Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Perla Batalla has enjoyed an incredibly varied career. Not only has she performed on some of the world’s greatest stages, including Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the Kennedy Center, but Batalla has also performed with some of the world’s greatest artists, such as Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Laurie Anderson and, perhaps most famously, Leonard Cohen. Still, the thrill of singing with a legend never gets old for Batalla.
“I recently spent an evening with one of my all-time heroes, Linda Ronstadt,” she says. “After dinner, she asked me to sing a Spanish-language classic, ‘La Barca de Oro.’ When Linda began to harmonize with me, I thought, ‘That’s it. I can die now. I just sang with Linda Ronstadt.’ ”
Early on, Batalla studied opera and acting, then got her big break singing backup (along with former Ojai resident Julie Christensen) for Cohen from 1988 to 1993. The lessons learned, musical and otherwise, from her time with Cohen continue to inform Batalla’s career today. She calls him “a true friend in the most profound sense” and notes that “his honor, honesty and humility are endless.” While she deeply admires his talent and work ethic, there’s something else about Cohen that Batalla holds in equally high regard: “His humor around the capriciousness of the music business is something for which I strive. Leonard once said of his record label at the time, ‘I am touched by the modesty of their interest in my career.’ ”
Admiring her talent, in return, Cohen encouraged Batalla to pursue a solo career — something she has done persistently and successfully for the past 21 years and seven albums, including 1999’s Mestiza, 2004’s Gracias a la Vida and 2014’s Love Bigger. Batalla honors her Mexican-American heritage with her music, which is often rendered in Spanish. “Neither of my parents spoke English when they arrived here. My father was Old-World Mexican — he didn’t think it was appropriate for a girl to even leave the house before getting married,” she says. “My upbringing was filled with contradictions, but all of them added up to who I ended up being.” Reflecting back on her own childhood, Batalla understands the importance of bridging cultural divides with the universal language that is music. “Too many children have been made to feel inferior coming from Spanish-speaking households. When I do community outreach in schools all over the country, part of my mission is helping the kids see their cultural heritage as a blessing.”
Two of Batalla’s longtime collaborators are guitarist David Batteau and pianist Karen Hammack. The musical rapport that comes from working with the same people year after year comes through in the easeful joy that is evident in their performances. Batalla explains, “With history comes trust, and the gift of being able to take musical chances that pay off.” Batteau and Batalla have spent the better part of the past two decades working together. Their current undertaking spun off from a commissioned project associated with LACMA’s “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women” exhibit. “The songs we wrote . . . seem to be emerging as a full-length theater piece called Blue House (working title). It is inspired by the art and private journals of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. … I like to think of Blue House as our love letter to art itself.”
Batalla and Hammack conspired to craft the Love Bigger album. “Karen and I have always been in love with the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans collaborations and approached Love Bigger with that sensibility,” Batalla notes. “We spent years playing these songs and, as far as I’m concerned, these are some of the most beautiful in the canon of the American songbook.”
Audiences attending Batalla’s upcoming performance at the Thousand Oaks Library might even get to take a copy of the record home after enjoying what she calls “Perla Batalla’s Songs and Sundries Variety Hour.” The show will feature an array of guests, including her brother Rick and daughter Eva, along with local favorites such as Todd Hannigan, Dave Palmer, Jon Gilutin and other surprises. Batalla promises, “It’s going to be a great night.”
This article originally appeared in the VC Reporter.