Nov. 7 will mark three years since the death of Leonard Cohen, the profoundly poetic and widely revered songwriter. This Saturday, former backup singer Perla Batalla celebrates her mentor in concert at Caltech.
Born and raised in LA, Batalla grew up on the Westside, the daughter of a mariachi musician who owned a much frequented Santa Monica record store, years she lovingly recalled with a string of independently released albums, notably 2000’s “Heaven and Earth: The Mestiza Voyage” and 2003’s “Discoteca Batalla.” By that point she had long since initiated her creative collaboration with Cohen, contributing vocals to his 1992 album “The Future” and singing with him around the world on the tour promoting his career-shifting 1988 album “I’m Your Man.” Batalla’s featured alongside fellow vocalist Julie Christensen in a video for “Dance Me to the End of Love,” smoothing out the edges of Cohen’s famously craggy vocals with her sultry harmony. (Both she and Christensen were also seen in Lian Lunson’s 2005 documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.”)
When Batalla reprised the song for her 2005 album “Bird on the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen,” she gently shifted away from the original’s lush dreaminess with a more personal, bilingual take, singing over accordion, Spanish guitar and violin. Her reading of “If It Be Your Will” magnifies the song’s lyrical reverence, and her arrangement of “So Long Marianne” deepens the groove with an almost gospel-like fervor.
She has since expanded her repertoire with more gems from Cohen’s song bag, imbuing them with smoldering soul and gratitude. In recent years she has delivered insightful concert performances of “Anthem,” a signature Cohen composition that has gained stature since his death, and even the weighty “You Want It Darker,” the prescient title track of his final album. If they make it onto her dynamic setlist, both songs are likely to be highlights of her performance at Caltech, where she’ll be accompanied by oudist Dimitris Jimmy Mahlis, drummer Tasso Panos, pianist Michael Sobie and bassist Lothar Struff.
In 2015 Batalla described Cohen as “the highest highest of the high … in the art form of songwriting” during an interview with this writer. She also recalled his advice to her as a songwriter: “‘Darling, everyone has a story to tell; just tell your story.’” Which she does onstage, threading together a personal narrative through Cohen’s songs and her memories of his humor and personal warmth.
“I can’t help it,” she said at the time. “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.”
Pasadena Folk Music Society presents Perla Batalla’s Tribute to Leonard Cohen at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19; $40/$35/$30 ($10 for youth age 18 and under). Info/order tickets by phone: (626) 395-4652. Perlabatalla.com, Caltech.edu