January 14, 2010

What’s with all the untimely deaths of influential musical artists in recent weeks? First Vic Chesnutt left us on Christmas Day, then Lhasa de Sela on New Year’s Day, and the latest just yesterday: Jay Reatard.

I don’t really know Chesnutt and Reatard’s music, but I’m a huge Lhasa admirer, so I was devastated to hear about her death from breast cancer at the age of 37. When I saw a tweet about it, I didn’t want to believe it. I had no idea she was battling the disease for 21 months.

I first heard her music in June 1997. I was deciding which artist to interview for the Vancouver Courier in advance of that summer’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and after hearing tracks from her debut album La Llorona, I knew she had to be the one. I was completely entranced with her acutely intense vocals in Spanish and the music that combined ranchera, klezmer and more in a style that couldn’t be categorized. Lhasa, a Montrealer with Mexican-American roots, was a joy to interview and turned out to be one of the hits of the folk fest.

I interviewed her again in 1998 and over the years caught probably all of her Vancouver shows. I can even remember the exact venues: the Vogue Theatre, Starfish Room, Richard’s on Richards and the Commodore in a dream double-bill with Calexico. That show, in 2004, was the last time I heard Lhasa perform live. She was a generous performer who upped the intensity even more on stage.

I’ll end with some quotes from the articles I wrote on Lhasa:

On why, at the time, she preferred singing in Spanish:

“Physically, the voice comes from a different place. It’s kind of more torn out of the entrails. It’s more profound in some way. Also, I think the whole kind of poetic aura of the language is very emotional, very evocative. That’s why it’s such a rich language to perform and sing in.”

On why audiences connect so strongly with her singing and stage presence:

After a long pause, she says it’s hard to answer the question without sounding arrogant. But then Lhasa offers an explanation for why she and her bandmates strike resonant chords. “I think there are a lot of entertainers out there. We’re not entertainers at all. For me it’s something more mysterious than that. I don’t know if there are a lot of people who completely give themselves, heart and soul, to music like we are constantly trying to do.”


One comment

  1. Yes, I heard about this on CBC the other day. A great loss. I saw her at a small club in Toronto and she was spellbinding.

    And I’ve actually seen Jay Reatard a couple of times. Another loss, that’s for sure. Solid music, and I’m not sure any other band will master the hair toss in quite the same way … http://bunklelife.blogspot.com/2008/04/great-moments-in-rock-hair.html

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