Leslie Mendelson can make a piano/guitar show a symphony. Her lyrics, melodies and arrangements eschew the usual self-indulgent songwriter ramblings that permeate New York’s current club scene, and fill her songs with emotional and musical counterpoint.
Talking to her, it becomes clear she adores great songwriters, such as Carole King, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach.
“Today’s music lies more in record-making than songwriting,” she says. “I’m obsessed with good songs. I push, and pull my hair out.”
She often co-writes with Steve McEwen, an astonishing guitarist and songwriter from Nashville. His influence from that town shows in the careful craftsmanship he brings to Leslie’s songs. She adds her own research, rewriting and insistence on the best song possible.
The live show with her on piano and Steve on guitar allows her voice to take center stage while the music remains intricate and delicate. Her voice is simple, clear and engaging.
“I just sing how it comes out,” Leslie says. She adds, “I sing for whatever character is in the song.”
The result is the feeling of a singer/songwriter night that doesn’t drown in introspection. Her songs are thoughtful enough, but she maintains a constant sense of her audience sitting out there wanting to be moved. The verses get to the chorus in time to pay off, and the arrangements build emotionally to sometimes moving, sometimes simply happy climaxes.
“Coney Island” is reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s best work, with its detail and universality dancing simultaneously in her lyrics. The devil-may-care “Till the Money’s Gone” takes her on a journey of hedonistic fantasies that eventually cave in to the awareness that fun costs money and money runs out.
The musicianship on stage is a piano/guitar interchange that leaves Steve playing some chords that make the guitar players in the audience wonder how he stretches his fingers that far, and provides an airy, intelligent counterpoint to Leslie’s thoughtful chord progressions.
So here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to walk into the Rockwood or some other music club, and you’ll hear Leslie and Steve playing. The sound will say, “Ah oh, here comes another depressing songwriter night.”
But the lyrics, the arrangements and the playing will say, “Hold on a minute, quit being so judgmental. This girl’s got purpose and drive, and she cares if you understand what she’s saying.”
Stay and listen after you first walk in, and she might teach you a thing or two about life and music and the courage to go for greatness in an atmosphere where mediocrity pays just as well. This is class. And class is in session.