Perla Batalla brings the music of Leonard Cohen to the Rothstein Theatre March 11. (photo from Chutzpah!)
I didn’t choose singing. It chose me,” Perla Batalla told the Independent in an email interview. Batalla brings her personal and moving tribute to her good friend, Leonard Cohen, to the Chutzpah! Festival March 11.
“He was not only a mentor and a friend, but also a very great inspiration. Being as I was young when I worked with Leonard – I was in my 20s – I watched him like I was watching a master and learning as much as I possibly could,” she said. “His need to always seek the comfort of his audience was truly generous – and all too rare. We began working together in the 1980s and we never lost touch, even after I was touring on my own.
“In Leonard’s earlier tours,” she said, “he would tell stories before every song – very funny, honest stories about his life. Each night he’d tell similar stories, but they always seemed fresh – like I’d never heard them before – I think that was because of his honesty, and his ability to show up and always be authentic, be authentically Leonard Cohen.
“He had a huge impact on what I do and how I perform. If I approach a song with unconditional honesty, the meaning is not static – it can ebb and flow as I relate the words to my own life and experiences.”
In Vancouver, Batalla – who lives in Ojai, Calif. – will be joined by pianist Michael Sobie.
“He recently returned after touring as assistant conductor and pianist with the Game of Thrones Concert Stadium Tour,” Batalla said. “Michael also performs as the principal pops pianist with the Grand Rapids Symphony and has toured internationally as pianist/conductor with Broadway musicals like Les Misérables, Wicked, Aïda and tons more. He is a dream to work with.”
Perla Batalla in the House of Cohen features songs and personal stories that “reveal Cohen’s lighter side,” notes Batalla’s website. It also shows “her sincere respect and deep love for the music, the poetry and, most of all, for her dear friend, Leonard Cohen.” Cohen passed away Nov. 7, 2016.
Batalla released her first recording in 1994, an eponymous CD on the Warner/Discovery label, and has since produced six CDs on her own label, Mechuda Music, one of which, Bird on the Wire, was a tribute to Cohen. Internationally known, Batalla composes and performs in both English and Spanish. The names of two of her CDs, Discoteca Batalla and Mestiza, more than hint at how important her heritage is to her.
“I grew up in Venice, Calif.,” she said. “Our family owned a Mexican record shop called Discoteca Batalla, which served as an important hub for Latino culture in West L.A. I constantly feel the push and pull of the Afro-Mexican influence from my father and the Euro-Argentine-Jewish elements from my mom. This is my own mestiza, mix – I wouldn’t trade it for the world. From all sides, theatricality is in my bones, my roots. I don’t only use my voice to sing a song. To completely engage, I have to use my entire body. And it has to be sincere. It has to come from within.”
She said she comes from a long line of musicians on her father’s side in Mexico and theatre people on her mother’s side in Argentina. “My father was a singer and my uncle, Cipriano Silva, was a trumpet player with the world-famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán,” she added. “My desire to sing came early – when my family took a camping trip, I can remember sitting by myself among the redwoods singing to them. I made up a song and it felt strange, but good. Trees are a very attentive audience.
“When I was a little older,” she continued, “I remember watching my uncles and my father (who were usually pretty scary) singing traditional songs after dinner and openly weeping as they sang – and it occurred to me at the time that music seemed to have a unique power. By the time I was in my teens, I was studying opera privately and singing in clubs at night; I have never wanted to do anything else.”
When asked about her creative process, how a song comes to her, she said, “Research and serendipity. My current Frida Kahlo project, Blue House, is an example. I wanted this song cycle to be a love letter to the creative spirit. My songwriting partner, David Batteau, and I began by reading everything we could get our hands on; we spent a lot of time in museums; I even started to paint and do art pieces. Through research and discussion, ideas begin to appear like ghosts. It starts as a thread, and then we follow the thread to wherever it leads; destinations we had no idea were even there when we embarked.
“I am also inspired by stories. When I keep my ears open, I can hear stories everywhere. Sometimes there can be a great story hidden within a painting, a black-and-white photograph, or a symphony.”
Not only has Batalla been recognized for her work in music, but she also has been awarded for trying to heal the world in other ways, as well.
“I am most grateful for having the opportunity to do educational outreach with at-risk youth in underserved communities around the U.S.,” she said. “I take a lot of time to talk with the students about how being creative can give you power. Sometimes young people just need to be given permission to explore the artistic horizon.
“Passing on love and appreciation for music, poetry and the beauty of the Spanish language to the next generation of artists is paramount. I want young people to discover the magic of song. When words and music collide with honesty and humanity, the result is the foundation on which everything of life is built. At a time when art and music are marginalized in the education of youth, I am now more than ever committed to educational outreach as I travel throughout the world. Exposing young audiences to the beauty of art, music and poetry through music and live theatre may be our best defence against the current onslaught of cynicism.”
As for her love of Cohen’s music?
“For me, it is his imagery, use of metaphor and painful honesty, which gives Leonard’s lyrics such depth of meaning,” she said. “His poems and songs are also intrinsically personal. When I sing his songs, Leonard’s lyrics help sustain me – I reinterpret them with each performance. Plus, his lifetime dedication to his craft at the expense of all else is the epitome of devotion to beauty.”
She added, “For an artist, reading reviews or caring what everyone thinks is the kiss of death. Since I’m human, I do care what some people think, but, in the end, I do what will satisfy my creative goals and desires. I am grateful every day that I have the freedom to take chances and continue my own journey.”
Perla Batalla in the House of Cohen is at the Rothstein Theatre for one performance only, on March 11, 7:30 p.m.
For all of the Chutzpah! music offerings and the full festival schedule, visit chutzpahfestival.com.