Why Lhasa de Sela Matters

Raised in a school bus by itinerant hippie parents, with one foot in Mexico and one in the US, the singer blossomed into her true multicultural self in bilingual Montreal.

Fred Goodman | Why Lhasa de Sela Matters | University of Texas Press | November 2019 | 27 minutes (5,471 words)

 

A sorceress of the soul, the multi-lingual singer Lhasa de Sela captivated music fanatics around the world with her spellbinding songs and other-worldly performances. Yet ten years after her tragic death from breast cancer in Montreal at 37, America’s first world music chanteuse remains largely and inexplicably unknown here, an under-the-radar icon in her own country. Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, her first biography, charts Lhasa’s road to musical maturity. —Fred Goodman

 

The slowest nights for bars and clubs come early in the week, which is why many clubs are closed on Mondays, leaving Tuesday as the lightest night of the week. As a result, Lhasa de Sela didn’t waitress on Tuesdays. Instead, she found local Montreal bars that would let her sing a set a cappella. Wearing a black dress and a long knit hat, she cut a figure that was both striking and subdued.

Working on assorted standards and the Billie Holiday songs she loved, Lhasa was primarily focused on two tasks: overcoming her own shyness and learning how to hold a listener’s attention. She had a ways to go.

“It was like torture to sit in the audience,” says Lhasa’s sister Sky. “Everyone was talking, and I knew she was thinking they would shut up. But they didn’t immediately, and I sat there, suffering! She was giving her all. She sang with so much emotion, yet they kept on talking. So I left before she managed to shut them up. The next time I saw her was a few years later at the Bataclan in Paris — and I can tell you that no one talked!”

But at that point, it was hard to see where Lhasa was going, if anywhere. Visiting his daughters, Alejandro was upset when he opened Lhasa’s refrigerator and found only a small plastic pig that moved in circles and oinked when the door light came on; otherwise, the refrigerator was bare. He treated her to a parental shopping trip. And when she announced she was quitting her job, he delivered a fatherly sermon. “Lhasa, you don’t have any food! You’re behind in your rent. You have to work! Don’t quit your job — you need that job.”

Lhasa shook her head. “Papa, I’m a singer. If I can’t sing — if I can’t make my living singing — I don’t want to live,” she said.

The pragmatic and industrious Sky felt an older sister’s dismay and disapproval. Fearful that Lhasa was being irrational and lazy, Sky wondered when she was going to stop hanging out in cafes and get a real job. “Which was a bunch of baloney,” she says. “Actually, she was building it, leaning toward it. But you couldn’t see it from the outside.”

‘If I can’t sing — if I can’t make my living singing — I don’t want to live,’ she said.

In fact, Lhasa was going through an intense period of absorption in which her skills as an autodidact served her well. After working in a small Quebec town for a few months, she returned to Montreal with a working command of conversational French. A self-starter for whom learning was synonymous with growth and growth synonymous with life, she needed no prompt to study. She sought to express herself as concisely and thoughtfully as possible — and not just in her music. She was also a devout letter writer and thought nothing of spending hours on a letter. More documents than casual missives, they might include ink sketches — a person, a place, a self-portrait — framed neatly by the text. Each was a finished work, and it is doubtful she mailed first drafts: no matter the language she wrote in, there was never a cross-out or revision. “My letters from Lhasa sustained me for years,” says Sky.

Musically, her tastes were broad, but her system of learning was extremely simple and extremely focused. When she heard something in an artist or a recording that she wanted to emulate, she listened to the work incessantly for extended periods — sometimes months at a clip — until it was second nature. Particularly formative were some of the artists she had picked up on from her parents, such as the legendary cabaret star Chavela Vargas.

Costa Rican-born Vargas was a masterful singer of extraordinary depths who first rose to fame in the 1950s as a gender-bending nightclub star in Mexico City. It wasn’t only that the hard-drinking Vargas dressed like a man, smoked cigars, and packed a gun, she also took possession of the rancheras traditionally performed by male singers while directing them to women. An intimate of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, she befriended many of Mexico’s leading songwriters and intellectuals, including the novelist Juan Rulfo, and later became a muse to the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and an international icon. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2003 at the age of eighty-three — two years after coming out publicly and proudly declaring she had never had sex with a man. Vargas continued to work and record — her aging voice singed by life but more moving than ever — almost up to her death ten years later. “I listened to those intense ballads all day, every day, for years!” Lhasa said.

‘She was very opinionated,’ says Miriam. ‘And that always impressed me.’

She developed a similar obsession with the Lebanese oud player and singer, Marcel Khalifé, an artist whose records Alexandra had played. “There is a cassette that I have listened to hundreds of times — maybe thousands — and I know every single vocal inflection on that cassette,” she told BBC reporter Stefan Christoff, stressing that it wasn’t just about technique, but an attempt to connect with and intuit something of the ways that meaning and emotion were conveyed by an Arabic singer and “a little window into Arab culture.” She found that the recordings of the Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky likewise gave her some insight and an appreciation for that culture. “I don’t speak Russian but I could just hear the humor, intelligence, rage and cleverness in Vysotsky’s voice,” she said. “This is the magic of music.”

Lhasa’s musical tastes were largely defined by what she had heard her itinerant hippie parents play in the school bus where they lived for years, but her own earnestness would lead her to emulate the singers of deepest feeling: those capable of not only conveying the meaning of a song’s lyrics but also crystallizing emotions beyond words. Likewise, her romanticism and spirituality led her to embrace singers such as Holiday and Vargas, whose music was inseparable from their tribulations, making them her artistic saints. The more she listened to and examined how a particular piece of music or performance made her feel, the surer she became of her personal aesthetics. “She was very opinionated,” says her sister Miriam. “She knew what she liked and didn’t like. I remember many times going to see a show with Lhasa and she’d say, ‘That was terrible, it was nothing.’ To her it was very black and white. And that always impressed me. She knew exactly what she thought.”

* * *

The next time she saw Yves Desrosiers, the guitarist with Quebec rocker Jean Leloup, was at an outdoor café on Rue Saint-Denis. This time, she had the confidence to say she was a singer and to talk about what she liked. Writing his phone number on a matchbook, Yves suggested they get together and see what happened. “Maybe we can play in the subway or the street,” he said.

Lhasa let a few weeks pass before phoning. In September, Yves came to her apartment with his guitar and a fake book, and they tried a few standards. Listening to the way Lhasa sang, Yves wasn’t sure what to make of her. It was obvious that she lacked experience, and despite taking her cue from Billie Holiday she didn’t sound at all like a classic female jazz singer. “Her voice was somewhere else,” he says. “Kind of androgynous, but strangely intriguing.”

Looking for something else to try, he asked Lhasa if she liked bossa nova; she offered that she knew the Portuguese lyrics to a few Antônio Carlos Jobim songs. As soon as they started playing, Desrosiers could hear they were on a better track. “I felt something strong and smooth,” he says. “And I told myself, If this voice can reach me, it can reach a lot of people.”

As if to second that, Lhasa’s neighbor stuck her head in the door. She and a friend had been sitting outside, sunning themselves and drinking wine. “Was that really you singing like that?” she asked.

By winter 1993, they had built a little repertoire, and Yves arranged a gig playing happy hour at a neighborhood bar he frequented. They performed mostly jazz standards and one or two Mexican rancheras that Lhasa had discovered through her parents’ record collection. Yves was intrigued that this was a large part of the music she had listened to growing up. He liked the strange stories about her hippie childhood in the school bus and urged her to think about singing more songs in Spanish and fewer jazz standards. Aside from the fact that Lhasa sounded better singing them, Yves was convinced that it would make her stand out. “You really want to play that?” she asked guardedly. When he said he did, she was delighted.

With Lhasa pointing him toward specific records and performers, Yves began listening to more and more rancheras and other Latin recordings, and he bought a nylon-string guitar. The more they played, the more convinced Yves became that he and Lhasa were moving in the right direction. Erik West-Millette, the bassist who had met Lhasa at the Mondiale, was a close friend of Yves and they talked frequently about Lhasa. The guitarist was impressed by the surprising power and conviction she brought to the traditional Mexican songs and told Erik he saw an opportunity for her to develop a unique niche. There was no shortage of jazz singers on the Montreal club scene and this could be something different.


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Though recording and working steadily with more established artists such as Leloup and the folk duo Gogh Van Go, Yves knew that he and Lhasa were onto something. “I was busy working for bands and solo artists, but I was motived each time we played,” Yves says. He also saw that Lhasa was green and that her enthusiasm outstripped her experience. He wanted to boost her confidence by working as many gigs as possible. Over the next two years her French improved markedly — as did her ability to interact with audiences and tell stories between songs — and they began polishing a few ideas for demos in the small four-track “bedroom lab” Yves used as a home studio.

“She was damn lucky to meet Yves,” says musician Patrick Watson, who was close with both Lhasa and Desrosiers. “The writing on that record is superb, and Yves is a really interesting guy; she ran into someone really caring. And also, like her, a bit out of this world. Similarly sensitive and reserved. It was a beautiful moment.”

Yves and Lhasa spent long evenings talking about the kind of music they wanted to make and the elements they wanted to feature in the arrangements. Both were fans of the French band Bratsch, whose Gypsy music incorporates klezmer, jazz, North African, and other folk traditions. Yves pursued a similar eclectic approach in his arrangements, which Lhasa eagerly embraced: if the music’s roots were largely Mexican, its leaves and branches were far more varied. Unable to play an instrument or write music, Lhasa conveyed her melodic ideas by singing, whistling, or humming, relying on Yves to flesh them out harmonically. Just as eager to develop Yves’s ideas, she took recordings of several of his melodies home and wrote lyrics. Two songs grew out of this, “El Desierto” (“The Desert”) and “El Pájaro” (“The Bird”).

In 1994, one of their early demo tapes landed on the desk of Gina Brault, a Montreal radio programmer whose duties included booking performances for a live broadcast originating in a local bar. “A musician friend gave me a cassette with Desrosiers written on it and a phone number,” she says. “I had no idea what was waiting for me.” Indeed, though she loved the music and quickly arranged for them to appear on the show, Gina certainly didn’t imagine she would become their manager — and Yves’s wife.

* * *

With Yves as a musical partner and mentor, Lhasa was finding her lyrical and thematic inspiration in her ongoing conversations with her father. Even by the insular standards of their family, Lhasa and Alejandro had an unusually tight bond. “I have seven children, but Lhasa was unique,” he says. “She was so intimately involved in those things that were close to me.” And while Lhasa’s half-sister, Samantha, describes both their sister Ayin and their mother as more interested in spiritual practices than Lhasa — “She was not a pillow-sitter,” Samantha says — it was Lhasa who gleaned the cultural and artistic implications from her parents’ spiritual and mystical quest. Indeed, when she later told an interviewer that she “believes in everything — Buddha, Jesus Christ, Lau Tzu, astrology,” it was easy to discern the hand of Alejandro. As wide-ranging as Lhasa’s reading list was, many of the works she returned to again and again were the spiritual and theoretical texts that her parents favored, including I Ching, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, the teachings of Krishnamurti, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

“Our father says he does everything,” says Eden, “but when I read Autobiography of a Yogi as an adult, I realized that was really his core and what we were all raised with: these cosmic, mystical ideas about consciousness that are quasi-philosophical, quasi-spiritual, and quasi-scientific. It’s hard to explain, but we were raised to perceive reality in a very interesting way. There was something literally psychedelic about our upbringing and the culture we were raised in. And it affected us.”

Along with a streak of solemnity, Alejandro also shared with Lhasa a love of conversation. A gifted raconteur, he could be spellbinding while telling a story — a skill she would absorb and make a feature of her performances. “Her father had a great influence on her,” says Yves. “They spoke the same language.”

Those conversations added greater depth and context to the way Lhasa thought about the rancheras that she and Yves had been performing.

With Marybeth’s encouragement, Alejandro had turned his Mexican forays as a language instructor into a career in upstate New York as a high school and college Spanish teacher. As Lhasa and Yves were crafting their first songs and demos, Alejandro was completing his dissertation at the University at Albany for a PhD in Spanish literature, with a focus on the literature of the Mexican conquest. “It was a huge topic, and he and Lhasa talked about it for hours and hours and hours,” says Lhasa’s stepmother Marybeth. “We would talk all night long,” adds Alejandro.

Those conversations added greater depth and context to the way Lhasa thought about the rancheras that she and Yves had been performing. Just as key, her father’s research and writing opened a new window on both the literature of Spain and the pre-Columbian Aztec poetry that, taken together, informed much of the subsequent Mexican culture.

One of the most well-known Mexican folk tales is the legend of La Llorona, variously translated as the weeping or wailing woman. Lhasa knew it as the mournful ballad recorded and popularized decades earlier by Chavela Vargas, and she sometimes performed the song in bars with Yves. But there are countless versions of the folk song, including some associated with the Mexican Revolution, and the legend that gave rise to them has just as many permutations and meanings. In perhaps its most well-known version, the legend tells the tragic and gruesome story of a woman betrayed by an unfaithful husband. In a fit of insanity, she punishes him by drowning their children; she is then doomed to wander eternally, crying after her children. Like American murder ballads, the folk tale served to castigate and caution women against giving in to their passions. Even today, a wailing Mexican wind is called la llorona.

Yet, as her father learned and shared with her, the story of La Llorona has an Aztec lineage as well, one that made the legendary woman far more prescient and heroic. In that version, she is a Native American Cassandra, appearing in a dream to warn of the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 and the coming conquest and enslavement of the people. “The Emperor of Mexico had a series of nine premonitions that his sorcerers said were alarming,” says Alejandro. “One was of a rain of comets and another was of a wind blowing through Tenochtitlan and of a voice that could be heard in the wind — a woman’s voice wailing, ‘My children, my children, what will become of my children?’ The sorcerers called her La Llorona, and Lhasa was very taken with that story when I told her.”

Inspired, she wrote the lyrics to what would become “De Cara a la Pared” (“Facing the Wall”), the opening song on her debut album, La Llorona. Based on an apocalyptic dream she had had of a city destroyed by fire and flood, it was a like-minded warning and a prayer for deliverance from suffering and hardship. Arranged on a lilting, airy violin theme by Yves, the album, like the ancient warning of La Llorona, seemed to float in on the breeze.

The ongoing conversations with Alejandro would provide the seeds for several songs, including “Los Peces,” her take on one of Spain’s oldest Christmas songs; “El Payande,” a Colombian song from the 1870s; and “Por Eso Me Quedo” (“Why I Stay”), in the style of the great ranchero performer Cuco Sànchez. “La Celestina” is sung in the voice of a character from the Spanish play of the same name written by Fernando de Rojas in 1499, a tragicomic Romeo and Juliet. And with Alejandro she co-wrote the lyrics to “Floricanto,” which echoed both the ecstatic poems of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross and the traditional Mexican theme of the tragic nature of love and life. Though Lhasa listened to and loved music made by contemporary rockers — Tom Waits and Rage Against the Machine were particular favorites at the time — she had made an obvious decision to dig where no one else had. It wasn’t a calculated decision.

“Her understanding of Mexican music was that it tended to be songs of broken-heartedness, of un-love and dis-love,” her father says: “Slavery: my mother was a slave so I was a slave. The lyrics to the song we wrote together have to do with mortality. I was reading Aztec poetry at the time and sharing it with her. That poetry was all things are passing; don’t be attached to life, we’re all here for a short time, we all must die. How the finest clothes turn to rags. This pessimistic strain in Aztec poetry carried on into Mexican folk music and cowboy songs that say, ‘You’re going to be sorry; I just laugh at the world because I know it’s going to end, too.’ Resignation to mortality is a predominant feature of Mexican culture and she picked up on that. And that vocal style that she was initially known for is the broken heartbreak yodel born from that music. Like Billie Holiday, it is tragic and sad, and speaks of suffering, pain, and hardship.”

* * *

Back in Montreal, Yves and Lhasa had expanded their performances to include the bassist Mario Légaré, accordionist Didier Dumouthier, and drummer François Lalonde. Like Yves, they were all experienced veterans of the Francophone recording and club scene and quick musical studies: wherever Yves and Lhasa took the songs, they could follow. Word of mouth was beginning to spread around town about the young Spanish singer with an unusual name and a good band, cemented by regular gigs at several bars. The same unusual level of awareness and thought that had immediately struck friends like Sandra and Lousnak in their conversations with Lhasa was now becoming just as apparent in her performances: on stage, Lhasa became intensely conscious of trying to make a connection with each and any listener. “Singing in the bars I learned how to reach people,” she said. “Even people who were there just for beer and conversation.”

She was singing now with an intensity that, regardless of language, made for a riveting performance. “When I started singing and I got up on stage a lot of kind of unexpected things started coming out of me,” Lhasa said. “There was a lot of sadness and a lot of rage. And those were the songs that I was attracted to singing. They were the songs that I felt the most when I was on stage.”

‘It wasn’t a show — you were going into her universe.’

Guitarist Rick Haworth, a veteran of the Montreal music scene who toured extensively with Lhasa, says her onstage focus and commitment were extraordinary. “Lhasa had a work ethic that was brilliant and crazy,” he says. “If she didn’t bleed herself dry with every performance, she believed she was cheating the audience. …There was no compromise: you had to bleed.”

“Her shows were so personal and intimate,” says Sandra Khouri. “She was extremely straightforward and kind of pure. In French we would say she was sans fla-flas—without pretensions. Absolutely none. It wasn’t a show — you were going into her universe. She was a real magician of the soul.”

Jamie O’Meara, editor of the Montreal entertainment magazine The Hour, had no idea who she was the first time he saw her. “She cut my then-girlfriend’s hair,” he recalled. “And this girlfriend dragged me out to Bar Barouf on Saint-Denis one cold January night to hear her haircutter sing.” Wishing he was somewhere else and expecting nothing, O’Meara was stunned by what he heard — and by the audience’s reaction. “It was, to say the least, transformative. I would see her again at the small pub Else’s on Roi, and a handful of other quaint not-quite-venues where she was beginning to accrue a fiercely loyal following.”

One of those followers was Canadian music journalist Nicholas Jennings. It didn’t bother him that Lhasa was singing in Spanish rather than French or English. In fact, it felt completely immaterial. “The language really did not make any difference,” he says. “What she was putting across transcended language, she was such an intense performer. She had all the depth of emotion of an actress or an opera singer. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.”

The Montreal buzz that Gina had hoped for quickly materialized. A prime-time TV program on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel featured Lhasa and Yves dueting on a Mexican folk song. The next week the line at Quai des Brumes was down the block.

It didn’t hurt that the local music scene had a vibrancy and fire that were both palpable and building. “Lhasa was coming out of a Montreal that was awesome,” says Patrick Watson. “It was a magical moment — the kind you read about in a book and say, ‘Fuck! I wish I was there!’ My first show was in a porno theater. It was outside the ‘stage’ context so you were putting on an experience, not a show. People are there to have a good time. We used to play Café Sarajevo. They’d give you drinks and you’d sing on the tables. There was no business, no managers. We were completely sheltered from any idea of selling our music. One of the jokes is that French culture turned Montreal into an island. A lot of benefits came — it’s one of the reasons we have good film directors—but business-wise, you’re isolated and it’s hard to get off the island. That meant someone like Lhasa or me or Godspeed You! Black Emperor were artistically free to avoid bullshit.”

Moving from Yves’s home recording setup to a small studio that François operated in a second-floor apartment between the Plateau and Chinatown on Saint-Denis, the guitarist and the drummer polished the backing tracks for Lhasa to add the vocals on a demo. When he and Lhasa were satisfied, Yves called Denis Wolff, an A&R executive at Montreal’s Audiogram Records. Yves had worked with him on recordings for Jean Leloup and Gogh Van Go. Wolff, who had come to respect Yves and admire his work, liked the demo. And he liked what he saw from Lhasa in performance even more.

A leading French label, Audiogram had released a few records in English, but never in Spanish. No one was particularly concerned, though. “In Quebec, there’s a strong tradition of liking world artists like Cesária Évora,” Wolff says, and Audiogram had already had some success licensing and releasing an album in Italian by Paulo Conte. “These records did really well here, and we also have the jazz festival, which educated people.”

Continuing in François’s studio, Lhasa concentrated on her vocals, but was loath to take even a small instrumental role. Says Desrosiers, “Lhasa was a bit intimidated back in those days about the recording process because she didn’t play an instrument and I think she was afraid she would mess up my work. “As a result, Yves became the music director of La Llorona, trading inspirations and melodic ideas with Lhasa and then building the arrangements and performances with François and the other musicians in the studio. “Lhasa was not present much,” says François. “Yves and I would work on the music, and when it was ready, Lhasa would come in to sing or Yves would go to her house with a microphone.” Several of the vocals recorded in her kitchen and initially intended to be used as guides proved good enough for the final record; a summer rain storm in Lhasa’s backyard provided the album’s opening sounds. “Yes, I was the architect of that record and sound,” says Yves. “But Lhasa brought it to life. Without her voice and soul, we would not be talking today.”

Unable to play an instrument or write music, Lhasa conveyed her melodic ideas by singing, whistling, or humming, relying on Yves to flesh them out harmonically.

If the music and lyrics on La Llorona represented a unique and thoughtful exploration of a culture and tradition unknown to most listeners, the arrestingly colored yet stark painting she created for its cover dispelled any notion that this was a sociology project or a hip and obscure idea born of a clever ingénue’s vanity. Rather, something intensely personal was at work. Lhasa used a mirror to paint what has been described as a self-portrait, but the piercing fiery eyes, hawk-like visage, and dark, somber facial tones are far more suggestive of her mother, Alexandra.

Though Lhasa certainly loved her mother, they had an unusually gnarled relationship. An unusually creative and deep-thinking person wrestling with a self-destructive streak, Alexandra was a complicated and sometimes foreboding figure, a person who, as a mother, could be extremely nurturing and almost as frightening. A former heroin user who had lost custody of her two eldest daughters when one of them fell out a window, Alexandra’s struggle to reclaim Lhasa’s half-sisters had been a significant part of Lhasa’s peripatetic childhood — as had Alexandra’s sometimes explosive rages. Lhasa could not quite forgive or forget the dramatic and caustic scenes that she associated with the splintering of the family. She could not completely make peace with her mother — a painful situation that a now clean and sober Alexandra tried to accept with clarity.

“She was hard on herself,” says Alexandra. “Her journals are full of that. Endlessly. But she had plenty to say about others, too. We had some wonderful times and laughed a lot — her magnificent sense of humor saved her sometimes — but she couldn’t be with me for long. It was almost as if she wished I was not quite who I am, wished I were different. You can’t really do that.”

Yet, whatever continuing frustrations and anger Lhasa may have felt toward Alexandra, the cover of La Llorona suggests that the album wasn’t just paying tribute to a mythic mother wailing for her lost children. Lhasa didn’t have to look across time to find a grief-stricken woman whose self-inflicted wounds and painful, self-destructive missteps had cost her her children. She had crisscrossed from Mexico to New York in cradle and car seat as that mother struggled to remake herself and regain her eldest daughters.

“Lhasa was alchemically able to take stories from our life that were tragic and turn them around and tell them in a way that would honor our family,” says her sister Ayin. “I think it was a self-healing tool for her to turn the pain into meaningful, soulful journeys that everyone can use as inspiration and hope and humor.”

“When Lhasa was singing that darker thing — the way a fado singer would sing about the saddest life in the world — that comes from her mom,” says Lhasa’s friend Patrick Watson. “No mistake. That’s her mother. The philosophy stories? That’s her dad. But the shit where she opens her mouth and the world stops? Lhasa would be so fucking mad if she heard me say it, but that comes from her mom. I think Lhasa was singing the depth of her mother’s experiences. She didn’t experience them herself, but she saw the twists and turns.”

* * *

Released in 1997, La Llorona garnered strong reviews, and Lhasa’s following in Montreal and Quebec grew quickly. Its unique sound and tragic, passionate, romantic lyrics managed to both evoke an ancient mythic world and strike a timely resonance. Musician Thomas Hellman, who would become romantically involved with Lhasa some years later, was an undergraduate studying French literature at McGill University when La Llorona came out. “That album blew my mind,” he said. “It came out in a dark and cynical time and on La Llorona she was able to embody romantic love and painful love at a time when that archetype was absent and sorely needed — it just didn’t exist between people that much anymore.”

BBC reviewer Malachy O’Neill said Lhasa sounded like nothing so much as an ancient matriarch and wondered how someone so young had conjured “heartbroken songs from a long life of exodus and lost love, offering ominous warnings of the weirder, darker corners of the human heart.”

“Almost right away there was success locally,” says Denis Wolff. Several months after the album’s release, Audiogram hired a publicist in Toronto and began publicizing the record in English-speaking Canada, a first step toward establishing Lhasa not just in the rest of Canada, but also in other English language markets, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Instead, events took a different turn: the stars were about to line up.

Its unique sound and tragic, passionate, romantic lyrics managed to both evoke an ancient mythic world and strike a timely resonance.

Shortly after the release of La Llorona, the band was invited to submit an application for a music competition. First prize was a trip to France and an appearance at the well-regarded Printemps de Bourges music festival. Neither Lhasa nor Yves liked the idea of playing in a competition, but Gina ignored them and put in the paperwork. A few months later, Lhasa and her band found themselves among the finalists performing at Montreal’s Club Soda for an audience and a panel of judges. They came in first.

Excited by the opportunity to take a full band to France, they didn’t quite understand what they had really won: Lhasa would be touted as the French-Canadian prizewinner at the festival’s “Discoveries” series, one of the European music industry’s most prestigious showcases. “I did not realize how much of a professional event this was, that it was not really for the public,” says Gina. And once again, Lhasa was a hit. “After the performance, there was a line of industry people who wanted to meet Lhasa.” Among them was Yves Beauvais from Atlantic Records in New York, who would release La Llorona in the States.

More important for Lhasa, however, would be her relationship with Tôt ou Tard, a savvy and well-run label that signed her for France. And they did so in no small measure at the urging of French music journalist Anne-Marie Paquotte, who had been impressed by her performance at Bourges. Then, in advance of Lhasa’s Paris debut at the Bataclan, Paquotte wrote a glowing feature on her for Télérama, the country’s most influential entertainment magazine. The result was instantaneous: overnight, Lhasa became a star in France.

Brazilian singer Bïa Krieger, who later became Lhasa’s close friend, was living and working in France when La Llorona came out and Paquotte’s article launched her. “Everybody was talking about her. Have you heard this girl, Lhasa? Have you heard this record? Getting an article in Télérama then was like having an article in Rolling Stone in 1968. Then everyone takes you seriously, everyone wants an interview. You couldn’t go into a music shop without hearing her; her music was on the radio. Every festival I played at it was, Do you know her? I’m not a jealous person but you almost could be. Lhasa, Lhasa, Lhasa. It was huge.”

Over the subsequent months, Lhasa and the band performed and built a following not just in France but also in Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. Perhaps as important, her success in Europe would cement her reputation back home.

“A Spanish record made in Quebec?” asks Bïa. “Not a magic potion you would do again! But this reaction in France allowed a project that could have stayed local to become something else. When she got famous in France, she came back to Canada with a different status. She started out in Montreal as this girl who sang beautifully in Spanish. When she came back, she was a star.”

***

Fred Goodman is a former editor at Rolling Stone whose work has appeared in The New York Times and numerous magazines. His previous books include the award-winning The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce, and Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll.

Excerpted from Why Lhasa de Sela Mattersby Fred Goodman. Copyright © 2019 by Fred Goodman. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of University of Texas Press and Fred Goodman. 

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