LHASA at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Tuesday through Thursday (February 24-26), $30-$32. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
Perched on a chair in a storage closet beside a buzzing fax machine, Lhasa De Sala is trying to explain where she's been for the past six years. It comes with a complicated answer. The torchy Montreal crooner first surfaced with a strikingly assured debut disc, La Llorona. The album's creaking cabaret pop, Lhasa's smoky voice and stories about the singer being raised by hippy parents in the back of a van that zigzagged across the U.S. and Mexico made the disc a surprising international success.
As a follow-up, Lhasa simply vanished. Aside from a cryptic guest appearance on a Tindersticks album, the singer was nowhere to be found. It turns out she'd run away and joined the circus. Of course.
As Lhasa herself is quick to point out, European travelling circuses are less about lion tamers and freaks on stilts and more like something out of a Tom Waits song. In the roving one-ring circus put together by her sisters, Lhasa wasn't doing any high-wire walking, but she provided singing as the caravan roamed across France.
For the burnt-out singer tired of interviews, hotel rooms and an increasingly successful album, it was perfect.
"It wasn't very restful but it was different, and that's what I needed," Lhasa offers. "The musician's life is so structured. You basically have to show up and be good at everything people want you to do.
"I had achieved what everybody wants - fame, success, being appreciated. But all that comes with another set of expectations. You can't disappoint people, you can't make mistakes, and you can't structure your own agenda. If you're the slightest bit insecure - and I'm more than slightly insecure - it can destroy you.
"We toured and toured and toured, and at the end of each tour, it would be like, 'Just one more.' Eventually I said, 'No more. '"
The silence continued until this winter, when Lhasa resurfaced as quietly as she had disappeared with The Living Road.
As tortured and haunting as her debut, the disc mixes English, French and Spanish vocals over mariachi horns, North African melodies, clattering percussion and broken-down jazz rhythms.
"Even in the circus, I was still writing," Lhasa explains. "It was really just a matter of finding a way to get back into making music without all the extra stuff. I realized how lucky I was and how great a thing I had going. I'd be foolish to just walk away from it."
Aside from plugging her back into the industry, the record also marks Lhasa's emergence as a songwriter, something not showcased on her debut. That in part explains why Yves Desrosiers, the multi-instrumentalist behind La Llorona, is barely heard on The Living Road.
"The last record was very different. Yves is the kind of producer who didn't want me to be involved in the record beyond singing. That was fine because I was just learning and we had the same taste.
"This time around I needed to be involved, so I had to find other people to work with. Each of the songs was so basic when we started that the slate really was clean. The producers on this record were open-minded and allowed for a range of possibilities, so we really could go anywhere."