What immediately impressed me during my recent sit down with singer/songwriter/keyboardist Kari Tieger was her beautiful speaking voice. Like her singing voice, it is lilting, rich in tone, rhythm and inflection. Strikingly operettic.
Her language is the Queens English - proper and cultured, but without the slightest suggestion of elitism. In fact, she can slip into street vernacular for effect whenever necessary. A joy to listen to.
Over tea at The Black Pear in Barrington, the East Providence resident spoke of her lifetime as a piano teacher, working musician, recording artist and lover of all things Francais.
”I’m a bilingual singer, songwriter, keyboard player, vocalist,” said Tieger.
”I remember deciding to call myself a singer/songwriter in the early ’80s, when no one was using the term at the time.”
I asked Tieger about the origins of her love for music.
”From 4 years old I fell in love with the violin. Whenever I heard it being played, it would move me to tears, so my family believed I was meant to be a violinist,” remembers Tieger. “At 8 I was taking lessons. I had a gifted teacher who was very strict and demanding. My dad, my grandmother and my uncle, who were all musicians as well, closely observed my development.”
Tieger struggled with lessons and everyone concerned concluded that she wasn’t cut out to play the violin.
That small setback, however, wasn’t the end for her as an artist, but ironically, the beginning of her lifelong journey in music.
“I was drawn to the piano. I started to play piano at around 14. My dad knew I fell in love with it, and for my 15th birthday he showed up at the house with a U Haul and a piano. It changed my life. I still own and play that very piano to this day,” Tieger said.
Tieger’s progression on the piano was evident and speedy.
“While learning the piano, I took a few lessons with a few different teachers,” said Tieger.
”At 15 I was in my first recital. We lived in Long Island at the time. I had found a wonderful teacher there. Her name was Bets von Drasek. She taught me voice as well as piano. After a couple years of study with her, when I was 17, she said, “You are ready to teach. Here’s the book you will use. Here are two students.”
By the time Tieger was in college, she was teaching, studying and gigging.
“I was offered a job on the Port Jefferson ferry playing piano and singing once a week. “It was going well until one day a gentleman came up to me and said he was a musician, and could he play a song? Being trusting and green in the business, not knowing the rules of etiquette or protection, I said yes. He was talented and tricky. Eventually he was offered the gig. I was out.”
It was Tieger’s first foray into the callous side of the music business — a business that at times can be cut-throat and unforgiving.
”When I was still in college, I went to Boston for a visit on New Year’s Day. It was there that I met my husband. He was from Rhode Island and visiting as well. Our courtship blossomed, and before too long I went back to Rhode Island with him and we’ve been here ever since,” Tieger said.
An explosion of music
Be it coincidence, precise star alignment or simply evolution, Tieger’s move to the Ocean State seemed to have unleashed a deep well of inspired art and creativity. She has, since then, written prolifically and has amassed a voluminous body of recorded works.
In total, Tieger has recorded and released 23 CD’s including appearances on nine compilations CD’s.
I asked Tieger about her drive to write and record.
“Songwriting kind of pushed its way out of me, taking on a life of its own,” said Tieger.
“I’ve been making albums since the late ’80s, and every one of them has made itself.
“I remember when I was working on my CD, ‘Touch of Magic.’ I just wanted to record a song or two. Then more and more material came. And before I knew it, I said, ‘Oh, I’m making an album.’ ”
Many local songwriters/musicians who release independent albums do not, historically, have large sales numbers. Tieger was once asked why she made albums that she knew would be very difficult to sell commercially.
”It’s not about money. I’m driven because these songs want to be recorded. And it’s always a relief when I’ve finished recording, because even if I never perform them again, they are in a form that will last forever,” said Tieger.
A love for the French
Among her works, Tieger — a self-confessed Francophile — has recorded 3 CD’s in French, ‘My Zazen,’ a bilingual introduction to meditation, En français, s'il te plaît’ and ‘Nos Mots’.
Tieger first heard the beauty of French music as a child.
”I was listening to the radio with my mom, and an Edith Piaf song started to play. My mom, who took French in high school and had a friend who spoke it, spoke some French and I asked her what the singer was saying, whats going on in the song? And Mom translated for me. I fell in love with French then and it is still today one of my passions.”
Tieger, who is not of French heritage, said the language came to her naturally and easily. She took French at 13 and studied it all through high school. It was her major in college. Music was her minor. She spent her junior year abroad in Tours, France.
”One day I visited a chateau in the village of Chenonceau. Before I even stepped in, I knew every inch of it. I told the guide where certain rooms were, which way to go. I was completely familiar with the layout, like I’d been there many times before. I don’t know if you believe in reincarnation,” said Tieger, ”but deep down I feel that I’ve lived lives as a French person.”
Years later Tieger would return to France to visit friends she had met online and to record and play gigs, from house parties to concert halls in Paris.
Appropriately enough, just in the last few weeks Tieger has posted a new Spotify playlist entitled, “My Love Affair with France.”
In 2009, Tieger’s album, ‘Nos Mots’, was awarded best album of the year by Motif Magazine, and in 2010 Motif nominated her for Best Female Vocalist.
Her song, “Tell Me Please,” which was nominated for Song of the Year by the Providence Phoenix in 2000, may be the definitive piece that showcases Tieger’s musical acumen and vocal prowess. Beginning with her signature staccato electric piano lines, the song, at 4 minutes and 7 seconds, is a mini opera that draws the listener into a melodic and emotional whirlpool.
She proposes a litany of direct questions to her lover, “Will you still think of us, when you hear the word trust?”, “Will our love last and live in this new century?” and “Are we here for the long haul?”
The author, in her fear and self-doubt, pleads for affirmation with an aching, soaring vocal that finally falls back down to Earth, only to echo the title once more.
A Hollywood artist
Tieger’s original music has been used in various television shows over the years. Her instrumental ‘Coronado’ was used as bumper music for Eva Longoria’s “Desperate House Makeovers” on the Oprah Winfrey network. Other instrumental work by Tieger was used on A & E’s “Catherine the Great”, on the food network’s “Amazing Wedding Cakes” and The History Channel’s documentary on the Mexican War.
“I’m not getting rich on the royalties, but it’s nice to get a check in the mail once in a while,” she said.
Tieger, who has played the local singer/songwriter bohemian circuit from CAV, Beans & Bags and The Inner City Café, to being a mainstay at The Hear in Rhode Island Folk concerts, currently concentrates on teaching.
“I teach 4 afternoons a week at the French American School of Rhode Island. I’ve been there 13 years and presently have 23 students,” said Tieger. ”Every year I have more students enrolling. My piano teaching style is old school. I don’t use apps, and I don’t use YouTube. My students must learn to read music without any tricks.”
Is there a new album in the works?
“I haven’t had a song that bothered me to be written in a while,” she said.
Bothered, I asked?
“I mean a song or an idea that made me get up in the middle of the night to work on it, but I’m sure there’s one right around the corner. Every time I say this will be my last album, it isn’t.”
As she concluded the interview, Tieger’s voice became soft and certain.
“Sitting down at the keyboard, I get lost in the feelings and passion of music. And when I’m playing, time has no meaning.”
Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.