When singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman wrote, “he was strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words,” she was telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The venue was a club in Los Angeles, the performer was Don McLean (“American Pie”), and the song was “Empty Chairs.” To say it resonated with Lieberman would be an understatement: the words and music so moved her, she crafted her own lyrics right then and there, which would become the song “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
“I was 19 and going through one of my many breakups; Don sang ‘Empty Chairs,’ about coming home to an empty house, and I really related, I really felt he was singing about me and my life,” Lieberman says in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “I eventually showed the poem to some producers I’d been working with, and they expanded it into ‘Killing Me Softly.’
“Roberta Flack heard my version, then recorded it herself — and then her version knocked mine off the charts, just as mine was getting some notice,” Lieberman says, with a touch of irony. “Then she had a huge hit, got the Grammy, etc. But I have lousy instincts about what’s going to sell: when I first heard her version, I didn’t understand, all the ‘whoa-oh-ohs’ she added and whatnot. I said to myself, ‘Aha! It’s never going to get anywhere!”
Lieberman may not have had the smash hit version of “Killing Me Softly,” but her little song has had a life of its own and continues to follow her around pleasantly. On Saturday, September 25, she’ll bring several decades of her original music and lyrics to the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville, to kick off the 15th season of performances sponsored by Concerts at the Crossing.
Special guest Seth Glier will open the concert. Lieberman has high praise for the 21-year old singer-songwriter and pianist, who has been compared to a young Billy Joel, Elton John, and Paul McCartney. She remarks that this will be her only appearance in the eastern United States, and she’ll be headed off to the Netherlands almost immediately afterward.
Lieberman is touring to promote the re-release of her most recent album, “Gun Metal Sky,” which was re-mastered and re-packaged overseas by the Virgin label, and quite generously, according to the singer-songwriter. “Virgin spent more money than I expected, and they’ve renamed it ‘Takes Courage,’ (which) is a song from the original album that I actually didn’t want to include. But I re-listened to it, they responded to it, and now I’m so proud that they took the song and gave the title to the overall album.”
The album features Lieberman covering songs by some of her favorite writers, including Paul Simon, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, and Maurice and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. Long before they were famous for “Saturday Night Fever,” the Gibb brothers explored Americana-style songwriting, crafting “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” among other songs.
With the news of real U.S. mining disasters in mind, Lieberman gave the song a haunting and sad quality, through her original string arrangement. “The Bee Gees version was kind of bouncy, but I slowed it down and feel that it translates the essence of this song better,” she says. “The orchestration is guitar, piano, and string quartet, and this way, it has a much more dramatic feel. Also, (the dialogue in the song) is not from a man to a man, but a woman to a man. There’s a line that says, ‘don’t talk too loud, you’ll cause a landslide,’ which I felt could describe a marriage.’”
Her version of Emmylou Harris’ “My Baby Needs a Shepherd” also resonates personally and emotionally for Lieberman. “I never realized what a great songwriter she is,” Lieberman says. “I’m dealing with a 24-year-old daughter coming out of difficult times, and I think Emmylou has had some of the same issues. I felt like I had to sing this. She talks about trials between a daughter and mother, and there’s a line about ‘I pray she’ll ride a dolphin, but she’s swimming with the sharks.’ It’s hard for me to get through the song without tearing up.”
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Switzerland, Lieberman says her father was a chemical engineer and her mother was a homemaker. She notes that her father, Kenneth Lieberman, invented “cottage cheese ceilings” (“the kind everyone hates now and wants to remove,” she jokes and relocated the family in Switzerland to take his business to an international level.
“We thought we would only be there for a few years but stayed for 11 years, and, in fact, my father is still living in Switzerland,” she says. “I started to sing just out of loneliness when I was about five, and a little later, when I was about 10 or 11, the guitar became my best friend. Then it just carried on from there. I wrote my first song when I was four or five, it was probably about horses or something. Then, at age 12, it got even worse: one of my songs was about ‘my lost youth, oh where did it go,’ that kind of thing. Can you imagine?
“My biggest inspirations were Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen,” Lieberman continues. “When my older sister came home to Switzerland from college in Maine, she brought all these records, and they really resonated with me. In fact, at one time I lied to my friends about writing ‘Both Sides Now,’ but when it got so popular, I had to take it back.”
Her other early influences range from French singers Marie de la Fontaine and Sylvie Vartan, to Jefferson Airplane and Tom Rush.
Lieberman returned to the U.S. to study at Pine Manor Junior College near Boston, graduating in 1971. She had a brief Princeton connection when she dated a university student, and remembers the campus as being “just beautiful. I went on a blind date to a football game with him, and I remember it was November, and it was snowing,” Lieberman says. “Being from Switzerland, I didn’t know anything about football, and I recall that I had to keep standing up and sitting down. Finally I announced, ‘it’s my birthday!’”
She moved to Los Angeles right after graduation to pursue a recording career and got lucky very quickly, landing a record deal with Capitol Records, and releasing five albums with them. She followed up with six more albums, for RCA, Pope Music, and Drive On Records, her own label. Over the course of her career, she has performed with John Sebastian, Randy Newman, Billy Joel, John Stewart, and Leonard Cohen at such venues as Avery Fisher Hall and the Bottom Line in New York.
Lieberman is married to Joseph Cali, who now runs a home theater business, but had a lively acting career on the small and big screens. He might be best-known as playing Joey, John Travolta’s friend in “Saturday Night Fever.”
“It’s funny,” Lieberman says. “I’m known for ‘that song’ (“Killing Me Softly”) and he’s known for ‘that movie.’”
Together, the couple has a blended family of seven children, the youngest of whom is 17 and the oldest 25. “We’re a big, blended ‘Brady Bunch,’ with no Alice,” she says. “There are a couple of our kids who are around the same ages, so it was heavy at one point, including when six were in college at the same time. My guys are musical, and they’re both very tall. Dan is 22, and just graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and he’s now in New York and very interested in film. Will (21) is at the University of Indiana studying sports management: he wants to be the manager of the Lakers, and he really believes he’s going to do it. Emily is 24, and is a tattoo artist here in Los Angeles.
“They’re all cool, accomplished kids. In fact, one is going on tour with me, sort of as my ‘roadie,’” she adds. “But they just ‘tolerate’ my music. They’ll lean against the studio door and ask, ‘are you done yet?’”
Lori Lieberman and Seth Glier, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville. Saturday, September 25, 7:30 p.m. 15th season opener. Lieberman’s poem that became the song “Killing Me Softly” has a new version on her recent release, “Gun Metal Sky.” Glier has been compared to a young Billy Joel, Elton John, and Paul McCartney. His debut album, “The Trouble with People,” has been described as timeless. Lori Lieberman on the Web: www.lorilieberman.com. $23; $5 for kids 14 and under. 609-510-6278 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.