Perla Batalla was in Europe, determined to escape the dawn of an ugly period in history, when she got news of a death that overshadowed everything happening at home in the United States. The Grammy Award–winning Mexican-American singer had got on a plane just as Donald J. Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency.
“It was the day after our election here in the U.S. and I didn’t want to talk about that with anybody,” Batalla relates, on the line from her home in Ojai, California. “So going to Europe was this wonderful relief for me. But then I get to Paris, get the news, and it’s devastating.”
That news was the passing of Leonard Cohen, which had actually taken place the day before America headed to the polls in 2016. When the death was made public, Batalla was harder hit than most, considering that the Canadian icon was not only a mentor and a lifelong supporter of her career, but, above all, a cherished friend.
“I got to Paris, checked into my hotel, turned off my phone, and then went to sleep in a sort of jet-lagged haze,” she says. “When I turned my phone on in the morning I had hundreds of messages about Leonard’s passing. It caught me completely by surprise. We were in touch constantly, texting back and forth. I knew he was sick and I knew that it was getting worse, but it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be there.”
Batalla decided the best way to pay tribute to Cohen’s life is by honouring his legacy. That led her to create Perla Batalla in the House of Cohen in 2017. The show has Batalla—who began touring with the legendary Montreal songwriter and poet in the late ’80s as a teenage backup vocalist—performing some of Cohen’s most cherished songs. And, just as importantly, giving those who never saw the singer insights into who he was as a person.
“I love telling stories about my relationship with Leonard, and also sharing the stories that he would tell me,” Batalla says. “The tradition of storytelling is that people tell their stories over and over again, and that way they are passed on. In my effort to keep Leonard alive, then, I tell some of his stories that he used to tell me. What I remember is that he was so funny—he was someone who always had me laughing.”
Cohen was also supportive. While he got to know Batalla as his backup singer, he encouraged her career aspirations as a solo artist. To date she’s released seven critically praised full-lengths, including the Grammy-nominated 2007 Cohen tribute album Bird on a Wire. She’s also appeared alongside Nick Cave and Rufus Wainwright in the concert film I’m Your Man, worked as a voice coach for the likes of Will Ferrell and Jeremy Piven, and been an advocate for underprivileged youth in the States.
For House of Cohen, she’s headed to Vancouver with pianist Michael Sobie.
“A big part of the show is that songs remind me of certain things,” she says. “Experiences on the road, or even at home, because sometimes we’d go out and do things. My memories of him are very vivid because he was such an enormous influence in my life.”
And the impact Cohen had on her life made that morning in Paris one—for all the right reasons—she’ll never forget.
“I was very upset, but at some point in my haze, I decided that I was going to go for a walk,” Batalla says. “I wanted to avoid all the newspaper stands because I also didn’t want to see any pictures about what was going on in the U.S. But most of the covers were of Leonard Cohen. So it was incredibly comforting seeing that in Europe, where I spent a lot of time with Leonard. From France I went to Spain, which was one of his favourite places on the planet. That made it all, I don’t know, somehow more comforting.”
Perla Batalla brings Perla Batalla in the House of Cohen to the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Sunday (March 11) as part of the Chutzpah Festival.