Text by Maggie Lange
Images by Nick Joseph
“If I had to make music, it was by myself,” Natalie Hanna Mendoza tells me, readjusting herself on her seal-grey couch. The Los Angeles born and raised singer—who sings everything from jazz standards to Spanish folk to vocals on Lord Huron’s new album—had been performing live four nights a week or more before early 2020. She missed it sorely, so in January 2021, she recorded a music video singing the Spanish standard “Ay Cosita Linda” that’s an impeccable documentation of the creative limits of making music during the pandemic. As she sings, Mendoza hustles around her apartment, harmonizing with herself, whistling, scurrying to add instrumentation, lifting her cats into the frame, trying on ritzy cocktail dresses before settling into sweatpants. “There’s a little longing for what was,” she says, but smiles because mourning ended up sparking something so joyful and boisterous.
Mendoza is perched in front of a pewter art deco lamp. Everything around her is in shades of silver. She wears expert eyeliner and a chic, cheetah-print headband—if she hadn’t told me that she’d just returned from a run, I’d guess she is nightclub ready. The cat that starred in her cover of “Ay Cosita Linda” is eluding us.
The L.A. music scene encompasses so much. And it’s just like a gold mine. Everything’s right there.Natalie Hanna Mendoza
That song, Mendoza says, was one of her earliest favorites. Mendoza knows it best from a Nat King Cole album, Cole Español. “My grandfather on my mom’s side, he’s from Mexico, he used to play this album all the time. I was small, in the back of the car, and asking for this song again and again. That song has been in me for a long time,” she says. “King is not a native Spanish speaker, and you can tell, because his accent is so bad, but it’s beautiful.” Mendoza, whose mother is from Mexico and whose paternal grandfather was from Bolivia, grew up with Spanish all around her, but didn’t speak it at all. While she needs translations for the meaning behind the lyrics, she prefers the language for singing. “Sometimes it flows easier, the way the language is laid out,” she says.
More recently, Mendoza has been able to perform at Shutters on the Beach and Hotel Casa del Mar, accompanied by a guitar, piano, or a trio. But during the height of the pandemic, performances were nonexistent. Yearning, classically, is rich creative fodder, and so it was with Mendoza. She recorded a short video “Goodnight L.A.” in January 2021 with cinematographer friend Brian Smight in which she visits L.A. venues and clubs she performed at: Cicada Club, Chateau Marmont, Clifton’s Cafeteria.
Passing all her old haunts, during quarantine, felt truly haunting to the chanteuse who had been part of the party there for her entire adult life. “It was eerily quiet. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was when we went. It was quiet enough to film,” she says, still amazed, “and empty enough for me to run across the street in downtown L.A.” Mendoza had planned on singing “My Foolish Heart” over the footage but decided to just speak the lyrics. “I think the absence of music and melody was more poignant.”
It was actually at Clifton’s, years ago, that Mendoza was discovered by Lord Huron’s drummer. Mendoza had been singing 1940s-style harmonies. For its 2021 album Long Lost, the band asked her if she could recreate that effect— not necessarily the swing style, but the lush, close harmonies. In their song “Drops in the Lake,” you can hear Mendoza singing so high—“in the stratosphere,” she says—that it eerily shatters the whole song.
If I had to make music, it was by myself.Natalie Hanna Mendoza
This cross-pollination between genres of music is one of Mendoza’s favorite parts of the L.A. music scene; she had been singing in a swing band and a neo-folk drummer plucked her for their new album. “You seemingly can see every genre in L.A.,” she says. “You can go out and see a vintage swing band, you can see a funk band, you can see country. The L.A. music scene encompasses so much. And it’s just like a gold mine. Everything’s right there.”