Joanie Mendenhall swears she's not afraid of the sophomore slump. She's just been really busy. And she hasn't decided what songs to include. And she hasn't found the perfect producer or studio.
These excuses might be true. Then again, maybe subconsciously the singer-songwriter is nervous about following up her self-produced 2004 debut, Secretary Waltz . The album garnered serious kudos in local rags and a San Diego Music Award nomination for Best Local Recording.
"I'm desperate to record my second album," she insists over lunch one afternoon at the house she rents in Carlsbad, not far from where she grew up. "But I haven't found the right situation."
Sitting at her dining table, barefoot and casually dressed in faded jeans and a cotton blouse, the pretty 28-year-old appears genuinely distressed. Slacking is not her style, and she wouldn't want anyone to think so.
As if proving that point, she's prepared an ambitious vegetarian meal: crackers stacked with goat cheese, apple slices and figs, two kinds of dainty crustless sandwiches and a steaming bowl of spinach in white cheddar sauce.
She's a foodie and very into cooking, a domestic pursuit her housemates undoubtedly appreciate. She lives with musicians Matt Curreri and Ray Suen. Curreri is her boyfriend of several years; she plays in his band, the Ex-Friends, and he backs her at live shows. Suen, a virtuoso fiddler, also contributes to the couple's various musical projects.
Their house, just yards from the train tracks, comes with a garage they've converted to a practice space. Noise isn't an issue-Amtrak runs through the backyard. But even if the multi-unit lot were whisper-quiet, Mendenhall's neighbors wouldn't mind. Her father rents one of the nearby houses, and the tenet of another has asked the three musicians to practice more often.
Still, the tight living situation has led to some tension. For a while, Suen offered unsolicited technical and creative criticism to Mendenhall a little too frequently. (Curreri learned long ago not to do this.)
"It made me uncomfortable to play music in my own house," admits Mendenhall, who has a sweet but feisty demeanor. "And I'm a bottler. I bottle for weeks. I have a real fear of confronting."
She eventually blew up at him before a show, and though they've since patched it up, it served as a reminder of the dangers of living and working together. It's bound to affect artistic output.
A timely muse came in the form of her friend Angela Correia, a singer-songwriter living in Los Angeles. Correia, who Mendenhall says is "hooked into Hollywood," was asked to shape some jazz standards-styled songs for a film soundtrack.
"Angela has a great voice, but she didn't have the musical chops to write jazz. So we figured out how to co-write."
Mendenhall, who took to the ivories at 3 years old, knows how to structure complex arrangements. She didn't write actual jazz for the project, but instead took some of its benchmarks and added her distinct indie-folk style. It's a vibrant mix that sways and swings with big-band panache-a younger and hipper version of Pink Martini and audacious enough to do a wistful cover of X's "Sex and Dying in High Society."
The duo's clever name sprang naturally from the music: The Low Standards.
"We should have really called ourselves The Little Big Band. But I don't want to start a jazz myth. We're not playing jazz, but we're definitely taking our cue from the standards," she says.
Not only did The Low Standards take Mendenhall to the South-by-Southwest music festival for the first time, she says it's been "a rejuvenation" for her own songwriting.
"I'm used to sitting around alone and pulling songs out of my butt. The songs I've written lately have been different. I've made it more of a dialogue with myself and have been more open to the many places a song can take me."
She clears the plates from the table and pours two big cups of coffee. In a few minutes, she'll head off to teach piano lessons at Giacoletti Music, the same place her parents sent her when she was little. They were "dead broke" but somehow came up with the funds when she wouldn't stop talking about the piano.
"I recently found an old cassette I made when I was 4," Mendenhall says. "I was playing piano and singing into the tape. I always thought of myself as shy, but I was such a showboat!"
So, that second solo album?
"I'm going to finish it soon. I promise!"
The Low Standards will play at this year's Artwalk in Little Italy at 12:30 p.m. on April 29. www.myspace.com/thelowstandards. www.joaniemen.com.