On a weeknight evening at the Blue Note Cafe, perhaps a dozen people chatter over pastries and coffee. The majority of them appear oblivious to Steven Ray Liedlich, a nondescript young man clad in a T-shirt and jeans who's sitting on a chair tucked into a niche near the front counter. But the handful who bother to look away from their croissants and bear claws for a moment are soon transfixed by the sight of Liedlich curled over his guitar like a fetus clutching its umbilical cord. He holds the instrument, which stands upright between his knees, as would a cellist, but rather than strumming or bowing its strings, he rhythmically taps and hammers at them, transforming his simple acoustic into a wooden orchestra. Against the backdrop of these unexpectedly ornate and complex sounds, Liedlich croons, in his bottomless baritone, "She don't pose nude/She don't pose naked/She's got a perfect body/Temple sacred/She's on TV/Wearing leather tights/ Pushing the cause for animal rights."
The comic contradictions inherent in the song (appropriately entitled "Supermodel for a Better Humanity") provide a peephole into the psyche of young Liedlich, who's among the freshest, most intriguing singer-songwriters to pop up on the Denver-Boulder folk scene in recent memory. Equally influenced by classical masters and Frank Zappa, he weaves together technical innovations and lyrical irony into a wholly new pattern. He remains a rather shy and insular performer; he's not yet found a physical corollary for his music. But the unique heft of his approach to composing and playing is such that reservations tend to fall by the wayside. It's easy to assume that he's employing gimmickry, but he's not. He's employing talent.
Liedlich hails from Southbury, Connecticut, a relatively small, rural setting until IBM set up shopkeeping there and turned it into a thriving metropolis. His parents are both attorneys who specialize in probate law and minor criminal matters. However, they love classical music and played it often around the house while Liedlich was growing up. It was only natural, then, that Steven should begin taking music lessons while still in elementary school. His instrument of choice was the trombone, and he grew so adept at it that he eventually enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. His experiences there were decidedly mixed. "It really wasn't a conservatory atmosphere," he says. "It was a little more open than that. But it was kind of a rock-and-roll high school, which I think was a serious drawback. A lot of metalheads go through there thinking they'll be on a world tour by the next year."
Not that Liedlich was a snob about popular music during his time at Berklee. Among his biggest projects there was a big-band piece given its debut by a combo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he describes the number as "kind of funky, like James Brown or Tower of Power for a big band." He also exercised the chops he learned in various courses in classical composing by penning "a twelve-tone serial version of 'The Girl From Ipanema.'"
Despite the cheekiness of these projects, Liedlich managed to graduate from Berklee, after which he marched boldly into unemployment. He moved back in with his parents, but he didn't let his time go entirely to waste. "My brother had a guitar he never played, so I started playing it every day," he recounts. "I'd wake up in the morning and I'd start drinking beer and I'd play. The first time I tuned it, I tuned it sort of like a cello--in fifths--and I held it like a cello, too. And one thing led to another, and I just started writing songs like that." He adds, "I eventually had to buy my own guitar, because whenever my brother picked up his guitar, he'd be pissed off because the tuning was totally out of whack."
Because Liedlich saw his excursions into tunesmithing as being "just for fun," he tended toward lyrics meant to capture that same spirit. "They all kind of have a sense of humor," he allows. "If the music itself stands on its own, then I think it's fine to put humorous words over the top. Look at Zappa--lyrically, he's saying some really funny shit, but the music going on underneath it is some really serious composition.
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"A lot of singer-songwriters are poets with guitars in their hands," he goes on, "but I'm really not a poet at all. My lyrics are kind of stupid. When I'm writing a song, the melodies and the chords and the harmonies come a lot easier than the words do. So sometimes, instead of writing the words myself, I'll put poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson or Edgar Allan Poe to music. And I have a friend in New Orleans, Scott Jordan, who's a poet, and I've put a couple of his poems to music, too."
Before long, Liedlich was splitting his time between penning his own ditties and licensing the immortal ones written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, whose New York City-based concert library put an end to his months of job-searching by hiring him. According to Liedlich, Rodgers was dead-set against the use of his masterworks for advertising purposes and insisted in his will that acts wishing to perform them do so precisely as written, with no alterations. But after Rodgers's death, his heirs chose to interpret this demand very liberally. "Money talks," Liedlich says. "They'll sell off his music for commercials now." As a tribute to this period in his past, Liedlich includes an elaborately modified cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut "My Favorite Things" in his sets. At the Blue Note, he dedicated it to Rodgers "in his honor and in his disgrace."
In early 1995 Liedlich left the library and moved to Portland, Maine, simply because he'd always wanted to live there. But the depressed nature of the New England economy made it difficult to make ends meet. Casting around for other possibilities, he landed a summer position with the Colorado Music Festival--and when that ran its course, he decided to stay in the area. Last month he joined the staff of the Boulder Philharmonic, and he says he's interested in pursuing work in arts management; in fact, he's been accepted to study just that at Boston University. But he's putting off a return to college for now in order to keep plugging away on Colorado's open-stage and coffeehouse circuit. He's been performing locally since last September, and the experience has definitely thickened his skin. "There's one coffeehouse I play in Denver, and a lot of times there's nobody there," he relates. "It's just me and the coffee girl. So when that happens, we just go outside and smoke cigarettes." Has this situation led to a blooming romance? "Not yet," he answers, laughing. "Although it's not like I haven't tried."
Fortunately, even the shows nobody sees allow Liedlich to sharpen his already formidable technique--and a recent meeting with guitarist Michael Hedges (among the few players whose guitar methodology is in any way comparable to Liedlich's) has inspired him anew. He's produced a tape featuring two self-penned tracks ("Faith" and the aforementioned "Supermodel") and another pair ("The Rain in Oregon," "Spanish Influenza") he put together with lyricist Jordan--and while the production values are modest, the cassette still serves as an impressive introduction to his percussive, overtone-rich guitar gymnastics and pithy worldview. Liedlich is hoping to parlay the demo into a full-length CD project and the opportunity to headline actual concerts rather than merely provide a soundtrack for someone's dessert. "At this point, I don't really expect to be paid for playing music," he says. "But it would be nice to find out what it's like.