musical departure throughout the first part of the album, the uplifting “All Come Together” and “I Need Something to Care About” pull the reigns a bit on the pace of the album. As Mendelson accurately points out “Side A is a slap across the face and Side B is a hug.”
The acoustically guitar driven and upbeat “The Hardest Part” is another stand out on the album. Mendelson channels her youthful feelings and inspirations with prophetic lines like “I wish I never knew what I now understand” as she reflects on brighter and easier times.
The hauntedly beautiful “Flesh and Bone” brings back the urgent feel from earlier in the album as Mendelson pleads to not be forgotten “You’re in my blood. You’re in my soul. You make me whole. You’re everything I am.”
The album wraps up with “Speed of Light,” a song that has been recorded several times in several styles in several locations. Mendelson said that restructuring the song in a David Bowie style finally made it fit for release. “My Dark Place” is another homage to a friend of Mendelson that battled addiction. While the song was written several years ago, it does have a Jackson Browne feel and sound to it. Mendelson and Browne collaborated last year on the popular song “A Human Touch” for the soundtrack to the movie “5B.”
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice is a wonderful representation of the larger path Leslie Mendelson is creating for herself musically. Years of experience have given her a confidence to move her music or lyrics whichever direction she wants without being preachy, judgmental or turning her dial much past three.
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice is out on April 17 on Royal Potato Family.