The great thing about timeless music is it is never too late to hear. You can never “miss the boat” because records last forever and with streaming services, everything is perpetually available. One only needs the chance of discovery, which can appear from randomized generators and algorithms, or from a friends Facebook post, where I found Lhasa de Sela a few weeks ago. It was the tenth anniversary of Lhasa’s death, and I had previously never encountered her songs. It’s difficult to say why I listened to the song my friend shared; there are dozens, if not hundreds of posts I skipped past without clicking on the included links. Within seconds of doing so, I was happy I had.
Lhasa’s voice has a distinct warmth and tone, that envelopes you like a heavy duvet on a cold winter night. Her accent is difficult to pin down and she drags some of her syllables in a way that reminds me of Nico, but, where Velvet Underground’s one-time chanteuse had a narrow sometimes atonal range, Lhasa’s voice is fluid and undulating. After listening to one intriguing song (the name now escapes me), I clicked on another called “Rising.” It was even more stunning than the previous one. A slow waltz led by an assiduous mandolin, diligent percussion, guitar and piano, letting Lhasa’s voice somberly hover over everything. The overall effect reminds me of seeing Leonard Cohen and his band in the last few tours. Each instrument expertly utilized for full emotional impact, it was only when the applause erupted at the end of the song, that I realized it was a live track. I listened to “Rising” three more times, then hurriedly called my local record stores and scoured websites for a vinyl copy to purchase. Two weeks later, here I am, excitedly listening to the album on my turntable.
Recorded live at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland 2009, this is a perfect introduction to the multi-national chanteuse. Mexican-American born, Lhasa spent her final years between Canada and France. Songs in this collection range in spoken languages as much as her varied home countries. Lyrics float from one song to the next, sung in English, Spanish and French. Her lyrics are precise in executing a feeling without being overly finite or specific.
A wonderful bonus are the soft-spoken introductions to the songs from Lhasa. She’s humble in seeing such a large crowd for their first show on the tour; makes sure to give co-songwriting credit for “Fool’s Gold,” and charmingly laughs about how they’ve played a lot of songs with “scary men and scary women” and now “we need a romantic song.”
Only 37 when she passed away from cancer, one wonders what artistic and commercial heights Lhasa could have reached. I’m only learning now that the world lost a truly great artist in 2010. Her music has endured and should continue to do so. Lhasa’s voice and songs will echo through time and find their way to ears of romantic fans of timeless music, fitting on a special shelf in our hearts and record collections beside Nick Drake, Francoise Hardy, Vashti Bunyan and Leonard Cohen.
Photo Credit: Ryan Morey