MONTREAL — Globally acclaimed singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela, who grew up as a semi-nomad in a travelling school bus and ultimately made Montreal her home, has died after a battle with breast cancer at age 37.
The Mexican-American musician was known for her trilingual lyrics and folk songs infused with fantasy, magic and fairy tales.
She died in Montreal on New Year’s Day.
“Old stories, adventure tales — although they can be very violent and scary — they don’t traumatize me the way modern stories do,” de Sela told American National Public Radio in 2005, explaining how she grew up with fairy tales, and developed a lifelong love affair with their imagery.
De Sela was born in 1972 in Big Indian, a small town in the Catskill mountains in New York State, to an American mother and a Mexican father.
Her early life was spent criss-crossing the U.S. and Mexico in a converted school bus.
She moved to Montreal in the early 1990s, playing in bars for about five years and developing songs for her debut album, the Spanish-language La Llorona.
“I had to work hard to be heard,” she said. “I learned in those years how to reach people, even people who were there for beer and conversation.”
In a 2004 magazine interview, she recalled her early years in Montreal’s watering holes.
Those lessons ended up garnering de Sela critical acclaim in 1998 for her debut album, which won a Juno for best global album that year.
But burned out from two years of touring — including time with the Lilith Fair festival — she fled to France where she joined her sisters’ travelling circus, performing as a musician and helping assemble and dismantle the big top.
It was in Marseilles, where she later settled for a period, that the groundwork was set for her second album, ’The Living Road,’ recently named by the Times of London as one of the 10 best world albums of the decade.
In her brief career, the singer was named best artist of the Americas by the BBC’s World Music Awards in 2005, and she received a slew of Quebec and Canadian awards.
A multilingual artist who sang in English, French and Spanish, she collaborated with Montreal musician Patrick Watson, U.K. indie band the Tindersticks, and French performer Arthur H.
Her final album — simply titled ’Lhasa’ — was released last year.
De Sela postponed her European tour and a string of concerts this past summer as she battled breast cancer.