Interview: Lori Lieberman Returns To “Killing Me Softly” 50 Years Later

Interview: Lori Lieberman Returns To “Killing Me Softly” 50 Years Later

Written by John Seetoo

In 1972, Lori Lieberman’s self-titled debut album was released on Capitol Records. It contained a song co-written with Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel called “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which was based on Lori’s reaction to seeing Don McLean in concert. The song garnered some acclaim and later skyrocketed to Number 1 on the Billboard singles charts when Roberta Flack covered it in 1973. The Fugees would later perform their own interpretation of the song in 1997, winning a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group.

In the mid-2000s, Gimbel attempted to launch a campaign to erase Lieberman’s contribution to the song, despite capitalizing on her inspired lyrics in its creation and encouraging the story of the song’s genesis for three decades. Gimbel even threatened a lawsuit against McLean to try to force the composer of “American Pie” to recant. Not only did McLean refuse, but he reasserted his support for Lieberman, and Roberta Flack also joined in Lieberman’s defense.

In the meantime, Lori Lieberman has continued to write, record and perform, with a number of other releases since her return to releasing music in the mid-1990s. Her latest album, Truly, is a mix of Lieberman originals with jazz standards that has caught the attention of the audiophile community, who have been wowed by the impressive performances and pristine recording quality, courtesy of the renowned Bob Clearmountain. (See my review elsewhere in this issue.)

Lori Lieberman graciously took some time for the following interview.

John Seetoo: Don McLean has befriended you and taken your side in the struggle over the narrative origins of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Best known for his hits like “American Pie” and “Vincent,” you have stated in other interviews that McLean’s comparatively obscure “Empty Chairs” is what prompted your initial inspiration for “Killing Me Softly.” What was it about “Empty Chairs” and seening McLean do it in concert that you found so captivating? Did any other McLean songs perhaps inspire other songs of yours?

Lori Lieberman: While I’ve sung “Killing Me Softly” over a million times I guess, whenever I do, I am transported back to the girl I was at age 20, when my girlfriend coaxed me out of my apartment to see a singer I’d never heard of. I was going through one of my many break-ups and was feeling blue to start with. Don McLean was “a young boy” who was onstage, solo, and sang many of his wonderful, heartfelt songs. But when he sang “Empty Chairs,” I honestly felt that he was singing straight to me. I felt like he was up there reading my diary, and singing about me and my life. I remember feeling embarrassed and exposed, as though people would somehow notice. The song talked about love that got lost and coming home to an empty house, and that really resonated with me in a painfully honest way. When he left the stage and the audience filtered out, I stayed in my chair, and wrote a poem about my experience on a napkin. The other songs of his from that evening that I responded to were less-popular ones: “If We Try” and “Castles in the Air,” but truthfully, after he sang “Empty Chairs,” I don’t remember remembering much else!


Roberta Flack and Lori Lieberman. Courtesy of Barbara Bordnick.

Roberta Flack and Lori Lieberman. Courtesy of Barbara Bordnick.


JS: You have recorded quite a few cover songs in your releases, such as Paul Simon’s “Song For the Asking,” the Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” and others. As you are a songwriter and would understandably try to get your original material onto your records as much as possible, what prompts you to record a cover song? Which songs have you long wanted to, but not yet recorded, and why not?

LL: I really have a great amount of admiration and respect for other songwriters who can put into words a phrase or a melody that escapes me. When I recorded Paul Simon’s “Another Galaxy” for instance, it was the line, “There is a moment, a chip in time, when leaving home is the lesser crime,” I mean, come on! I recall being in my kitchen, making sandwiches for my kids, when that line grabbed me. And I thought, “I have felt this. And I can’t do better. I have to record this, in my way.” And of course “Mining Disaster” gave me an opportunity to write a string arrangement and give it a different spin altogether. Jackson Browne’s “Alive in the World” is a song that talks about living life out loud, away from the shadows. I’ve always believed that if I am going to do a cover, it needs to be very different from the original, or there isn’t a point to it really. There are so many songs I would love to record. Right now, I’m working on arrangements for a song originally sung by We Five, a more obscure Elton John song, one by Cat Stevens, and a lot more, swirling around my head!

JS: You recorded “It Might As Well Be Spring (C’est le Printemps)” in French. Do you have a substantial following in France or Switzerland, where you lived for a number of years? Are you fluent in French and/or other languages sufficiently to perform and write in them?

LL: At the risk of name-dropping, I would love to tell you the story behind “C’est le Printemps.” Back in 1974, I was doing my fourth album for Capitol at A&M’s studio, engineered by Henry Lewy. I was going to be doing vocals, and the drummer, John Guerin, asked if his “old lady” could come to hear. I of course said yes, and as I was singing, I looked into the booth, and there sat Joni Mitchell. I had been, and still am, a huge admirer of hers, and I nearly blew the whole session out of nerves. But afterwards, I joined them and we went to the Baked Potato, a famous Jazz club in L.A., and saw Blossom Dearie, who sang this song in French. As I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and speak French, I decided to record “C’est le Printemps” on my newest album. I do have a really nice following in France and Switzerland, but also I do a lot of work in The Netherlands. And, oh yes, to answer your last question- I do speak French and Spanish pretty fluently, and yes, I do enjoy performing in those languages as well.


JS: As both Roberta Flack and Don McLean have publicly supported you over the debate on the origins of “Killing Me Softly,” the topic has become reminiscent of the Margaret and Walter Keane art fraud battle depicted in the biopic film Big Eyes. (Walter Keane, portrayed by Christoph Waltz, amassed great wealth from a collection of paintings and reproductions which he claimed to have created, when they were actually proven in court to be the work of his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams). Gimbel’s attempt to rewrite history began in the mid 2000s, but you already had successfully continued to perform and record through the 1970s and then after your 15-year break, had resumed in the 1990s.

Has publicity over the issue hurt your career or has the championing you have received from Flack and McLean bolstered it?

LL: The story behind “Killing Me Softly” and its genesis is the subject of some controversy, and it has indeed been complicated. My poem came out of seeing Don McLean, the lyric was a collaboration, and those facts were written about and corroborated over the years, in print, television appearances, and quotes. It means so much to me to have my participation validated by Don and by the luminous Roberta Flack, who I had the joy of meeting two years ago when I was performing at Carnegie Hall. There has been a lot of closure for me around that song, as it now states that it was written “in collaboration with Lori Lieberman.”

JS: You have also re-recorded “Killing Me Softly” both in 2010 and on your latest release, Truly. From a creative perspective, how do your various renditions compare in terms of your choice of arrangements, instruments, vocal approach, and other production aspects? Were you satisfied at the time with each version’s final mix or is there an elusive sound in your head that you are still pursuing? I read in American Songwriter that you had also re-orchestrated a version of the song to link to McLean’s “Empty Chairs” as well.


LL: As I grow as an artist, the song has grown with me. To record it and re-do it is kind of a statement for me. It is important to claim its origins, and to remember that if my girlfriend, Michele Willens, hadn’t suggested I come to that concert, the song would never have been written. In essence, she is the story behind the story! I have written different arrangements for it, one, [for] just a guitar, and one with a string quartet. On my album, The Girl and the Cat, I recorded “Empty Chairs,” and when I perform it, I link it to “Killing me Softly.” On my latest version, it begins with a long piano intro and is probably the most candid and honest version of mine to date.

JS: Although you are best known for “Killing Me Softly,” you have amassed a sizable catalog of other self-penned songs. If you were to list the top three songs you have written that you would like yourself to be remembered for, which would they be, and why?

LL: I know on my epitaph it will say, “Best known for “Killing me Softly,” but I hope I will also be known for writing songs that have moved my listeners: “Like Blue,” “Hallie,” [and] “Takes Courage.” “Like Blue” talks about leaving behind things not meant for me, and making sure the people in my life know they are loved. “Takes Courage” is about the everyday hero who gets up and faces the world with adversity and strength. “Hallie” is about an abusive childhood and a sister left behind. These are some of the songs that my listeners have written to me about, some who are teachers and have taught their classrooms about the meanings behind the songs, and some who claim the songs have given them something to lean on. And to me, that makes it all worthwhile.


JS: You have arranged your music to record with orchestras and some of your more recent work has elements of jazz, perhaps from your past citing of Joni Mitchell as an influence. As you have also mentioned the Jefferson Airplane as an influence, in which songs of yours, past, present or future, might those rock elements appear in your music? Have you ever written or recorded material in other genres, even if never released?

LL: I’ve written a lot of songs in different genres – there is a song of mine called “Letter of Explanation” that focuses largely on the electric guitar and to me, is a nod to some of the early rock songs of my past. “Bricks against the Glass,” the title cut from my album of the same name, is more of a country style, with banjo in a kind of Mumford & Sons feel. And “Mr. and Mrs. Make-Believe” is an all-out country-style song that I modeled after Tammy Wynette and George Jones. There are a lot of others as well!

J.S.: Truly was both engineered and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, who also mixed The Girl and The Cat. Perhaps the closest artist in his discography to what you do as a singer-songwriter is Lucinda Williams, who nevertheless has a much different sound than you. What led you to choose Clearmountain to work on your records, since he usually works with rock bands like the Rolling Stones or Bon Jovi?

LL: Bob Clearmountain is not only one of the most talented engineers and mixers, but also one of the kindest and most generous of people I’ve ever been blessed to meet. He works with all kinds of artists, including Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Johnny Hallyday, and this is our third album together. I appreciate his sensitivity and incredible sense of dynamics, and his humility is something rare.

JS: Both Truly and The Girl and The Cat were also mixed for Sony Atmos release, something that caters more to the audiophile market than the casual listening market and average music buyer. Are you also an audiophile, and if so, what equipment do you use for your own music listening?

LL: My husband, Joseph Cali, first introduced me to the audiophile world, and I’ve never gone back. Luckily, he is a Gryphon dealer, so I am spoiled rotten with what is available in our living room, which is a complete Gryphon reference system: Trident II speakers, Apex amplifier, Commander preamplifier with Legato phono preamp – and a Bergmann air bearing turntable with an Odin air bearing linear tracking arm, topped off with a Koetsu Jade Platinum cartridge. I also wanted to mention that I’m incredibly appreciative of Darcy Proper, who mastered my music for Stereo Vinyl and Atmos.

JS: How do you feel about your burgeoning audiophile audience, and your name being mentioned in the same circles as heralded jazz singers like Anne Bisson, Lyn Stanley, Amanda McBroom and others?

LL: I so appreciate the audiophile audience, who listen with such keen and discriminating ears, and who have embraced my music worldwide. And I’m thrilled to be among the talented artists you mention!

JS: What other plans do you have for the future?

LL: I’m presently working on another album at Bob Clearmountain’s Apogee Studio, where Truly was recorded, and a tour throughout the US and Europe, and hopefully Asia.

It’s really what I love to do, and I hope to keep the conversation going!


Header image courtesy of Claire Cali.

Back to Copper home page