Lhasa de Sela's essential songs
The author of Why Lhasa de Sela Matters selects 5 songs everybody needs to know
Fred Goodman has spent years digging deep into the music of the late singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela. His new book, Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, which you can read an excerpt of via CBC Music, gets to the heart of what made de Sela such a singular and beloved talent.
But de Sela was also underappreciated in her lifetime, and though Goodman's book makes a wonderful case for continued reverence, it can be hard for new fans to know where to start in her incredible, if all-too-brief discography. CBC Music invited Goodman to share his thoughts on where to start, or reacquaint oneself, with five essential de Sela songs.
By Fred Goodman
'Anywhere on This Road'
A tale of wanderlust and the keystone track from Lhasa's 2003 album, The Living Road. After the quick success of her all-Spanish debut album, La Llorona, Lhasa took a six-year recording hiatus, joining her sisters' circus troupe in France before settling for several years in Marseille. It was a period of intense self-examination during which she began writing and singing in both English and French as well as Spanish. With its thumping rhythm suggesting footfalls, a trumpet solo as mysterious and brittle as winter starlight, and aural effects from a Mongolian film soundtrack, Lhasa unspools a hopeful and mesmerizing parable of life as an unstoppable journey: "You've travelled this far, you just have to go on/ don't even look back to see how far you've gone/ though your body is bending under the load/ there is nowhere to stop anywhere on this road."
'El Payande' (live version from the album Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music, Vol. 1)
Lhasa first made her mark as a club star in Montreal — and though that city is home to both French and English communities, Lhasa charted her own course, singing entirely in Spanish. Her passionate performances quickly attracted a fierce local following and had music critics likening her intensity to that of an opera singer or a great actress. "The language did not matter," wrote one. "You couldn't take your eyes off her.'' This traditional Peruvian folk song — in which Lhasa sings of being the daughter of a slave and so a slave herself — was recorded with her original Montreal band during the second Lilith Fair tour and showcases that early fire.
A standout track from her final album, Lhasa. Recorded in early 2009 while she was battling breast cancer, Lhasa had initially intended the album to serve as her introduction to American listeners and wrote all its songs in English. And though those songs were composed prior to her illness, it's now difficult to hear Lhasa as anything other than an album of a death foretold. Many of its songs have ironic, even double-edged lyrics and a sad, nearly mournful quality. Yet "Rising," with its gentle, upward propulsion, more than lives up to its name as Lhasa's voice and Sarah Pagé's harp spiral in perfect sync with the lyrics, becoming ever lighter. Completely realized in conception and performance, it is one of Lhasa's great records.
'Pa Llegar a Tu Lado (To Reach Your Side)'
An intense ballad of physical desire and romantic passion, and Lhasa's breathy, intimate delivery makes for a riveting, nearly hypnotic performance. Though sung in Spanish, there is something in the simple piano part composed by Lhasa's collaborator, Jean Massicotte, that brings to mind a Russian lullaby. Massicotte said the music came to him in a dream, but the Russian inflection was a logical departure for Lhasa: a great fan of the Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky, Lhasa recorded a Russian lullaby, "Nié Boutidié'' ("Don't Wake the Sun") with the French Gypsy band Bratsch, and had attracted a following among Russian music fans.
'Soon This Space Will be Too Small'
Lhasa had a uniquely spiritual side, and was intent on her work expressing what she saw as "the magic of life.'' Raised by unconventional parents — Lhasa and her sisters spent much of their childhood living in a converted school bus travelling between Mexico and the U.S., didn't have a telephone or television and rarely attended standard schools — she was encouraged to both take herself seriously and to view life as a quest for knowledge and enlightenment. A song about being born and reborn and belonging, in the end, to the universe, "Soon This Space Will be Too Small" was a breakthrough composition for Lhasa, achieving one of her artistic grails: an apprehension and conveyance of the inexpressible. A tour de force and a song like no other.