Joanie Mendenhall
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Joanie Mendenhall


Band Pop Singer/Songwriter


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"San Diego Union Tribune - Arts feature"

Pianist Joanie Mendenhall found her key to songwriting was her guitar
By George Varga

April 27, 2008

Ignorance isn't bliss for Joanie Mendenhall, a classically trained pianist who started her formal studies when she was 4 and now instructs 35 piano students of her own each week. But when it comes to songwriting, this gifted Oceanside native has discovered that her lack of knowledge - or at least of advanced musical technique - can sometimes be liberating. That is why she has composed all but two of her 100 or so songs on guitar, not piano.

"For me, when I first started writing, piano was a really specific activity I did. It was a lot easier for me to get into a songwriting mindset using guitar," said Mendenhall, 29, who is largely self-taught on guitar.

"I started playing guitar at 14 and I wasn't very good at the time; I was just picking out chords by ear. Being disoriented on the instrument helped me be creative with it in a way I couldn't be on piano. On piano, the notes can seem too literal and my ideas get too specific and lock me into a certain melody. On guitar, I can keep things simple, which allows the arrangements and parts for other instruments to be fleshed out in really interesting ways."

Just how interesting is demonstrated by the inviting songs on Mendenhall's upcoming second album, "On a String." It features brassy pop ("Total Wreck"), jazzy torch songs "Nocturne," "Good Time Jo"), noir-ish ballads ("Baby Teeth"), bluesy laments ("Some Pride," "That Old Blackbird") and the shimmering title track, which features a brief typewriter solo (manual, not electric).

Due out this summer on her own Good Tonic Records label, "On a String" is a winning collection of 10 songs that strike a balance between rootsy charm and finely honed craft. It features such stellar area musicians as Mitch Manker on trumpet and flugelhorn, Archie Thompson on tenor sax and Ben Moore, who engineered "On a String, on organ. Moore co-produced the album with Mendenhall, guitarist-violinist Ray Suen and drummer Tyler Ward.

Suen and Ward are also members of The Exfriends, the San Diego indie band that Mendenhall has played with since its inception in 2003. The group performs tonight at the Casbah on a triple-bill with Gregory Page and Paul Curreri, the brother of Exfriends leader Matt Curreri.

By coincidence, all but one member of The Exfriends are music teachers (the exception, bassist Kevin Gossett, is a substitute teacher for the San Diego Unified School District). Their shared experiences as musicians and teachers makes Mendenhall's bandmates especially receptive to her eclectic musical approach.

"For someone like me, who is often guilty of not listening to lyrics, Joanie's arrangements and vocal melodies are just beautiful," said Suen. "She's a pretty good lyricist, too. And the first time I heard her voice, I was sold."

Now a resident of Carlsbad, where she teaches piano at Giacoletti Music, Mendenhall grew up in Encinitas. Despite her intensive keyboard studies, her melodic gifts didn't take root until she was a student at San Dieguito High School. It was also then that she was first exposed to contemporary rock.

"My mom, who is now a retired schoolteacher, grew up in South Korea, and the culture here was unfamiliar to her, so she was really trying to protect my two younger sisters and me from any bad influences," Mendenhall recalled.

"We never had a TV in the house. And well into when I was in junior high, our pop-culture intake was strictly guarded, meaning we didn't have any."

By high school, things had loosened up enough that she could listen to mainstream rock "without getting grounded." Mendenhall then became the bassist in Twice Starved, which she describes as "an all-girl raggedy pop band."

After graduating in 1996, she enrolled as an English major at Notre Dame, where she minored in music. It was while at college that she met future Exfriend Matt Curreri, although the two did not become romantically involved until 2000, when they were both living in New York. They have been a couple, on and off stage, ever since.

"When I was younger, I would just always write about my own experiences," Mendenhall said. "As I've grown older, I like to look outside of myself. With my new album, even though a lot of songs are written in the first person, a lot of them are from observed situations."

Or not.

"Maybe that's a lie," she allowed with a smile. "Maybe some of the songs are personal." - George Varga (Pop Music Critic)

"San Diego Union Tribune - Night & Day"

By day, Joanie Mendenhall is a piano teacher who spends her time helping her 35 weekly students learn "the circle of fifths and Bach." By night, she is a multifaceted singer-songwriter who does solo gigs and records and performs as a member of one of San Diego's best indie bands, The Exfriends. She's also the leader of her own group, Joanie Plus the Secretaries, and a frequent guest with Angela Correa's Correatown, with which she performed at last month's South By Southwest music marathon in Austin.

When her schedule and frequent-flyer miles allow, Mendenhall plays with noted Scandinavian doom-metal band Joanie Loves Chachi's Putrid Decaying Corpse. Actually, I made that last part up, but even without headbanging credits, she's a musician of note.

Mendenhall and the equally talented Correa perform with their respective bands Wednesday night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. They have been frequent collaborators for the past four years and each has a new solo album due out this summer. As a preview, they are releasing a joint single - on vinyl only - with Mendenhall's "Empty Your Heart on one side (with backing vocals by Correa) and Correa's "India Ink" on the other.

Both numbers attest to the skill and charm of these two urban troubadours. Mendenhall's "Empty Your Heart" is a fetching song that's anchored to a snappy drum tattoo and builds to a glorious, wordless chorus. It's what you'd hope to hear on an episode of TV's "Grey's Anatomy," instead of the smarmy, woe-is-me, self-entitlement ballads usually featured.

Mendenhall, 29, released another single this year - sans Correa - "On a String/Cakewalk," which can be heard only on her MySpace page. Classically trained, she combines pop smarts with a keen melodic sense and an inviting old-school sensibility that favors patience and quality over slick formulas and audio artifice.

"The reason this single is only on vinyl is because I can't stand listening to music on computer speakers or iPods," Mendenhall said Monday from Hollywood, where her new album was being mastered.

"Especially after spending so much time and money in studios to make the music sound really good, it's nice to have this option for people. Plus, Angela and I both like the handmade aspect of things - the artwork, the packaging and the (vinyl) object itself." - SDUT

"Other press quotes"

"A kick-ass multi-instrumentalist... an abundance of heart to accompany a remarkable voice." --SAN DIEGO CITYBEAT

"Refreshingly sophisticated lyrics... Serious songwriting chops, a rich, pitch-perfect croon." --SPLENDID MAGAZINE

"Remember this name: Joanie Mendenhall. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter might just be famous someday and you'll get to say you heard about her way back when. A few months ago, she released "Secretary Waltz" (Spinster Recordings, ****), a thoroughly charming debut that begs for repeated listens... Her lo-fi compositions are rich with texture and rife with catchy melodies. The most impressive instrument on "Secretary Waltz" is the young singer's dulcet voice, pure in pitch and beautifully earnest... Her words reveal a deep intelligence and a fierce wit. She bares her soul, but never in a gratuitously confessional manner." --SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE

"Wholly original songs... Think Aimee Mann or Rilo Kiley." --SAN LUIS OBISPO NEW TIMES

"Her wry wit and control of words in a lyrical atmosphere is akin to that of PJ Harvey and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley... Secretary Waltz is a stunning record, one that spans a dozen emotions and wraps them in Rhodes piano tremolo, faint lo-fi guitar and slow dance at the end of the night suggestions."
- misc.

"SD Troubadour - review"

In her new album, On a String, Joanie Mendenhall brings a plethora of musical influences to the table. From the power pop song structures of British Invasion groups like the Beatles and the Byrds to inventive orchestrations and arrangements reminiscent of Brian Wilson and George Martin, her new album is a cornucopia of classic touchstones, brought together in one big melodic synthesis. Because her vocals are at the forefront, their unforced pixie-like quality invites comparison to another artist with a similar sound and equally similar pop sensibilities. This could very much be mistaken for a solo album by Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles.

The opening song, "Total Wreck," starts with a Phil Spector-like intro before transforming itself into an all-out rocker, propelled by electric guitars and horns. Next up is the ethereal "Cakewalk." With an upright bass as its foundation, it has a trippy-folky feel that calls up memories of a more psychedelic era. It's a song with a lot of space in it and makes for a nice interlude. "On a String" starts with a bouncy rhythm and sing-song melody that kind of sounds like the theme from "Sesame Street" (and I don't mean this in a bad way at all). It develops into a complex pop tour de force that goes in a number of surprising directions. The process of arranging its multi-layered instrumentation and vocals must have been a real labor of love, earning it the honor of being selected as the title track.

"Nocturne" is a more sparsely arranged song that just breathes with atmosphere. Also rooted by the upright bass, her vocal and the accompanying trumpet line seem to float over jazzy guitar chords. The shuddering string parts are the perfect finishing touch to this moody piece. Then it's back to power pop territory with "Empty Your Heart," a song with great melodic hooks and deliciously crunchy electric guitars. This is perhaps the one song on the album that sounds the most Bangle-like. On "Metal Box," Mendenhall and her cohorts show their versatility by delving into rockabilly territory, and they do so with a great deal of credibility. With its chugging melody, driving rhythm guitars, and vocal harmonies, she does a surprising Johnny Cash-like vocal, only several octaves higher.

Mendenhall boldly goes retro with "Good Time Jo," a song distinguished by vintage electric piano and mellotron flute sounds. Its leisurely pace and gentle melody are hypnotic. The electric slide guitar licks played by Ray Suen are a nice touch and reminiscent of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Closing out the album is "That Old Blackbird," a mid-tempo piano ballad with a friendly major key vibe that would make it a feel-good finale for a live show.

These are terrific songs from an artist who has undoubtedly absorbed a lot of great music. It's obvious that she lived with them for quite a while before going into the studio. Much thought went into the production of this album, and it shows. The musicians are top-notch, the sound is crystal clear and well-balanced. Most of all, the songs are smartly written. Joanie Mendenhall is a musical treasure who is surely destined for greater things. - San Diego Troubadour

"North County Times - reviews"

Opening her album with a syncopated chorus on what sounds like pump organ, Joanie Mendenhall's new CD starts off as some sort of art-rock fugue. But as the song, "Total Wreck," develops, it opens up into a vein of contemporary alternative rock with only hints of Kate Bush or Jane Siberry providing a touch of avant garde. With an instrumental lineup of horns, guitar, keyboards and rhythm section performing her intriguingly constructed compositions, the Carlsbad resident keeps one foot in the experimental camp while also exploring pop accessibility through some brilliantly pure melodies.

The arrangements play up the unusual compositional structures, with thickly layered choruses giving the album a wall of sound feel ---- sort of a Cocteau Twins vibe updated by 20 years.

It's all anchored by Mendenhall's singing ---- her high, seemingly fragile voice dancing atop the band.

---- Jim Trageser - North County Times


ON A STRING (2008)



Joanie Mendenhall has been involved in the San Diego music community for several years, creating her own unique take on pop songwriting.

Always up for a collaboration, Joanie has contributed keyboards and vocals to numerous other bands and artists, including Correatown, John Meeks, The Exfriends, and Years Around the Sun. She just returned from her third year at SXSW with Correatown.

The SD Union Tribune says Joanie's most recent album ON A STRING "combines pop smarts with a keen melodic sense and an inviting old-school sensibility that favors patience and quality over slick formulas and audio artifice."