Why Lhasa de Sela Matters
An excerpt from Fred Goodman's new book about the late singer-songwriter
Author Fred Goodman's new book, Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, explores the music and life of the late singer-songwriter who tragically died from breast cancer on Jan. 1, 2010, at the age of 37.
Though raised in Mexico and the United States, de Sela divided her adult life between Montreal and France, and this excerpt focuses on a particular time in Montreal as de Sela was at a musical crossroads.
Excerpted from Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, by Fred Goodman
Four years after the release of The Living Road, she [Lhasa de Sela] made arrangements to return to France to record some of the new songs she had written. On the eve of that trip, she was to fly to New York to sing as a guest with the group Calexico, having befriended and collaborated with their singer, Joey Burns. Getting into the cab for the airport, she suddenly asked the driver to wait a moment, and she bounded back up the snow-encrusted stairs and into the house. She had forgotten to say goodbye to Isaan, her cat. In the vestibule, she slipped and fell, shattering bones in her ankle. The injury required more than just a cast. A rod and steel screws had to be inserted to help the bones knit and she spent a week in the hospital; Mélanie [Auclair] prepared food for her and kept her company.
Though the break was unusually severe, she didn't give in to convalescence. "Bïa loved it when both of them were singing together," says Erik [West-Millette]. "And we were playing one night in a tiny place with a high stage. Lhasa comes from the back of the hall on one foot and she climbs up like three feet — just jumps on one leg: Bam! OK, I'm ready to sing. She was a very surprising person," he says with a laugh.
At dinner at Patrick Watson's loft one evening, Lhasa met Sarah Pagé, a harpist who had attended music school with Watson and was branching beyond classical into contemporary music, most often with her neighbours, the guitarist Brad Barr and his brother Andrew, a drummer. Sarah was in the midst of shaking off a busted romance, while Lhasa, with her faith that there are no accidents in the universe, was ruminating on what it meant that her fall hadn't allowed her to start work on her album in France. Each considered herself at a crossroads, and the two women took to calling each other to commiserate. They were soon meeting daily at Lhasa's house, writing and playing music together.
In the wake of her fall, Lhasa's thoughts and "regeneration" began to come into focus. She needed to simplify her singing style — it was clear that she couldn't continue taxing her voice the way she had on the earlier records and tours — but she also wanted to simplify the overall sound of her music, as well as her role onstage and as a bandleader. "Being a singer that so many people just adored and projected so much onto became exhausting," says Sarah. "She was tired of carrying all the weight; she wanted to feel like she was in a band."
It also irked her to be placed on the world music stage at festivals. As she had noted in interviews, her music was chiefly an outgrowth of what she had heard during her childhood; as far as she was concerned, what she wrote and performed was "just music." "It produced some frustration from time to time," says Rick [Haworth]. "She did not consider herself a world music artist. She considered herself an artist."
And last, but certainly not least, was her desire to find an audience in her homeland.
"She was frustrated," says Patrick. "She wanted to be heard in the States. We had a lot of business discussions because we were both bandleaders and she was very ambitious. Lhasa was 100 per cent integrity, but you can't be successful like that without being a businesswoman. She could make the hard decisions. She knew what she was doing every time."
Singing in Spanish and French, she could reach audiences in Europe and Canada, but not in the United States. All the songs for the next album were written in English, and as far as finding the musicians to craft a sound, Mile End had what she needed. The musicians in this young, Anglo neighborhood were very much in tune with the American alt-rock scene; several local bands, most notably Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire, were on the cusp of U.S. stardom. Lhasa asked Sarah to recommend musicians she knew from playing around town, and she introduced Lhasa to an outstanding bassist, Miles Perkins. The three were soon meeting for coffee daily and hitting the bars every night, and they began rehearsing with drummer Andrew Barr and guitarist Joe Grass, who also played pedal steel guitar. The new lineup had a much more straightforward sound. It essentially gave Lhasa a standard vocalist's backing quartet with a unique twist: instead of piano, there was a harp — the instrument Alexandra played and the first one Lhasa had sung along with as a child. And, as in country music, the pedal steel could suggest strings.
Though rehearsals were originally slow as the band sought to articulate the musical feeling she wanted to convey in each song, they soon found their footing. "We called the way she wrote poom-plinks," Grass says. "Playing the piano with one finger on the left hand, one finger on the right. But she had an amazing sense of melody and knew the feeling she wanted and guided the music quite clearly. We would take those simple things and run with them, find the right colours." She also urged Joe not to overplay. "I learned a lot playing with her: help the colour, help the arrangement."
Mélanie knew Lhasa had been checking out the Mile End scene. "She wanted to be part of that," she says. But when Lhasa called and asked her to drop by the house, she still wasn't prepared for the inevitable. Over dinner in a nearby restaurant, Lhasa gave her the news.
"I have to tell you," she said, "I'm working with other musicians. And maybe I'll work with another cello player."
"'Non! No, no, no — please!' It was really so hard," Mélanie recalls. "Heartbreaking. I respect her — I respect the vision — but for me personally, it was really difficult. And what's hardest is that I know I am going to lose my privileged place in her heart. We had a relationship after that; we were friends. But it's not the same."
In moving on artistically, Lhasa was once again presented with the unavoidable reality of disappointing and hurting friends. But as she discovered with Yves [Desrosier], she had the strength and temperament to look in and follow the work, even at the price of sentiment.
"Part of the problem was that she needed other people to do what she did and it was difficult for those others to find the healthy limit of their relationship with Lhasa," says Patrick. "So it causes a lot of pain. You would get involved with her from the heart and soul — everybody who met her instantly felt like she was their best friend because of the type of person she was. But she could say, 'This is still my music' and break a lot of hearts. A lot of hearts. The boundary was a really tricky thing for Lhasa because everyone wanted to be inside her bubble all the time. Including her family, including her friends. And that was a huge dilemma and hard for her. I'm 100 per cent sure Sarah's relationship with Lhasa would have ended very poorly. I've seen her flush people; she flushed me. It didn't affect us in the same way because I've got a band and I know what it means."
Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2019
Order Why Lhasa de Sela Matters here.