Beautiful but uncategorizable music flowed through Lhasa de Sela (1972-2010), whose itinerant, off-the-grid childhood with spiritually-inclined parents allowed her to “fit in everywhere and nowhere.” Though she only released five albums before her early death, Lhasa was able to meld influences as diverse as jazz, blues, fado, flamenco and Mexican folk to produce music that touched, inspired and influenced countless others. A new book by Fred Goodman, Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, captures the lightning-in-a-bottle of her life and music. Fiona McQuarrie spoke with Goodman for PKM.
Lhasa de Sela’s life story is truly astounding. Born to parents who were “black sheep” from wealthy and troubled families, she grew up travelling throughout North America, as her father restlessly pursued various forms of spirituality. The family lived in a converted school bus and had no television, no telephone, and very little money. Lhasa and her three sisters were mostly homeschooled, and entertained themselves by reading, drawing, and writing during endless hours on the road.
After drifting through numerous temporary jobs and a failed attempt at college in her late teens, Lhasa moved to Montreal, where her sister Sky was studying at circus school. There, she met the musicians, artists, and creative people who became the catalysts that sparked her career as a singer and songwriter.
Lhasa performs ‘Luz de Luna’ with her sisters in Cirque Pocheros:
Lhasa’s debut album, La Llorona, gained widespread acclaim throughout Canada and Europe. Critics were enchanted by her low, throaty vocals, and by a sound that simultaneously referenced numerous musical traditions – jazz, blues, fado, flamenco, Mexican folk – and sounded like none of them. She released two other albums, The Living Road and Lhasa, but her career ended far too soon when she died of breast cancer at age 37.
Lhasa performs the Portuguese fado song ‘Meu Amor’:
Fred Goodman first heard Lhasa’s music on a New York radio show in 2010, just after she passed away, and was immediately captivated. The more he learned about her, the more he wanted to write the story of this remarkable artist. As the author of several acclaimed books about the music industry, he knew that a book about a relatively unknown singer with only three albums would be a hard sell; nevertheless, he pursued the idea. And it turned out that her family and friends were more than willing to talk to him about someone who touched them all deeply.
Goodman’s biography Why Lhasa de Sela Matters has just been published by the University of Texas Press. Please Kill Me spoke to him about the book and about Lhasa.
PKM: Something that comes across very clearly in the book is how Lhasa was very open to new influences and to following her artistic path, wherever it took her.
Fred Goodman: She had a tremendous amount of clarity about herself. How she goes from step to step to step in creating herself – from a kid who wants to sing like Billie Holiday into a pretty sophisticated artist. It’s interesting to watch videos of her playing piano, because her piano skills are pretty rudimentary, she’s just trying to pick out a melody. But yet that never interferes with what she’s hearing in her head and how she conveys it.
One of the things that impresses me is that she’s working with guys who are pretty sophisticated musicians. Her original success is with [guitarist] Yves Desrosiers, who’s a fantastic musician, but she has the confidence and the clarity to say, there comes a point where you do what you want to do or you do what other people tell you. And she decided, I’m not going to do what other people tell me. I’m just going to be true to what I hear. And she had the ability to find the people who could help her.
PKM: Her records tended to get classified as ‘world music’, which can be kind of a catch-all for ‘people who don’t sing in English’. And she’s quoted in the book as saying, “I don’t make ‘world music’, I just make music.” How does an artist that distinctive make a career for themselves when they get slotted into pigeon-holes that are hard to get out of?
She decided, I’m not going to do what other people tell me. I’m just going to be true to what I hear.
Fred Goodman: I think she was trying to get out of it. The way I hear her last record, she was moving away from the Francophone musicians and working with English-language musicians, and there’s so much simplifying of what she’s playing. That last record is done live, and it’s just five people making music together, as straightforward as they can be. The tunes are pared back and her vocal style is pared back, and I think she’s just trying to make it as direct as possible. And the record is in English, so she’s very much got her eye on, okay, how do I get away from this.
But you can tell she was going to do other things too. She tells her drummer François Lalonde, when she tells him that she’s not going to use him as the producer on her last record, “I’ve got an idea, I want to go to South America and make a record with musicians there”. So clearly she’s not going to stop doing that. But she doesn’t want to be just that one thing, the world artist.
She used to tell a story that she started singing in Spanish because she was shy and nervous. And there may be some truth to that, but I think, more importantly, it worked. She really connected with the rancheros and that Chavela Vargas type of style. But every time she’s making a record, she’s trying to reinvent herself, and I think that would have kept on happening if she had been fortunate enough for her career to go on and on.
Lhasa performs ‘Los Peces’ with the French Roma band Bratsch
PKM: You describe how on one hand she was a free spirit and how on the other hand she was very practical, in identifying who she wanted to work with and in running the business side of her career.
Fred Goodman: I always think of that Walt Whitman line: “we contain multitudes”. She contained multitudes! She’s practical and she’s dreamy, and you also see the complexity of it when she gets ill. She’s blasé to her friends, but behind closed doors, with her mother, she’s furious. And terrified. And yet she presents something completely different. She’s a complex person, and meeting her parents was the key to me in understanding that. Her parents are both extraordinarily interesting and complicated people, and if you lived alone with just those people, as she did, you would also end up being extraordinarily complicated and varied. Her parents are both iconoclasts that see the world in very different ways.
This is the only book that I’ve written partially from the perspective of a parent. I’m between the ages of Lhasa and her parents, so I relate to both of them. And as a parent, it’s that fantasy: could you really raise your children in a way that all the things that you think are crap, you don’t have to deal with? No telephone, no television – to do that, you have to go completely outside, as her parents did. Look at these beautiful children – they’re daring, they’re creative, they’re bright, they even have a spiritual component to them. And that’s because of their parents. But the parents are very, very different from each other.
It was such an unusual and out of the mainstream life. When Lhasa’s in middle school and living in Albany, in New York state, she’s shocked to see what people her age actually think and act like. I think it’s a shock she never got over, how different she was. Her brother said it great: you fit in everywhere and nowhere. And I think that was her story.
‘Island Song’, the last song Lhasa ever recorded
PKM: As a good Canadian I have to ask you about her time in Montreal. You did a great job of conveying the varied cultural groups and some of the cultural tensions that make it such a fascinating city. Could you speak about what influence Montreal had on her?
Fred Goodman: I’m predisposed to Montreal, I love the city. It’s an extraordinary place. So I had my own take on it, and I could easily understand Lhasa as a product of this remarkable city. There’s room to breathe in Montreal – there really is this sort of freewheeling scene. I was very impressed by her friends and the lives they live. They’ve got one foot in Canada and another foot in the rest of the world, which you don’t see in New York. You have to reach a real level of success in New York before you can step outside of it, and that’s not the case in Montreal because of the ties to France and Europe.
She’s in Montreal, she has no money and no food, and her father says, don’t quit your job. And she says, “oh, no, Dad, if I can’t sing, I don’t want to live”.
I don’t know why she appealed so well to the Anglophone community, because her career was in the Francophone community right off the bat. But she crosses over right away. Maybe it’s because of the Spanish thing, which is outside of both. And her success in Europe is a wonderful thing, even if she was frustrated about not being heard in the United States. When I interviewed Patrick Watson, he joked [about saying to her], ‘you can complain that you didn’t make it in the United States, but at least you don’t have to be on a bus between Cleveland and Cincinnati’ [laughs].
Lhasa and Patrick Watson covering Elliott Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’
PKM: How much of her story did you know before you decided to write the book?
Fred Goodman: I knew a little bit about the bus story. I knew that the family were on the bus. I certainly didn’t know about the tragedy of her half-sister [from her mother’s first marriage] falling out a window, and the fight with the grandmother [her mother’s mother] over custody that went on for a long time. The deep sadness that was in the family, I had no idea about. I had no conception of any of that when I started, and I’m fortunate that people were willing to talk about it.
PKM: It really comes across in the book, too, that she wasn’t a dilettante. She wasn’t singing just to pay her rent.
Fred Goodman: She did the work, she took herself very seriously, and she was really hard on herself. There’s something very dramatic about her. Early on in the book, she’s in Montreal, she has no money and no food, and her father says, don’t quit your job. And she says, “oh, no, Dad, if I can’t sing, I don’t want to live”. Now this sounds kind of dramatic coming from a 19-year-old, and it’s tragic considering what happened, but she was a very dramatic woman. And I think that’s one of the reasons why her records are so good.
The video for Lhasa’s song ‘Con Toda Palabra’:
PKM: Lhasa loved the Andrew Lang books of fairy tales, and your book ends with Lang’s story of “The Girl-Fish”. Why did you choose that particular story?
Fred Goodman: Because it’s the one that echoes the things that Lhasa’s bringing up. The trope of turning into animals turns up in other stories, but her friend Sarah Pagé tells the story of how Lhasa always said she’d look great with antlers. As a kid, she thought that if she had antlers, everyone would see how beautiful she was. So once I heard that, I knew where that came from. She must have read this story as a kid, and she loved the fact that the prince sees this girl as a deer and is hopelessly smitten with her. This appeals to [Lhasa’s] romanticism, “someone will see how beautiful I am”. It could have been another story, but this is a good one.