Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson’s survey of personal and societal struggles on If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… would have been a fitting release had it dropped on an ordinary spring day. Instead, the Long Island native’s new album hit shelves of closed record stores April 17 amid a global pandemic, elevating it from a poignant collection of 10 tracks, to a prescient soundtrack to a generation-defining affair.
While love and loss buttressed 2009’s Grammy Award-nominated Swan Feathers and 2017’s Love & Murder, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… tackles flagrant issues of today and purges depression on tracks like “Would You Give Up Your Gun?” and “I Need Something to Care About.”
“A lot of these feelings were bubbling up and they needed to come out,” Mendelson said of writing about her depression and anxiety. “So there was really no other way to go about it.”
Accompanying her sharp appraisals are heartfelt tunes like “Lay It All On Me” and the urgent “All Come Together.”
In recent weeks the live entertainment industry has gone dark, including Mendelson’s own tour to support If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, but she refuses to let that stop her from performing. She flips on her “party lights,” crystalline specks that electrify the gray curtain backdrop in her Brooklyn home, and arms herself with her keyboard, acoustic guitar and harmonica. From this permanent tour stop, she streams live performances to promote her release and keep live music alive. She shares what money viewers can spare with live venues, most recently the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, to help keep the heart of the live music industry beating.
In tackling mental health and urging people to come together, Mendelson unintentionally orchestrated a score to the COVID-19 outbreak. Over 40% of college students struggle to function under the weight of depression, according to the American College Health Association’s 2018 National College Health Assessment II. Now that the coronavirus has altered daily life in New York, college students across the state have been displaced from their campuses, and trudge on through their spring semester to a precarious summer. In Florida, Tennessee and Washington, protestors battle stay-at-home orders in crowds. This division jeopardizes public health and counteracts efforts to “flatten the curve,” or slow the rate of infection.
The Press recently had the opportunity to speak with Mendelson about If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, its newfound significance regarding current events and how she continues to reach audiences despite her cancelled tour.
This is your first record on vinyl! How does that feel?
Aww, it’s great. I actually wept when I got it in the mail. I was so happy ’cause it looked better than I thought it was gonna look, the packaging and the detail. It’s everything.
You play with a lot of different textures on this one. The title track is electric-driven, and you wanted to make “Speed of Light” sound like you were floating in space. Was there a particular moment that led you to experiment with the different sounds on this release?
Yeah, we were inspired by Plastic Ono Band, that first John Lennon solo record, with “Mother” and “God.” The sound of that record made such an impact on me ’cause the lyrics were so clear, and the production really supported it. I loved how it worked together, and so when I went in thinking about production, we used that as a template. So, we kept it really simple and tried to obviously do our own thing with it. We definitely move away from it a little bit by using different reverbs and guitar sounds that were a little bit more lush. That was kind of where we started from.
So that album, Plastic Ono Band, was very much aware of the atmosphere of its time, especially with “Working Class Hero.” What is it like working on tracks like “Medication” and “Would You Give Up Your Gun?” that address very palpable issues today?
Well, it’s so funny because it all happened before the pandemic, right? And everything’s so heightened right now. But that’s how I felt going into making this record, that some of these issues are so heightened right now. I never wanted to be preachy, and I don’t think it is. I think we’re living in such a time that it’s either you’re on the left or you’re on the right, and there’s no middle ground for conversation and so some of these topics [are] my own desire just to open up and have feelings about [them], and be okay with that.
Do you think there’s a song that you’re most proud of on this record?
I have certain moments that I’m really fond of, but overall, I think “I Need Something to Care About.” It kind of was the beginning of where we started ’cause it [came] from such a dark place, but wanting to get better.
And that song is very poignant, especially right now. A lot of people, especially college students, are feeling this numbing depression to what’s going on in the world. Could you talk a little about that song and its message in light of current events?
Well I think, especially today, a lot of people have been laid off, a lot of people are a little bit directionless. There’s a lot of people that are a bit confused, not knowing what to do, thinking [about] when’s their next paycheck, and how to get creative in this time. But sometimes it’s hard to find that… spark. Or that moment. And that’s where depression falls, and when depression kicks in it’s so hard to find the light, and you succumb to those feelings. So I think that it’s harder even now. It’s a struggle to find a purpose, but we have to find our purpose or it’s just… the days are so long. And we have a lot of time on our hands right now.
Is there a particular artist or album that you turn to in times like these, the way that someone could turn to “I Need Something To Care About?”
I have a few artists that I feel like really rip my heart out (laughs). I love Simon and Garfunkel. You know, a song like “Bridge over Troubled Water,” or Cat Stevens. Those two just come to mind, and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. With those artists, I feel like there’s that time period, that golden era of songwriting where there was no messing around. It was so clear, and maybe because the time, there was such unrest, and either you were with them or you weren’t. And people were fighting for social justice and things they believed in, and maybe we’re coming back to a time like that now.
Your sound is often compared to a lot of the artists that you’re talking about, those ‘70s singers and songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Do you think those comparisons are a good fit, or are they a bit reductive?
Oh no! (laughs) I’m honored, that’s the golden era of songwriting for me. I mean that’s the playbook. That’s how I learned and how I want to write songs.
Is there any way that you’d describe your style outside of those comparisons? Do you think you consider yourself indie, or singer-songwriter oriented?
Maybe a classic, modern singer-songwriter. I’d fall into the singer-songwriter mold if there was one more than indie. It’s hard to define it. I feel like I know that my influences come from that era. I think [If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…] sounds like a modern record, but it has classic songwriting elements.
One of the other tracks that is very timely is “All Come Together,” which you’ve been playing live for a couple of years now. Do you think it’s taken on a new life, now that it’s been released in the current state of affairs?
Yeah, and that’s the one thing that’s always constant, I guess even more now, because of what we’ve been asked to do today. They say “alone, together” because they’re asking everybody to do this thing together, even though there’s self-isolation and we’re staying home. But it’s everybody together. I go food shopping, but I really don’t leave the house.
I’m really trying to do the right thing, flatten the curve, but I know there’s tons of people that are not wearing masks, and hanging out in large groups, and that to me is so selfish. I’m like, “Why do you get to do that?” We all have to be in this thing together. We got to get it together, make some sacrifices so we can get out there and do things again. So even though it’s a different “all come together,” it’s spiritually, mentally, “let’s all do this.”
I’d like to talk about your guitar playing. Is that you playing the electric on the title track?
That’s Steve [McEwan]. He’s such a great guitar player, his electric guitar playing especially. I’m better at acoustic. I can strum, and guitar picking is something I’ve become better at. I love to play electric, but I haven’t ventured into solo territory. I love rhythm playing, so I love to play along. And that’s a fun song to play electric guitar on. I love to play loud too. As much as I love a ballad it’s really fun to be able to turn up.
Did you write that song knowing it was gonna be electric?
We wrote that song so quickly because we needed an upbeat song — and it’s so funny how it turned into something that helped define the record. We were actually in the studio when we wrote that song. We felt it would be great to get something that’s really like UGH! where we could kick it up a notch here. We just started playing it and then we were just kind of having fun with the lyrics and then it wrote itself so quickly. Yeah, that was a fun, easy one.
What would you say was the most challenging song to write?
I’d say “Would You Give Up Your Gun?” had a couple of incarnations. I think it started out as an upbeat song, and I think that’s why we actually wound up writing “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…” cause “Would You Give Up Your Gun?” was originally an upbeat song that we recorded a couple of times and it just wasn’t working. It was too on the nose; it didn’t have the right feeling. It wasn’t what we wanted to convey so we went back to the drawing board. Steve started playing more of a Leonard Cohen vibe, so then we started to shift the melody and make it into a ballad. I also think “Lay It All On Me,” emotionally, was really difficult to record. That one was just… that was a difficult birth. It was a struggle to get that to a place where it felt right.
That song really makes the record hit the ground running.
Yeah. I say Side A is like a slap in the face; Side B is like a nice warm hug.
So that was intentional? The placement of that song to kick off the record?
Yeah, we knew we had to start with that song. Once we started mixing, maybe even before we started mixing, we were just like, “Yup, we got to start that way.” There was no other place to put that song. We also wanted to make that statement of “This is what this is. This is different. This is urgent.” But yet, the subject matter is heartfelt. So I felt like it had a lot of elements I wanted. That was a good way to introduce a record.
Were you trying to balance some of the heartfelt songs with the more poignant, timely songs?
Well, there’s a mixture of a few different feelings. We had written a bunch of stuff and then I had some songs that I already wanted to record. Every time I do an album, I think, Is there anything that would work, that I play live and just haven’t done the right version of? With “All Come Together” I was like, “It’ll have to come out eventually, where is it going to go?” And “Speed of Light,” these songs found homes here because they matched tonally. The subject matter wasn’t that far off. I feel like you don’t have to be topical on every single song — I think balance is healthy — but I think there’s just a vibe and a tone, that these songs could work together.
So we talked about opening the album. What led to the decision of using “My Dark Peace” to close the album?
That was a song that’s been around for a while. It’s almost like a hymnal, and a meditation. It felt a little bit rough. Somebody that I admire very much, Judee Sill, with her drug addiction, and the way she would write was very hymnal and so I was inspired by her. But just also being able to find a place of peacefulness in a very turbulent time. So I felt like it was a good piece for this record.
Now that venues are shut down you’ve been doing the next best thing which is conducting livestreams. How has that experience been?
At first I was pretty nervous about it. I think any time I do anything I don’t know how to do I’m nervous, like anyone. But once I did my first one, I was so blown away by everybody because it was just this moment. Because we were in isolation for a little while and all [of a] sudden I go live, and all these people start watching, and then they start commenting and we’re in this dialogue, and I actually started to tear up because I think it has been so hard for so many people.
This thing is taking such a toll on people’s emotions, but to be able to be together for that hour, and to feel all the love of the community — it was the first time I’d felt normal in a long time, and I know that I wasn’t alone. A lot of people wrote me saying that they got to forget about things for a little while, and I feel like as an entertainer that is my job. So if this is the way forward, I’m happy to do it because I feel like it’s all we have to work with right now, and I’m thrilled that this platform exists.
Last night, you got to perform at the John Prine tribute for the “Live From Out There” series. What do you think these organized efforts like “Live From Out There” or the “One World; Together at Home” broadcast suggest about the music community at large?
That we don’t want to stop — we can’t stop. It’s important for us, it’s important for people. Art has to keep going. Art thrives in times of upheaval and unrest. I think that it’s more important now than ever, so we just got to keep doing it and getting these people together on these platforms and these events, whether we’re honoring somebody or if it’s just a concert. The fact that it’s happening… we have to keep it going.
For your album release party, you teamed up with Rockwood Music Hall to give them 50% of the funds that viewers contributed. Are you going to have similar arrangements going forward that allow you to tour and also support the live entertainment industry?
I love that they do that. As important as it is to support your artist, we got to support the businesses in the community as well and the venues that always have supported artists. I like that we all can benefit from this. And I think people are willing to contribute because when we get out of this mess, we want these venues to still be here for us.
To try to transition back to how it was?
Yeah (sighs)… when. When. I don’t wanna say if, I’m gonna say when.
You’re thinking positive.
Yeah, I’m trying… It’s hard.
So do you know the next few dates and how people can stream them?
Yeah, I definitely have another live stream on May 2, Outpost in the Burbs will be hosting it. And it’s either going to be on Facebook or Instagram.
Where’s that located?
That’s a great beautiful venue in [New] Jersey. It’s a church, they get a lot of great acts there.
You’ve had some pretty interesting collaborations in the past. You’ve worked with Jackson Brown; you’ve worked with Bob Weir. Are there any artists that you admire that you would love to work with if time allows it?
I would love to write a song with Paul McCartney. He’s just one of my favorites, and he’s still vital.
Is he your favorite Beatle?
Oh, that’s like picking children! I love them all. I mean, John, Paul, and George’s songwriting. They’ve all written some of my favorite songs, it’s really hard to pick one over the other. I mean John Lennon obviously for so many reasons and then George Harrison has written “Something” which I think is one of the greatest songs ever written. It’s hard to pick a Beatle, I can’t.
You grew up on [Long] Island right?
Yeah, I went to Ward Melville. I grew up in South Setauket. I had a band called Mother Freedom; we used to play at The Spot and local places. I used to see a lot of live music [at] Port Jeff Village Pub, places like that. Yeah, I’m a local girl (laughs). I live in Brooklyn now, but you know, technically still on Long Island.
Since you are a native New Yorker, did that make playing Madison Square Garden all the more special?
It’s extra. ‘Cause you know even going there — I’ve been there since I played there — I got to play there twice [opening for] The Who. And I sang the national anthem there for The Knicks once in 2017. It never ceases to amaze me after you get your ticket, you go through, and then you find your gate, and as you walk through the gate, all [of a] sudden the arena reveals itself. That is still a really special feeling. And I always feel like AHH! ’cause it’s such a massive, awesome venue. It’s just incredible. I would take the Long Island Rail Road and see a show. And you think around the world Madison Square Garden is held in such high regard, but I think because it’s ours, it’s even more special.
So once this is all said and done, do you think your personal experience and our collective experience of the COVID-19 outbreak will have an impact on your songwriting?
I can’t imagine it wouldn’t. Whenever it comes to a topic like this, you don’t wanna hit the nail on the head. Maybe I already did it and I didn’t realize it with so many of these songs. I’m sure something will come of this. There’s too much. I think when it passes, maybe after the dust settles, [I can] give it some time to process and figure [it] out.
Once things are back to normal, and social distancing isn’t a necessity, what’s the first thing you are going to do out of quarantine?
I miss hugs.
That’s so sweet (laughs).
It’s so true, though! (laughs) I just miss hugs. I miss hugging my friends. I’d really like to have a drink with a friend and give them a hug. Don’t you miss that?
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… is available now to stream and for purchase.