A tri-lingual singer, whose startlingly original music earned her a subtanstial cult following, and comparisons with the likes of Tom Waits, Edith Piaf, and Nick Cave, Lhasa de Sela was a true one-off. Blessed with striking looks, a husky contralto and an intense, theatrical stage presence, she mesmerised audiences with her dream-like, tangentially biographical songs.
These drew on sources as diverse as Mexican ranchera, French chanson and Gypsy folk as well as alt. rock, country, gospel and blues, and reflected her bohemian, peripatetic upbringing. However, she was ambivalent about – and intimidated by – the sudden fame they brought her. In a brief but colourful career, she released only three albums, with combined sales of over one million, a large proportion of them in the Francophone world of Canada and France, where she spent several formative years. Her songs were used in the television series The Sopranos, as well as the Madonna documentary I Am Because We Are and John Sayles' Casa De Los Babys (2003).
She met with more limited success in the UK, where she debuted at London's Jazz Café in April 2004 as part of the annual La Linea festival of Latin Music. The following year, she won the Americas category in the BBC Radio 3 Awards For World Music. She also collaborated with the similarly cultish British pop noir group Tindersticks, recording "Sometimes It Hurts" for their album Waiting For The Moon (2003) and later duetting with their lead singer Stuart Staples on "That Leaving Feeling," which appeared on his 2006 album Leaving Songs.
Lhasa was one of 10 children, and was brought up in an unconventional way that predisposed her to an artistic life. Her father Alejandro was a Mexican writer and teacher, and her mother Alexandra an American photographer, of partly Lebanese descent. Both were also amateur musicians; he sang and played flute, and she sang and played harp, and later, the gujong, a Chinese zither. They both encouraged her to sing from an early age, and exposed her to an eclectic array of roots music, ranging from the Egyptian diva Oum Khalsoum and the Portuguese fado queen Amália Rodrigues to militant Latin American nueva canción.
In a 2005 interview with Roots magazine, Lhasa – often referred to by her first name – revealed that another unlikely early influence was Donovan's For Little Ones album, which she first heard as a five-year-old:
"It made me want to write poems and walk down dusty roads and fall in love and be wise and know mysteries, speak to animals," she said. "I still remember the images I had in my mind when I listened to his songs."
By this time, the family were on the road, living a nomadic hippie lifestyle that took them back and forth across the United States and Mexico for around seven years. The children were home-schooled, without TV, but with plenty of books that fuelled their imaginations. When she was 11, after her parents separated, Lhasa then lived with her mother in San Francisco, where she was given lessons by a jazz singer. She took her first steps on a public stage at 13, singing Billie Holliday songs and Mexican folklore in a Greek café.
She continued singing solo like this until they moved to Montreal five years later, where she met the rock guitarist Yves Desroisier, with whom she formed a duo. Over the next eight years, they gradually accumulated collaborators, who would eventually make up the group that recorded La Llorona, Lhasa's 1997 debut. Sung entirely in Spanish, it became a word-of-mouth hit, winning a Felix prize for "Artiste québécois – musique de monde" and then a Canadian Juno award for Best Global Artist the following year.
Lhasa's success saw her embark on gruelling tours of Europe and North America (including an unhappy experience as part of the travelling Lilith Fair music festival) over the next two years. Feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the burden of expectation, she bailed out in the summer of 1999, stepping off the treadmill of the music industry to fulfil a childhood dream of running away to join the circus. She did this by making a rendezvous with her three sisters in Bourgogne, France.
For the next year, they toured their own circus show around the country, after which Lhasa settled for the next two and a half years in Marseille. It was there that she worked on the material for her second album, The Living Road, which finally appeared in 2003, after she had moved back to Montreal. This time, Lhasa sang in Spanish, French and English and drew her own fantastical cover illustrations to enhance the music's dark, fairy-tale ambience.
It would be another six years before the appearance of the follow-up album Lhasa, a more stripped-down and rather austere work, which found her switching entirely to English. It was released in April 2009, by which time she had begun her battle with breast cancer, the first public sign of which came when she was forced to postpone a European tour in the summer.
In August 2009, Lhasa's songs "La Marée Haute" and "Pa Llegar Tu Lado" were used in Sophie Barthes' feature film Cold Souls. Later that year, she was forced to cancel an international autumn tour, and plans for an album of covers of songs by her early nueva canció*inspirations Víctor Jara and Violeta Parra had to be abandoned.
Lhasa de Sela, singer and songwriter: born Big Indian, New York 27 September 1972; died Montreal 1 January 2010.
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