Biographer Fred Goodman Remembers Lhasa de Sela

An artist in every sense of the word, Lhasa de Sela wowed audiences around the globe with her multilingual songs and spellbinding performances, mixing together everything from Gypsy music to Mexican rancheras, Americana and jazz, chanson française, and South American folk melodies. Tracing de Sela’s unconventional life and introducing her to a new generation, Fred Goodman’s book Why Lhasa de Sela Matters is the first biography of this sophisticated creative icon.

Lhasa de Sela was born on September 27, 1972, and on the anniversary of her birth, biographer Fred Goodman pays tribute to her and her legacy, revealing the ways her unorthodox life shaped her creativity. Following Fred Goodman’s tribute is his curated playlist that serves as a musical introduction to America’s first world music chanteuse [ Spotify | YouTube ]. Why Lhasa de Sela Matters is the latest book in our Music Matters series and publishes November 11, 2019.

Remembering Lhasa de Sela

By Fred Goodman

The singular, otherworldly American singer Lhasa de Sela—who wrote and recorded in Spanish, French, and English and performed songs in nearly a dozen other languages—would have turned forty-seven on September 27. A spiritual and artistic pilgrim, she possessed an insatiable hunger for knowledge and left behind a musical legacy culled from her unique affinity for the romantic, mystic, and cerebral.

Beginning with her first album in 1997, Lhasa’s multilingual songs and her spellbinding shows made the singer-songwriter a sensation in Montreal and Europe. But even today, nearly ten years after her death, her work and individuality have yet to register with listeners in her homeland. Contradictory and complex, Lhasa was both a naïf and a melancholic, a pixie with an enduring apprehension of life’s hardships as well as its magic. In the course of a heartbreakingly brief career of just thirteen years and three albums, she worked her own musical turf, part Edith Piaf, part Tinkerbell.

She came by her artistic and spiritual wanderlust honestly. Raised in a family of bohemian nomads, Lhasa was born in an unused Catskills Mountains ski chalet in Big Indian, New York, twenty-five miles northwest of Woodstock. The attending hippie doctor, shirtless and in overalls, focused most of his medical supervision on splitting a gallon of Gallo burgundy with the expectant mother. Beautiful and healthy, the as-yet unnamed baby was wrapped in a blanket; with no cradle to hand, she slept in a dresser drawer.

Her peripatetic life began just a few days later, when the family was kicked out of Big Indian and set off for Mexico. But it wasn’t until five months later that her parents finally found a name they felt suited their new daughter. Having read Timothy Leary’s popular handbook on LSD, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the couple then tackled the original Buddhist tome that had inspired Leary. Along with providing a spiritual guide to navigating bardo, the state in which a Buddhist’s consciousness sits suspended between death and rebirth, the book told of the holy city of Lhasa, built high on the Tibetan plateau. The name means “place of the gods,” and somehow, those rarified heights and aspirations felt like an appropriate christening and wish.

“They were incapable of having a middle-class life,” Lhasa de Sela would say years later when asked about her mother and father. “Their parents were well-off, but they were the black sheep of their families. They took a lot of hallucinogenic drugs and took incredible risks.”

Raised in a converted school bus crossing back and forth between Mexico and the United States, Lhasa and her three sisters were homeschooled and grew up without a telephone or television. And while their parents rejected the bulk of mainstream America’s material and social assumptions, they were fierce about instilling in their children an unquenchable curiosity, a deep devotion to spiritual and intellectual advancement, and the veneration of creativity.

“What was really passed to us in the way we were raised is that life is an interior search,” says her sister Miriam. “A lot of soul-searching and trying to be truthful to your intuition. And in a very vague way trying to trust something that’s invisible. I would have to say that was a huge part of Lhasa’s life: constant self-searching.” That spiritual and intellectual search would, in turn, illuminate her writings and performances.

An exhilarating childhood, it was also a life of uncertainty, isolated and lived without nets. The month that Lhasa turned eight, she was living in a broken-down bus behind an Exxon station in Elk Grove, California. Her father was picking melons by day and rebuilding a replacement engine salvaged from a junkyard by night; Lhasa and her sisters studied with their mother in the mornings and worked gathering tomatoes in the afternoons. On her birthday, there was a Raggedy Ann party in the bus; Lhasa’s mother made a doll, her sisters crafted a piñata, and friends provided a Raggedy Ann cake. As an adult, Lhasa would tag it her most memorable birthday.

Though lived close to the bone, that unorthodox upbringing proved a petri dish for nurturing a family of extraordinarily focused iconoclasts and autodidacts. Lhasa’s sisters would go on to careers as circus performers—a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist, and a gymnast—with Lhasa at one point taking a break from her own career to join their circus troupe in France. A loner at heart, Lhasa would always remain somewhat estranged from society at large; her unusual upbringing and the lessons imparted by her parents—particularly, that life is an adventure not to be missed—left her unable to fathom the lack of curiosity and discipline in so many of the people she met. “She kind of fit in everywhere but also nowhere,” says her half-brother, Mischa Karam.

At the age of twelve, Lhasa heard Billie Holiday for the first time and became obsessed with transforming herself into a singer. A move at nineteen to Montreal, with its thriving dual French and English music scenes, broadened her perspective. Lhasa’s unique ability to incorporate whatever came her way, forged in that unlikely, supercharged childhood, would lead her as a musician to make use of anything she deemed moving and meaningful, from Gypsy music to Mexican rancheras, Americana, jazz and fado, chanson française and South American folk melodies. She had an eye for the authentic, an unfailing ear for the heartfelt.

Though she was likely this country’s first world music chanteuse, Lhasa nonetheless remains virtually unknown in the United States. In recent years, reggaetón and Spanglish pop hits such as “Despacito” have worked their way into America’s pop lexicon, but that wasn’t the case twenty-odd years ago, when Lhasa released her first album, the all-Spanish La Llorona. A musical séance calling up ghosts from a long-lost world of legend and romance, the album became a bestseller in Canada and made her a star in France and much of Europe but never registered here. Her trilingual second album, The Living Road, was one of the United Kingdom’s most critically lauded albums of 2003, and critics there acclaimed Lhasa “a multilingual global diva.” Her continuing American anonymity feels inexplicable. “The language really did not make any difference,” observed the Canadian music journalist Nicholas Jennings. “What she was putting forth transcended language, she was such an intense performer. She had all the depth of emotion of an actress or an opera singer. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.”

As ambitious as she was artistic, Lhasa had set her eyes on conquering the United States. She didn’t imagine her time was running short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, Lhasa nonetheless continued to plot an American tour while writing and recording her only all-English album, 2009’s Lhasa. But for Lhasa, America would prove a dream that has yet to come to fruition: she died at her home in Montreal on New Year’s Day, 2010, at the age of thirty-seven.

About the author: Fred Goodman is a former editor at Rolling Stone whose work has appeared in the New York Times and many magazines. His previous books include the award-winning The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce.