Published Dec 10, 2019Lhasa de Sela matters. So much is proven in Fred Goodman's new book from the University of Texas Press' "Music Matters" series, titled Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, the birth-to-death tale about the wildcard bohemian singer who lived a large chapter of her peculiar life in Canada.
A curious learner from birth, Lhasa de Sela was a musician with deep ties to the Montreal scene in the late '90s and early '00s. Her mere three records (including her Juno-winning debut La Llorona, as well as 2003's The Living Road and her final album Lhasa) attracted international acclaim, as well as the attention of artists like Patrick Watson, Feist, Sarah Pagé and Leonard Cohen, among others. Singing in multiple languages, de Sela would be relegated to "world music" sections of awards ceremonies and festival stages — a title she deeply resented, often asserting that her songs were "just music." Her final album was recorded shortly before she tragically succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 37.
Through gripping, dynamic storytelling, the author paints a lavish portrait of this sometimes-nomadic and temperamental, yet lovable artist. Using her curiosity-driven family as a contextual backdrop — including her unhinged mother Alexandra, her philosopher father Alejandro and her nine eccentric siblings — Goodman shows where the road less travelled can lead.
Despite her talent and often goofy behaviour, de Sela was a deeply sensitive woman. She grew up in the shadow of her talented sisters, realizing her path much later than anyone else in her family. Her halted progress caused her to develop insecurities about her worth early on in life, which she coped with by delving deeply into her vibrant imagination. There, she could rectify her sadness with fairytale-like concepts. "She said when she was a kid she always dreamed of having antlers," friend and collaborator Sarah Pagé says of the artist. "She thought if she had antlers, she'd be so beautiful. And everyone would look at her, see her antlers and realize how beautiful she was."
But she would grow into herself eventually. After moving to Montreal, Lhasa gained so much ground in the music scene through her enchanting performances and eclectic style. "It wasn't a show — you were going into her universe," Sandra Khouri tells Goodman. "She was a real magician of the soul."
Her captivating life is detailed with such care by its raconteur, who calls on de Sela's massive family, as well as fellow musicians, collaborators, friends and past lovers, to recount the rollercoaster story that is this mysterious character's life. Between her childhood living in a bus, moving to Montreal, recording her first album and blowing up in the music world (only to later join the circus), Goodman maps his subject's intricate story with the deepest consideration — never treating her like an artefact and never holding back on the grittiness de Sela both endured and inflicted on others.
Goodman's book — it matters too. Why Lhasa de Sela Matters is divided into five chapters, but reads as one lengthy essay, making it a hypnotic read. Each chapter flows into the next seamlessly, stacking anecdotes with analysis, one on top of the other, for a story that you'll never want to end. But like all good things, it does end — and I'm sorry to say — tragically.
What makes Lhasa's story so pertinent now is its connection to so many times, places and people, and its resonance with the Canadian cultural landscape. This is an undertold story about an artist who embodied a multinational identity while living and creating in Canada — a narrative that is of profound familiarity and national relevance.
Why Lhasa de Sela Matters is a long, winding tale, with amazing highs and decimating lows, all about a rare and old soul, someone who was taken from this life far too soon. Fans and the uninitiated alike will be equally enthralled by this lovely and all-too-short story — one that is incredibly difficult to put down. (University of Texas Press)