Return to Love

Leslie Mendelson sings from the heart

To the public’s perception, it may appear that Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Leslie Mendelson’s new album, Love & Murder, is her first work in eight years. The truth is much more complicated, and in the face of both professional and personal losses in the last decade, Mendelson has never stopped writing.

“This was a difficult record to make,” she says. After a promising debut in 2009 with Swan Feathers, Mendelson suffered setbacks when she lost a record and management deal. Then her friend and producer Joel Dorn unexpectedly died.

“It’s like starting over again,” says Mendelson. She bounced between London and New York for several years, trying to get a new record off the ground but finding only disappointment, so she shelved her efforts.

In 2015, things turned around when producer Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams) called Mendelson and asked her if she wanted to work together. “I had a lot of songs to choose from. We went through my material and put together the songs that fit best,” she says. “It was definitely darker, because it was an outlet for my frustrations.”

Indeed, Love & Murder is a stark collection of melodic folk songs, often featuring Mendelson’s effervescent vocals wafting over simple guitar or piano lines. The album thematically pushes through the songwriter’s pain, reaching a catharsis toward the end, but it’s a heavy journey that unpacks eight years of raw emotion with fearless intensity.

Howard heard of Mendelson through her ongoing relationship with the North Bay jam scene that she unwittingly became involved with after meeting the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. A YouTube promotional clip of Mendelson singing the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” made its way to Weir after Mendelson met Justin Kreutzmann, son of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in San Francisco after a show. Weir liked the cover so much, he invited Mendelson to play at his TRI Studios in Mill Valley, and the two wound up partnering on a cover of “Blue Bayou” that appears on the new album.

“For me, it was a dream,” says Mendelson. “And it just fit perfectly on the record.”

Now, with the thrill of seeing the new album come to fruition, Mendelson will play a record release show this month that features songwriter Sunny Ozell opening and special guests like Steve Kimock sitting in with her. “I’ve been playing these songs with a band, so we’ll be rocking,” she says. “We’ll hit all the points.”

Sonoma County Library