Conventional wisdom says that no one really sings songs more effectively than the songwriters themselves. In the New York City cabaret scene, there have been many songwriters--such as Annie Dinerman, Craig Carnelia, and Tom Anderson--who can move audiences by singing their own music. In Boston's cabaret scene, however, there have been very few, if any, songwriters performing their own music in mainstream venues. But that's about to change as Boston cabaret artist and tunesmith Ernie Lijoi launches a four-month string of national and local appearances that includes a major Boston engagement at Club Café on June 8.
Lijoi has not been much of a household name in Boston, mostly because he was out of the scene for quite a while. Hailing from Dedham, a Boston suburb ("where creativity was illegal"), Lijoi fled home and studied mathematics at Southeastern Massachusetts University. During extracurricular participation in their theater program, Lijoi discovered a love for performing, and shifted gears to focus on a career in acting. As any budding actor might do, he shipped himself off to New York City, sweating it out in small productions, and staying longer than he liked in repetitive roles just to keep up his Equity health insurance policy.
After four years, Lijoi needed a change. "I wanted to get some realism for a while and get some stability. I knew I could get a job in the computer industry in Boston, because I had some friends here who would hire me. So I did that for a few years, stabilized my life, and then decided to go back into the creative side. That's when I started writing," Lijoi explains.
Over the past few years, Lijoi has been very prolific, writing dozens of songs and recording two CDs. His first recording, Romantic Parody was released in November 1998. His second recording, Bliss, released in November 1999, was voted "Album of the Year" by Billboard magazine. But he really entered the cabaret scene in 1999 when John O'Neil, in his cabaret show Songs My Father Never Sang to Me, created a sensation with Lijoi's "Chandler Street," a poignant tale of one gay man's self-made family.
Shortly thereafter, Jan Peters included Lijoi's darkly comic ultimate get-even song, "Your Will," in her show Old Fashioned, Please. O'Neil also commissioned Lijoi to write an opening number for his show Camp Songs. Following suit, several other Boston cabaret performers have commissioned new material; as a songwriter, Lijoi's star is clearly rising.
As a performer, Lijoi started out quietly, but has used his recordings and website to establish an impressive list of upcoming gigs, including opening for Sharon McKnight in a special gay event this July in Guerneville, California. One of the reasons that Lijoi has not been better known as a performer on the cabaret scene is that he has focused mostly on the folk and jazz circuit. That changed recently when he performed at Provincetown's CabaretFest! in May at Steve's Alibi, more a coffee house than a cabaret room. Lijoi spent two hours introducing a cabaret audience and some noisy regulars to his eclectic menagerie of music, and his singular improvisational wit, that combined sharp comic timing with unassuming intelligence. A rowdy room was tamed, and Lijoi had found a new audience.
When it comes to writing, Lijoi readily admits that Sondheim is his most important influence. "In college, I was an extra in [Sondheim's] Follies. I was blown away by the music, especially the lyrics. I was an instant Sondheim fan. I went out and bought every show that he had at that point," Lijoi confesses. The influence is clear, though not by imitation. Carefully placed internal rhymes and surprise line endings are some borrowed trademarks, but they are used less overtly. The melodies seem to have more in common with a folk rock tradition, with shades of The Beatles and Sting, than anything that Sondheim would have written.
Nevertheless, Lijoi's emphasis is on telling the story, and his lyrics usually focus on one or two people whose lives unfold during the course of a song, like characters in a one-act play. By the end of "Chandler Street" the audience is drawn into the singer's adopted family. In "Jack and Jill" Lijoi throws a contemporary urban twist into a romantic triangle between the singer and the two title characters. The Sondheim influence is evidenced most in the whimsical "House and Home," where one partner in a couple muses cynical on the day they move into their first home together: "A chair to read a book in if I ever sit still. A kitchen you can cook in though I know you never will. A dining room to eat in with a table to set. A guest room we can meet in and pretend we never met."
In performance, Lijoi deliberately employs an assortment of expressions, from deadpan to angelic to sly mischief, in order to extract hidden meaning in ways that only the author of these songs could. His knack for telling a story on stage is a holdover from his theater days, which included quite a bit of improvisational theater. Performing his own music offers many of the advantages of theater, without the drawbacks. "I had too many bad experiences in a row with theater, with bad directors and bad productions and difficult people. With performing music, I figure I could just do that by myself. I don't have to rely on anybody else."
Still, his first love is songwriting. "If I had to choose between the two, I'd stop performing and just write songs for people. I've always been more in awe at the people that create than the people who execute the creations. I want to be the person people look at and say, 'Wow, you made this?!'" Lijoi exclaims. Though Lijoi claims to be less impressed with execution than with creation, he reports one exception that completely altered his creative process. "Listening to John O'Neil sing 'Chandler Street,' I was knocked over. It changed my way of writing. After that, I wrote thinking how my music would sound in performance."
With that in mind, he is currently writing a rather ribald song for Carol O'Shaughnessy: an alphabetical account of numerous lovers, perfectly tailored to her brassy delivery style. If the song is finished in time for his show at the Club Café, you may get to hear Lijoi sing it himself, which may raise the outrageous bar a few more notches. If you can expect anything from Lijoi, it is the unexpected, as he introduces the singing songwriter to the burgeoning Boston cabaret scene.
Ernie Lijoi performs at the Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116, Thursday, June 8, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $12. For reservations, call 617-236-2218. For further performance information, check out his web site at www.lijoi.com/gigs.html