When Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen died last November, the music world lost an iconic legend.
Thankfully, many of Cohen’s most famous songs – “Bird on the Wire,” “Suzanne,” “I’m Your Man,” “Anthem” and “Hallelujah” (for which he wrote 80 verses) – continue to be covered by a multitude of talented voices who keep his songs fresh, relevant and contemporary.
One voice is that of Perla Batalla’s — singing and sharing personal stories in an intimate evening called, “In the House of Cohen,” taking place Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom, 1455 Elm St. in Napa. Tickets are available at NCTCNapa.Eventbrite.com. In her 20s in 1988, Batalla was invited to audition for Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” tour — before she owned a passport or had traveled overseas. Cohen had recorded numerous albums by then with songs that explored religion, politics, isolation, sexuality and personal relationships.
“Being as I was young,” Batalla recalls, “I watched him like I was watching a master and learning as much as I possibly could. His need to always seek the comfort of his audience was truly generous, and all too rare.”
“In Leonard’s earlier tours, 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 authentically Leonard Cohen.”
Authenticity is a hallmark of all Batalla recordings and concerts. She hails from a long line of musicians and singers on her father’s side in Mexico, and theater artists from her mother’s side in Argentina. Growing up in Venice, California, her family owned Discoteca Batalla, a Mexican record shop that served as an important hub for West Los Angeles’s Latino culture. “I didn’t choose singing,” said Batalla, “it chose me.” Her rich, contralto voice is described by reviewers as “gorgeous,” “spellbinding” and “a musical voyage well worth taking.”
Out of their friendship, Batalla created “In the House of “Cohen.”
“I started singing Leonard’s songs many years ago,” she said, “and I would visit him regularly at his modest home in Los Angeles. One day, as we sat and had coffee in his kitchen, he mentioned to me that he was well aware of the changes in the music business and how he may no longer be relevant.”
“I decided to record a tribute to him just to express my love and appreciation for him and his profound body of work. ‘Bird on the Wire’ was a total labor of love, and I was so pleased he came by the studio to give me his blessing.”
For the evening concert, Batalla chooses those songs that she can interpret honestly, including a bi-lingual version of Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” She will be accompanied by oudist, guitarist and composer Dimitris “Jimmy” Mahlis.
“For me,” said Batalla, “it is his imagery, use of metaphor and painful honesty, which give Leonard’s lyrics such depth of meaning. His poems and songs are also intrinsically personal.”
“There are times when I ask my audience to sing with me. I feel that the coming together of voices has the power to touch Leonard’s spirit and his lifelong devotion to art and the mysteries of the human heart. Live music is about being in the moment, and I always have this secret expectation that as we lift our voices up together, we will feel Leonard all around us … and we usually do”!
Quick reminder: Come for the books, stay for the wine at the second annual Napa Valley Book Fest. Listen to authors Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Nicole Gulotta, Robin Sloan, Lydia Kiesling and photographer Norma Quintana discuss their art and books over a glass of wine. Saturday, Oct. 6. A book Fair is from noon to 1 p.m.; readings from 1-4 p.m. at NSGW Hall, 937 Coombs St. Tickets are required. For details, visit www.napavalleybookfest.com.