Actor Stephen Mendel Shifts Gears to Release Debut Record of Eclectic Americana/Canadiana Folk Interpretations
Stephen Mendel. Keeps. Shapeshifting.
As a lifelong storyteller, singer/actor Mendel has always been a chameleon. As a versatile character actor, who was a series regular in the award-winning, late-night CBS/CTV cop show Night Heat, Mendel has had a mercurial career. When needed, he has artfully donned beards, wigs, glasses and other disguises to portray any variety of characters from cops to bad guys, to doctors, scientists, and everymen in movies and guest starring on hit TV series like NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men, and Criminal Minds among many others.
Now, Mendel is shapeshifting into another role, as a recording artist with the release of his debut album, “Sing Me a Story,” quipping, “At one time I almost called it, ‘Sing Me a Story, Tell Me A Song,’ because I do love singing ballads and story songs. It might just as easily have been called, ‘Songs I Like to Sing.’”
While he draws his repertoire from standards, musical theater, film scores, folk, contemporary and traditional sources, his eclectic and acoustic Americana/Canadiana record tells an overarching and moving story of young and old love, of love won and lost, of empty chairs and ghosts that linger.
Arranged and produced by talented guitar legend Al Johnson, Mendel’s “Sing Me a Story” includes tasty interpretations of 14 tracks, including: traditional Celtic and classic folk/Americana; poignant tunes from legendary Canadian songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young; to powerful songs from rock icons like Bruce Springsteen and Sting; and, it even includes two classics from The Wizard of Oz.
Actually, Mendel’s debut recording adventure in the music biz is almost a “back to the future” move because he began singing when he was a kid, explaining:
“I was a boy soprano and sang in musicals at summer camp. When I was a bit older, I took guitar lessons, starting singing folk music and began to initially learn Peter, Paul and Mary, Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell songs, then moved onto Cat Stevens, James Taylor and more. At 15–16, I began singing in coffee houses. I also studied theater in college, but continued to sing in coffee houses. After graduating, I got some gigs in bars, and while I made good money, I didn’t enjoy it much. So, when acting began paying the bills, I left professional music behind for many years although I continued to play folk music and sing with friends and groups of like-minded musicians as a kind of happy hobby.”
Affable Montreal-raised Mendel, who has dual American/Canadian citizenship, says that live performing in acting and music has similarities and suggests:
“I’ve done all sorts of live performances and there is just something deeply satisfying about reaching, touching and communicating with an audience — and you can tell when you’ve connected, there’s an energy that comes back from them. I believe that performing, whether the spoken word or the song, comes from a similar place, we are just using different modalities.”
His re-entry into performing music live again began in 2008 when a friend, Bob Kroll, who runs the Fireside Concert Series in Newbury Park in California, heard Mendel at one of those friends’ music gatherings and invited him to do an evening. Mendel has now been playing that venue annually for a number of years, as well as being invited to play other acoustic venues. But each time he performed, he was invariably asked if he had a CD. That was a big impetus to record an album, and Mendel enthuses:
“My goal with this album, which was recorded at Score One Media Studios in Shadow Hills, California, was to finally have a real, high quality recording that I could offer at my concerts and use as a calling card to play more concerts. The songs were chosen from the many Al Johnson and I had performed in concert over about 10 years. The difficulty was in choosing only 14 for the album.”
Mendel gives his take on each of the cool interpretations they’ve compiled:
•That Lucky Old Sun — (by Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie)
— With a country twang and some nice slide guitar, the song is “an ode to ‘that lucky old sun rolling around heaven all day,’ while a man takes care of his wife and kids because that’s what life is all about.”
•If I Should Fall Behind — (by Bruce Springsteen)
— Bruce’s great Americana inflected love song is poignant but it was Paul Carrack’s version that reached out to Mendel, who says, “I heard it more as a meaningful love song for people who’ve been around the block, more than a few times.”
•Darcy Farrow — (by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell)
— It was beautifully first recorded in 1965 by Ian & Sylvia on Early Morning Rain and is “a tragic tale about love gained and lost. Modern folklore says that Steve Gillette was challenged by a friend to write a song that would sound like a traditional tune — he succeeded.”
•Somewhere Over The Rainbow — (by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg)
— From The Wizard of Oz, Mendel was wowed by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s soulful version of this Oscar winner for Best Original Song, saying, “I played the recording for Al and he came up with a fantastic guitar arrangement but I wanted to sing it a full tone lower, so he tuned his guitar down a tone to preserve his gorgeous arrangement.”
•Old Ties and Companions (by Mandolin Orange)
— Mendel says of this upbeat Americana folkie/bluegrass tune: “Mandolin Orange’s original has lots of mandolin solos and without them it was quite short, so I adapted and extended it. The song really speaks to me about the time we have, how we use it and how we can treasure the past without living in it.”
•If I Only Had A Brain — (by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg).
— Also from The Wizard of Oz, it’s been covered by Harry Connick Jr., and by Kiki Ebsen and Elvis Costello. Of this lovely heartfelt version, Mendel explains, “When we first started playing around with the song it was a bit jokey and I was making fun of myself. Then as I got more familiar with it, I began to feel the longing and the desire for love in it.”
•Fields of Gold — (by Sting)
— It’s a gorgeous love song by Sting that’s brought to life by Steve’s emotive vocals and Al’s lovely guitars: “I was driving along when I heard Eva Cassidy sing this song. I almost had to pull over, there were tears in my eyes. I fell in love with the song and her voice. Once again this is a love song for those of us with a few miles on the odometer.”
•Birds — (by Neil Young)
— “I heard a group do this song when I was in college. It’s been in my repertoire for many, many years although I didn’t play it often. One day I pulled it out of the cobwebs in my head and played it for Al and he said he liked it. Yet another sad love song, about loss, with Young comforting a lover he’s about to leave.”
•Ready for the Storm — (by Dougie MacClean)
— “Friends of mine have been doing Caledonia by Dougie for years and I wanted to hear his version so I looked it up on YouTube and the next song on the playlist was this one. I immediately fell in love with it. I’m drawn to songs that are about lovers who have lines in their faces because, because let’s face it, that’s me.”
•The Empty Chair — (by Sting and J. Ralph)
— “I heard Sting perform this poignant song the night he won the Academy Award for it. While it is about the tragic death of journalist James Foley, it’s also poetic, melodic and entrancing.”
•Song for a Winter’s Night — (by Gordon Lightfoot)
— “I’ve been singing this song since I first heard and played along with the record in my parent’s basement. Once again, a song about lovers who may or may not ever be together again.”
•Sweet Misery — (by Hoyt Axton)
— “Al used to play lead guitar for the great Hoyt Axton. One day Al played a recording of this song and said that he thought I could do it justice. So, we added it to the repertoire and it’s always been a crowd pleaser.”
•Ghost in This House — (by Hugh Prestwood)
— “One day I asked Al if there was a song that he really liked that he thought I might be able to sing and he played Alison Krauss’ version for me. Prestwood’s song is about a man who doesn’t even want to move on. His lost love is everywhere in their home and he keeps seeing her in the shadows and doesn’t want to let go of her memory.”
•The Parting Glass — (Celtic traditional)
— “A traditional Celtic song, that’s sung in both Ireland and Scotland, at the end of the night and also at funerals to say goodbye to friends — it’s a grand way to wrap up the record.”
The meticulously produced record took about a year to complete, according to guitarist extraordinaire Al Johnson. And, now Stephen Mendel feels the time is right to plan ahead for about 5–10 concerts in small to medium sized venues. When the time is right, audiences will be thrilled to be there.
In the meantime, Mendel has been recording a song a day and posting to his Facebook music page. Check out Stephen Mendel’s resume, his website and IMDb pages; also, drop in on his debut record, “Sing Me a Story” on YouTube, and, on streaming services like Spotify, ITunes, Apple Music, and Google Play Music.