“Do you know Ry Cooder was 23 when he did that first album? Twenty-fucking-three?”
Steven Leibman is seated across the table in the dimly lit dining room of the Daily Planet in Burlington. His buddy, Brett Hughes, is seated next to him. The local country-music stalwart is all charming smiles, clad in stylish Ray- Bans and a green-and-white trucker cap. But Leibman isn’t looking at Hughes. He asks his question to the air, marveling at how someone so young could possess Cooder’s uncanny brilliance on the electric guitar.
It’s natural for Leibman to have age on his mind. The 63-year-old just completed his first album, I Know They’re There, after decades of writing and false starts.
With his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, wire-rim glasses, and glass of club soda, Leibman could be the poster boy for every artist who took a day job to pay the bills and start a family — and then struggled to get back to his art. Though most folks never make a late-period album — or finish that novel — with the release of I Know They’re There, Leibman has chased down his dream and made it real.
As for the timing, he pauses before answering. “It was now or never,” Leibman says, with a dark chuckle, his eyes sparkling. “I could fucking drop dead at any moment.”
He’s only sort-of joking. In December 2008, Leibman went under the knife for what he calls “unexpected” quadruple-bypass surgery.
Just a few months earlier, he had embarked on a new search to find the right partner to help him make his first album. Leibman has a decades-long history of recording demos and one-off songs in studios from Los Angeles to Montréal. But never an entire album. In his mind, he’s never been able to find the right musical collaborator.
As recently as 2007, Leibman worked with a team at Montréal’s Hotel2Tango studio to record a one-song “test” of his song “I Know They’re There,” with the intention of working on an LP. Though he says the experience was “wonderful,” it didn’t continue past the one song. The reason?
“Creative differences,” he says.
Enter Brett Hughes, recommended to Leibman by mutual friend and Swale keyboardist/singer Amanda Gustafson. Hughes had, in late 2008, just come off recording sessions for Surprise Me Mr. Davis, the constantly touring rock quartet built around the songwriting talents of Virginian Nathan Moore and Brad Barr of Montréal. After Leibman heard that band’s demos — plus Hughes’ recordings of his own trio, Monoprix, and his composing and arranging work for television — it was clear he had found his man.
But something deeper bonded the two musicians.
“It was a remarkably spiritual experience that we met,” says Leibman. “Right off with Brett, our sensibilities, the lexicon, the metaphors, the movie references, the literature references ... We were in sync right away. It was just heaven.”
After working for more than a year to recover from his surgery and some post-op vocal injuries, Leibman holed up with Hughes in his barn-apartment-cum-studio, Mercurial Arts + Sciences. There they labored on and off for nearly 17 months to craft Leibman’s personal masterpiece.
The songwriter readily admits that the dozen tunes on I Know They’re There are fashioned after Randy Newman’s classic 1970 album, 12 Songs. Like Newman, Leibman uses first-person, character-driven narratives and a variety of musical styles that always serve the album as a whole.
As Hughes munches calamari and sips a pint of the Shed’s Mountain Ale, Leibman explains that the Newman reference is in line with a few basic principles the two agreed upon at the project’s outset: This album had to be about the songs. And those songs had to serve the greater narrative and flow of the album. And, within each song, the vocals had to be mixed up front.
“We were referencing music from all different eras,” Hughes explains. “But what we kept going back to [was] ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter things, especially Dylan records, where the vocal is right up there.”
“After all,” Hughes lays out in his slight Kansas drawl with a smile, “The vocal is the song.”
And it shows. Throughout I Know They’re There, Leibman’s — the narrator’s — voice is high in the mix, leading the listener through tales of lust, nostalgia, lost love, broken people — tales of sketchy characters and sometimes sketchier situations. His vocals are clear and powerful, with a soulful vibrato on the long notes and a slightly weathered, honest feel. It’s a voice on par with that of early Newman, or Warren Zevon, and recalls the yearning and depth of Springsteen’s epic albums from the 1970s.
And then there are the arrangements.
Leibman and Hughes surrounded the vocals with an absolute musical dream team — and a deep bench. For fans of the Burlington music scene, reading the liner notes while listening to the album can elicit a constant stream of “oohs” and “aahs.” Veterans such as bassist Rob Morse, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski and electric guitarist Mark Spencer form the backbone of several tracks. Brett Lanier lends soul to a few tunes on pedal steel. That’s Marie Claire playing the harpsichord. And who knew Tyler Bolles plays bassoon? (Seriously.) Then there are string players, including violinist Jane Bearden, violist Paul Reynolds and cellist Michael Hakim. And when Johnnie Day Durand’s singing saw shows up in the same arrangement as the strings, one can’t help but wonder who put this whole thing together.
I Know They’re There is constantly mystifying like that. And yet there are no moments of novelty. All that talent adds heart and soul to each song — only where it’s needed. The string section, French horn, tuba, vibraphone, toy piano — even the old Edison cylinder recording of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso — all serve Leibman’s songs in a way that few producers could pull off. It’s the most quietly ambitious production ever recorded by two middle-aged dudes in a small, makeshift studio in Burlington. Better late than never.
I Know They’re There, by Steven Leibman, is available now on iTunes, Amazon.com, Spotify and through stevenleibman.com.