Take Ca­role King, add dark­ness

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

WHEN EL­LIE G r e e n - wich, the co-writer o f 1 9 6 0 s hi t s l i k e Leader of t h e P a c k a n d D a 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 trum- pet, 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 that­would­meeteach­weekand­cri­tique 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

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

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