This Local Music Maestro Has Worked With Leonard Cohen, Whitney Houston, and Bette Midler
You may not recognize his name or his face, but John Lissauer — and his Westchester estate — have some serious music industry chops.
Photos by Kenneth Gabrielsen
“At 19 and still in school, he started his career arranging for Al Jarreau, whom he had discovered playing at a little club in San Francisco. ”
It’s no secret that the bucolic Hudson Valley is a mecca for creative professionals of all types, including quietly successful musicians who create the melodies you hear on everything from CDs and films to commercials and cartoons. You may not know their names, but you certainly know their work. Somers resident and accomplished musician/composer/arranger/producer John Lissauer is one such prolific professional.
You may recognize this low-key lanky guy with the slicked-back gray hair from gigs playing the piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, or bassoon at the Croton and Katonah libraries, on stage at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill, with the Yonkers Philharmonic, or in the Somers High School pit — his son is an alum. But he’s best known among music aficionados for producing albums for Leonard Cohen (especially Various Positions, on which “Hallelujah,” one of the most recorded songs in American pop music history, first appears) and has also worked with artists like Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, and Luther Vandross. He has composed, arranged, and/or produced music for about 30 films (Seven, That Thing You Do, two Pokémon movies); 25 record albums; 1,000 or so radio and TV commercials (his work for Polaroid with James Garner won a coveted “Campaign of the Decade” CLIO award); and the hugely successful Pokémon animated TV series.
He is perhaps best known for producing and arranging Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and he continues to produce, write, and perform.
It’s a gray and drizzly day when I pull up to Lissauer’s historic estate. While it feels as if I’m in the middle of the country as I drive through the black wrought iron gates, I’m actually just off a major road a few minutes away from Route 684. The rustic compound, including a restored old farmhouse and outbuildings, reminds me of the arts camps of my youth as I carefully pick my way up wooden stairs slick with fallen wet leaves into the smaller of Lissauer’s two recording studios. There’s a cozy, cabin-like feel to the space. Clad in a black button-down shirt, khaki pants, and hiking boots, Lissauer regales me with stories of his coming up in the music world as we chat about his career, home, and local life.
Lissauer grew up in a musical family in the then-rural town of Hauppauge, Long Island. He fell in love with the family record player as a toddler and started playing the clarinet at nine. By the time he was 11, he had become so accomplished on the clarinet and sax that his local teachers recommended that he study at Juilliard with the legendary teacher Joe Allard, who would become an essential figure in his life. Lissauer recalls seeing jazz luminaries like Benny Goodman walking out of their lessons with Allard while he was sitting in his waiting room. Lissauer would continue to study with Allard until he finished college at Yale, where he majored in music composition and piano and graduated with honors in 1971.
But the whole time he was at Yale, “I was coming into New York and doing records. I had a double life; I was in the studio scene.” At 19 and still in school, he started his career arranging for Al Jarreau, who he had discovered playing at a little club in San Francisco. While they recorded some songs together in New York, a record deal proved elusive. “It was 1969 and the black record labels weren’t ready for him,” he recalls. “He was sort of out of sync with the times.” Jarreau would, of course, go on to have a huge career and win seven Grammy awards.
While Lissauer taught at Yale for a year after graduating, he “put the classical world behind me in a hurry” and became a session piano player. “They wanted hip young guys,” he recalls, “and so I started writing arrangements for different artists and composed and wrote pop songs and became a sort of pop, rock, R&B jazz guy.” His style of piano playing, which he describes as simple and rhythmic, “was perfectly suited to recording, and I became a bit successful.”
By 1984, he was working on his third album with Columbia Records artist Leonard Cohen. Lissauer and Cohen thought Various Positions was his strongest record to date, containing the iconic recording “Hallelujah” and a few more soon-to-be classics. The new head of Columbia Records thought otherwise, and refused to release the recordings. “Devastated and dismayed, I stopped making records and started writing music for films and TV,” says Lissauer. “And the album came out a year later and no one told me.”
Lissauer in one of his home's two recording studios.
Indeed, continues Lissauer, it wasn’t until 2001 and the movie Shrek — which featured a popular version of “Hallelujah” — came out that he even realized the album had been released. The animated feature film created a renewed interest in “Hallelujah,” which has been performed by scores of artists, including Jeff Buckley, John Cale, and Rufus Wainwright, with more than 500 known versions. When Cohen died in 2016, the secular hymn experienced another such resurgence and for the first time ever appeared on several international singles charts and entered the American Billboard “Hot 100” list.
Back in 1977, Lissauer, then living in a loft in Manhattan, decided he wanted a place in the country. So he and his first wife, Erin Dickins, a lead singer in Manhattan Transfer, drove an hour north and asked a real estate agent to show them some “funky places.” His current home was the first place they saw. At the time, it had been unlived in for 12 years and the property was totally overgrown and the house uninsulated. “There was no interest and they were almost ready to bulldoze it,” recalls Lissauer.
The couple returned to the area to look around another time and stumbled upon the house. They started spending weekends there. When the elderly owner came by and found Lissauer rebuilding a stone wall and learned that he had taken care of some valuable old books she had left behind by wrapping them in plastic, she made a deal for him to buy it at a greatly reduced price, after extracting a promise that he’d save all the old buildings. “Room by room over the years, we salvaged it and got original stuff and insulated the ratty old farmhouse,” says Lissauer. “Everything now is as beautiful as can be, but it wasn’t always like that.”
Lissauer's stunning estate in Somers, where he lives with his wife, Lilian, dates back to the mid-18th century.
A few months before moving in, Lissauer learned that the old farm had some serious music industry cred — famed Broadway composer Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon) summered there from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. In fact, once he moved in, Lissauer found framed New Yorker cartoons of My Fair Lady and chairs that had the composer’s name on them.
The first spring he lived there, Lissauer recalls, “two aging hippies came walking up the driveway. The woman said she used to party here with ‘Fritz’ [Loewe] when she was a teenager. The wives would be away in the Hamptons.”
Today, in addition to two electronic production music studios totaling 1,000 square feet — they were originally barns — the estate features a Colonial-style, 11-room, 3,000 sq ft farmhouse with a long front porch. Dating back to the mid-18th century, it has 13-inch oak plank floors, beamed ceilings, a wood-paneled library, and a stained-glass window; the kitchen was originally a one-room schoolhouse, tacked onto the house by the original farm family.
Composer Frederick Loewe (left), with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner owned what would become Lissauer's property in the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. Photo by Yousef Karsh.
The 35-acre property, described as “pretty idyllic” by Lissauer, is home to bobcats, foxes, coyotes, deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, and rabbits and features a mile of trails, a Victorian greenhouse, several flower beds, and a massive vegetable garden dating back to the 1800s and surrounded by an antique iron fence.
Lissauer lives here with his wife, Lilian — they married in 1984 and have a son, Greg, a musician and DJ who lives outside of Philadelphia — and their mixed-breed dog, Taylor. He and his wife handle most of the gardening. Lilian cares for the vegetable garden, growing squashes, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers, as well as being responsible for the vegetable preservation, canning, and freezing that comes with the harvest.
“It’s perfect for me, because this really is rural and yet everything is here,” he says. “There’s so much talent within an hour of me. It’s like being in the city, but with fields and streams.”
The Broadway production of My Fair Lady; a New Yorker cartoon that Lissauer found in the home.
Not surprisingly, Lissauer is active in the local cultural scene, playing or listening to music at the Towne Crier Café in Beacon; The Falcon in Marlboro; Tarrytown Music Hall; and Bean Runner Café, The Hudson Room, and the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater all in Peekskill. He also likes attending performances at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College — he calls it the most acoustically superb listening room around.
What’s up with the busy musician lately? He recently finished writing the music for Thre3Bound, a romantic comedy film due out in fall 2019; arranging and producing an album for Mary Fahl, former lead singer for October Project; and writing music with Fahl for an Anne Rice audiobook. He is also writing the music for a documentary on Black Panther, Huey Newton. “I’m involved with everything in music,” he says. “All I do is answer the phone and say, ‘Yes’ and ‘That would be fun,’ and it’s always different and fun.”