As Fred Goodman makes clear in Why Lhasa de Sela Matters (University of Texas Press), the late world-music troubadour never made it easy on anyone. Start with her music. Lhasa (as she called herself professionally) was born and raised in America but became a one-stop global musician: Goodman accurately describes her blend of “Gypsy music and flamenco, Mexican rancheras, Americana and jazz, Portuguese fado, Middle Eastern pop songs, Russian lullabies,chanson française, and South American folk melodies.” A dramatic, exposed-nervous-system singer, she seemed to pour everything into a performance; it’s no surprise that she dabbled in fado, the emotive style of balladry that has been sung in Portugal for about 200 years.
If that wasn’t enough for some listeners to handle, Lhasa recorded many of those songs in Spanish or French, thus limiting her chances of breaking out in the States, and was unremittingly stubborn. She fled the music business at least once and shunned the “world music” tag that might have made her art more marketable. Sadly, she also didn’t make it easy on her own health. Diagnosed with near-stage-four breast cancer in 2008, she initially resisted chemo, opting for natural remedies, but even after she finally underwent radiation treatments, her cancer spread, and she died in January 2010.
As former Rolling Stone editor (and The Mansion on the Hill author) Goodman chronicles in this slim but absorbing book, which includes interviews with seemingly every major figure in her life, Lhasa’s life was as unconventional as her music. Her family is a story unto itself. Lhasa’s hippie father was the American-born son of a Mexican businessman and Panamanian concert pianist. Her mother was raised in New York, the black sheep of an artistic and wealthy family who went on to have a romance (and share heroin) with jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Lhasa herself was born in Woodstock, New York; she was home-schooled and grew up without a television.
The unusual nature of her childhood and teen years bled into her adult life. Her first album, 1997’s La Llorona, was named after a figure in Aztec mythology and was equally exotic and mysterious in its music, which blended folk from seemingly many different countries. Although not a crossover hit, it made enough of a splash to land Lhasa a slot on the inaugural Lilith Fair tour that year. To her dismay, though, she was relegated to the smaller second stage and later complained about the “whiny” quality of many of the female singer-songwriters on that tour.
Throughout Goodman’s book, the impression one gets is of an intense, driven artist who wasn’t always necessarily easy to be with (Goodman recounts her many relationships), and who had, in the words of her sister Miriam, an “insane integrity” about her. Blowing off a follow-up album that would capitalize on her buzz, she instead joined a circus — literally — when she moved to France to work on a traveling gypsy circus with her family members. Lhasa eventually wound up in Canada, where she had moved to attend a circus school, and finally made a second album in 2003. Although she came to see it as overproduced, The Living Road was her most commercially accessible record; two of its most moving songs, “Anywhere on This Road” and “Small Song,” should have become stalwarts on AAA-minded outlets like SiriusXM’s Spectrum channel.
But as with other experimentally minded singer-songwriters, like the late Tim Buckley, Lhasa insisted on tinkering with that formula. Her last studio album, 2009’s Lhasa, was another twist — stark and wrenching, reflecting the fact that she was battling her illness during its creation. That year, she was offered what would have surely been a breakthrough gig — as one of Leonard Cohen’s backup singers on his must-see comeback tour. Instead, she died months later, leaving behind a small but indelible legacy — pop music’s last boho, a ghost still waiting for someone to take up that mantle.