Fans love Lhasa de Sela for her eclectic past, for her hesitant delivery when introducing songs and for her apparent lack of interest in cashing in on her success. But most of all they appreciate the gut-wrenching honesty she demonstrates in her songs and the raw emotion she reveals and revels in. Her work transits between the personal and the mythic, with a voice both sensual and heavenly. Her lyrics are earthy and simple yet they evoke her interest in t he mythical.
Growing up in a converted school bus in campgrounds and parks across Mexico and the United States, Lhasa came by her lack of interest in material things honestly. Her pedigree is pe rfect. She was born not far from Woodstock, New York, in the Catskill Mountains, her family soon thereafter evicted from the house in which they were squatting. The first 11 years of her life were spent being home-schooled by her Mexican philosopher/fruit picker father and her American photographer/music-collecting mother. “My parents had four kids living in a box with no money and no work,” she recalls.
With no television, entertainment was strictly non-electronic, with massive doses of fairy tales and music as part of the daily schedule. As a result, Lhasa says, she developed a lively imagination and a love of myth and magic.
By the time she was 12, Lhasa’s family (10 brothers and sisters) had settled in San Francisco and Lhasa soon began singing on open stages, after being inspired by a Billie Holday album from her mother’s collection. “I was galvanized. Holiday was probably under heroin and in a trance, but it was very emotional and zero, zero artifice. She qas in the music completely and the smallest gesture came from a deep place.”
At 19, fed up with formal schooling, Lhasa made her way to Canada to visit three of her sisters who were studying circus performance in Montreal. She had a serendipitous meeting with Yves Desrosiers, a Quebecois musician, who shared her appreciation of music, sensitivity and sadness. And somewhere along the way she developed the ability to attack a song with the sensitivity of a Dory Previn and the strength of a Sonny Rollins.
While learning to become a chanteuse in the smoky bars of Le Plateau in Montreal, Lhasa (accompanied by Desrosiers and a band comprised of other Montreal musicians) recorded her first album in her kitchen. La Llorona (a highly original collection of mythical songs inspired by the 15th century Spanish poetry she was immersed in at the time) became a hit in both English and French Canada, although the entire album was sung in Spanish.
Offering music lovers a sound impossible to classify and a persona equally difficult to lavel, Lhasa de Sela began seducing audiences across North America and abroad. Appealing to a sophisticated multi-lingual public she serenaded in Spanish, backed by musical Esperanto, a jazzy mixture of Mexican, klezmer and gypsy. It was a great start to a career.
Then, in 1997 disaster struck in the form of success. La Llorona went gold in Canada and France, winning her a Juno award for Best Global Album in Canada, a Felix in Quebec and accolades galore in Europe. She won a spot on the Lilith Fair tour, a jumping off spot for young women musicians.
Overwhelmed by a heavy schedule of touring and interviews in Europe after Lilith Fair, Lhasa started to panic. “Basically, my dreams came true,” Lhasa says, summing up the problem posed by the unanticipated success of La Llorona. “Success is a pretty scary thing for a lot of people.” The quick recognition led her to a burnout, fearing disaster with every show, interview and song she performed.
In response, Lhasa took four years off to join her three circus-performing sisters for a year. “I couldn’t have just come ou t with another album,” she explains, “because I feel like you have to write about your own journey and if your own journey is just touring…”