Genre-spanning songstress Perla Batalla returns to Santa Monica for a Mother’s Day concert
By Bliss Bowen
Growing up in Santa Monica and running around Discoteca Batalla, her parents’ record store “right on the border of Venice and Santa Monica,” Perla Batalla learned early on just how vast the world of music is. So when she eventually entered it as an artist, she innately understood that pop stardom imposes limits while music opens doors and possibilities.
Many doors opened to her lustrous contralto and creative curiosity.
Batalla was singing in jazz clubs when Leonard Cohen nudged her onto the global stage, first as a backup singer on his 1988 I’m Your Man tour, then on his 1992 album “The Future” and subsequent tour.
With Cohen’s encouragement, Batalla made her self-titled solo debut in 1994. She’s released half a dozen concept-driven albums since then, including 2003’s “Discoteca Batalla” and 2005’s “Bird on the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
For her “Sings for Everybody and Their Mother” concert Saturday at The Edye — an intimate 43’-by-43’ performance space alongside The Broad Stage in Santa Monica — Batalla plans to cherry-pick material from her albums and her “Blue House” song cycle written with David Batteau, inspired by the diaries of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
She’ll also dip into Cohen’s songbook.
“He’s got such a body of work, and it’s always hard to choose what songs I will do,” she says during a laughter-punctuated phone conversation from her home in Ojai. “I’m considering doing another tribute [album] of Leonard Cohen songs. I barely scratched the surface with ‘Bird on the Wire.’”
The independent artist does not think of her mentor or the standard he has set when creating her own music — “I would never get anything done!” she exclaims — but Batalla does value a nugget of advice he offered.
“Leonard is the highest of the high, as far as I’m concerned, in the art form of songwriting,” she says. “I’ve watched him work. He will forsake everything else in his life to get that lyric to where it needs to be, or to finish that song. Part of the encouragement he gave me when I was a young songwriter was, ‘Darling, everyone has a story to tell; just tell your story.’”
Onstage, Batalla does just that — she tells stories — in both word and song.
“I can’t help it,” she says. “I’m not just standing up there going from one song to another as I know some performers do. For me it’s been a journey. I’ve done all kinds of music and I feel like I have to.”
Her first love, classical music, introduced her to “beauty in the art song.” That steered her to jazz; from there, she says, “everything else fell into place.” Writing songs and singing with artists like Cohen, k.d. lang and Iggy Pop broadened her awareness of songwriters. Later, she recognized her “profound foundation” in the Spanish-language music she’d been immersed in as a child; she now embraces Spanish music forms and sings in Spanish and English.
“I feel in a way that I’m a musical anthropologist, and there are things that I’ll see,” she explains. “Pete Seeger, for instance, is one of my heroes. I’ll hear one of his songs and something will touch me in the particular way he does it and the melody itself. I’ll try a new twist on it, and something that feels right for my story unfolds.”
Last summer she released “We Shall Overcome,” a simply arranged EP of Seeger-associated songs that fits thematically with her own work. It’s an elegant farewell to Seeger, who died at 94 in January 2014, but her motivations went deeper.
“A big part of it was current events, and my feeling that music can still be a strong response to what’s happening in the world,” she says. “By that I mean the negative things that are happening: people who are very downtrodden and desperate, the world being in a very economically fragile state. Things have to change. Pete Seeger was a great example of bringing awareness to those issues, civil rights in particular.”
Batalla enthusiastically champions causes dear to her, including disadvantaged youth. She frequently performs for students and is a passionate advocate for music programs in schools.
“Music in the schools is the thing — there is a lack thereof that scares me. Even though my family were musicians and we had the record shop in Santa Monica, it was getting to sing classical music and learn about music in school that made me truly love it and consider that this is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When there were 13-year-old girls in my apartment building getting pregnant and having babies, I was at John Adams in Santa Monica, with Linda Anderson as my teacher.
“Music made me want to read more, because reading lyrics led you to think there was a story somewhere in a song. That led me to be a real reader. My parents never picked up a book; they didn’t have time. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta read. I’ve gotta know about all these things.’ Anything could have happened to me, and music in the schools is what saved my life.”
Perla Batalla, backed by the Dave Palmer Trio, performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Edye, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $35. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit perla.com.