20:00 - 23:55 GMT
Hall 2, The Sage Gateshead, St Mary's Square, Gateshead Quays
Lhasa de Sela’s debut album “La Llorona” confused many critics when it was released back in 1998. It was difficult to categorise this girl from Quebec, born of a Mexican father and an American mother in the United States, and who sang in Spanish to a music they could not put a name to.
They were at a loss for words when they tried to describe the literally inhabited songs, where shadows played like ghosts, transfigured shadows of blues, gypsy music, South American rhythms, cabaret and country music. They did not know what to make of this 25-year old whose impassioned vocals seemed to be offering a glimpse of some kind of ancient wisdom, some legend handed down through the depths of time. The fact that she did not belong to a scene, or any established milieu, only served to make Lhasa’s debut even more disconcerting. However this is not to say that she simply fell to earth from nowhere. She is a solitary soul whose memories embrace elder sisters (Billie Holiday, Chavela Vargas, Björk) and legendary forces of nature (Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, Vladimir Vissotski). She sees them as examples, rather than models, examples who have encouraged her to develop a vocal signature of her own which is quite unlike any other: her dark, smooth voice is suffused with myriad iridescent reflections and its immense vulnerability is, courageously, betrayed by her subtle delivery and troubling lyricism. Above all, Lhasa possesses something of infinite value, something which many of her peers would gladly sell their soul to own: she has presence. When she is performing, her voice, her movements and the look in her eyes light up every single note of the music, right to the final moment of silence into which each song finally returns. Everything about her is alive – there is a tremulous, palpitant pulse running through her being, as if there is a need to continually celebrate the eternal magic of life itself.
Like her sisters, Lhasa spent her entire childhood living in the family bus, as they travelled back and forth across the US-Mexican border. She has never lost the appetite for movement that she acquired back then, and each time that she has found herself in a new place, Lhasa has managed to seek out a new path to follow. Initially, at the tender age of 13, in San Francisco, where she first tasted the dangerous beauty of song, performing in a small local café. Then, later, in Montreal in 1991, when she met guitarist Yves Desrosiers with whom she wrote the music for “La Llorona.” Captivated by her feral voice, the marginal rock musician was inspired to create delicate melodic motifs and subtly polychromatic arrangements for her. Indeed, Lhasa’s vocals and lyrics merge seamlessly with this rich, multi-dimensional world of sound. When you listen to Lhasa’s music, you realize that the travelling not only shaped her youth, but that it also distorted her vision of the world and her conception of time in a quite delightful way. A poet once said that frontiers only present any kind of concrete reality for souls with a sedentary spirit. The itinerant lifestyle which was handed down to Lhasa has given her the firm conviction that no barrier exists which could narrow the horizons of her own desires. She is unaffected by the compartmentalization of music and oblivious to the dictates of fashion. This is why her music is so much more than a simple fusion of styles or a kind of acrobatic slalom between genres. The release of her second album is a testament to the fact that she is freedom made manifest.
“The Living Road” is a more open album and simultaneously more richly nuanced than “La Llorona”; it bears the colours of a popular art which shies away from taking the easy way out or succumbing to habit, and which resolutely refuses to feel obliged to dress itself up in the showy garb of current musical trends. While Lhasa wrote most of the tracks, she co-wrote some of them with Yves Desrosiers, Vincent Segal, Didier Dumoutier and Jérôme Lapierre, as well as working with François Lalonde and Jean Massicotte (old friends and songwriting partners) whose production and arrangements provide the perfect ambiance for the songs: acoustic and ethereal. Piano, marimba and cello frame the tumultuous lyrics of “J’arrive à la Ville,” while intricately woven rhythms and beats cradle the suspended melody on “Anywhere On This Road,” and drive the fine bastringue of “Small Song.” Lap steel guitar and trumpet unravel in the wide open spaces of “Abro la Ventana,” while droplets of glockenspiel and Rhodes piano imbue the winding melody of “My Name.” A solitary piano, left to its own devices, marks the languid rhythm of a waltz in minor (“Pa’llagara Tu Lado”), and the notes of a vibraphone float down like snowflakes to softly cover the final words of “Soon This Space Will Be Too Small.” This is music which denies itself nothing, but which has the supreme virtue of being perfectly balanced.
As for Lhasa’s feverish vocals, she describes the timeless gestures of lovers burning with desire, and those of nomadic souls, with a fresh new maturity. She is painfully eloquent when expressing herself in Spanish, and this time she plays with the sinuous lines of English as well as the distinct tones of the French language. Three tongues which are loosened as never before by the unique grace of a style of songwriting which knows no boundaries. Simply listening to “J’arrive à la Ville”, “La Marée Haute” and “La Confession” is enough to convince you. These three tracks skilfully break the rules and brilliantly sever the customary ties of French chanson. In this theatre of shadows and light, in this vast intimate landscape where she strives to question certitudes and heighten the vertiginous consciousness of her own heart, Lhasa shines more than ever. In an era where the act of singing is reduced to that of an athletic feat, she fights on, perpetuating a history of songwriting which is both proud and fragile, songwriting which derives feelings and senses from their very source. She destroys the age-old accepted notion that popular songwriting has only two sides to it, that it is either joyful or melancholy. With “The Living Road”, Lhasa suggests that it is not a case of music being either joyful or melancholy, but simply, that some music pulsates with life while other music is stillborn, that some music exudes the thousand perfumes of human existence while other music remains artificial. Needless to say, Lhasa’s art belongs in the first category.
tickets: contact The Sage Gateshead, click link below.