Nadine Khouri and Mélissa Laveaux on the Peculiar Magic of Lhasa de Sela

The artists talk their shared influence, and much more.

Nadine Khouri is a Beirut-born, London-based artist; Mélissa Laveaux is a Canadian-Haitian artist based in Paris. Nadine’s latest record, the John Parish-produced Another Life, was just released late last year on the French label Talitres — to celebrate, the two artists got on the phone to talk about a shared influence of theirs: the late multilingual artist Lhasa de Sela. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Nadine Khouri: How are you doing, Mélissa? What’s going on in your world right now? 

Mélissa Laveaux: Well, I’m eight months into my record release — the first record I released independently, called Mama Forgot Her Name Was Miracle. We’ve been on tour since January, and we’re still going strong. I’m having a good time. 

Nadine: Excellent. You know, we’ve actually never met. And the first time I actually saw you live was [when] you were singing songs by the great Lhasa de Sela at a tribute show at the Barbican in London. Was it late 2019, or something? 

Mélissa: It was September 2019, yeah.

Nadine: It was a magical show, and a really uplifting night. I left the venue on a high that lasted quite a while. Obviously you were all extraordinary musicians on stage, conjuring a really beautiful collective energy and paying tribute [to] Lhasa’s body of work. And for anyone who doesn’t know: Lhasa was an extraordinary musical artist with really the most affecting voice, who released three albums between 1997 and 2009, but sadly passed away in 2010, aged 37. And for many of us, she’s been a lifelong inspiration.

So, yeah, that’s the context that I discovered your own voice and music in, Mélissa.

Mélissa: Man, I’m getting all jittery because it was such a moving moment on stage. The tour was three or four shows, and [Lhasa’s] brother followed the tour and brought with him some recordings of her speaking. It really brought us back, because not only is her singing voice stunning, and her songwriting is so witchy and magical and peculiar and really heartfelt — it’s gut wrenching songwriting — [but] her speaking voice is really moving as well. And she’s always telling you a really cool story. 

Nadine: Did you ever get to see Lhasa live?

Mélissa: Yes, I did get to see Lhasa live twice. The last time was at Ottawa Blues Fest — I’m from Ottawa. And I tell the story all the time, but I remember distinctly that it was such a big, beautiful show and her voice was amazing, and she was telling her story so slowly — she was like, My… father… was…”

Nadine: [Laughs.] Casting a spell. 

Mélissa: “A… philosopher…” Like, the stories would take forever, but they were totally rewarding and totally worth it. I remember the story she told was about how when you are being born and you’re in the stomach, the world gets smaller as you get bigger, and when you’re ready to be birthed, you are freaking out because you think you’re dying. And then you get out of the womb and you are alive, and when you are dying, the world feels bigger and you feel smaller, and you transition into something else. It was a beautiful metaphor. I think she’d already won her first battle with breast cancer by then, and she was just having a new chance at life. And I remember her telling that story and singing, and then at some point the concert was over, and everybody was soaked because it had been raining the whole time and nobody noticed, nobody had pulled out an umbrella. We were just transfixed. 

Nadine: Amazing. For people who don’t know, the song that Mélissa’s talking about is “Soon This Space Will Be too Small.” I saw her in the Living Road tour and that song is on that Living Road album.

Mélissa: Yeah, that’s the same tour.

Nadine: Oh, cool. Yeah, she told the story and people were literally just entranced, from the moment she took her first breath to the last song of the show. I’d never experienced a show like that before. It was more like a religious experience.

Mélissa: It’s like a collective meditation. 

Nadine: Yeah, exactly. Do you remember the first time you heard her music? 

Mélissa: I had a show on my campus radio station at the University of Ottawa with my friend Genevieve; we only played women’s music, and because Ottawa is bilingual, we were on the French schedule, so we had to play music that was not in English — anything but English. I was like, Oh, that’s cool, because Genevieve had spent a lot of time in Brazil, [and] I loved Brazilian music, I loved North African music, so we had a lot of musical baggage to bring to the table. And I remember we would just dig through crates to find artists that weren’t singing English, and that’s how I fell in on Lhasa. It was the song “De Cara a la Pared,” which is intense as a first song — it’s like “The city is burning, my love, my head is facing the wall.” She just had such a powerful way of using imagery in her songwriting. 

Nadine: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of languages, I was wondering, did you start singing in one language before another? Because, you know, Lhasa sang in so many different languages, and that’s something I’ve always loved and really was influenced by, which is kind of the same with your own music. 

Mélissa: I started singing in English and Creole and French from the start, because that’s what was available to me. That’s what I had at home. 

I remember my first songs were always mixing languages, because that’s how everything is scrambled in my head, and it feels a lot clearer to release the songs in the different languages that they came to me. Because you don’t hear the voice in one language — especially if you’re from Ottawa. You really speak Franglais. [Laughs.]

Nadine: Do you find in the music industry [that] there is a tendency, in the Anglo-Saxon world, to pigeonhole music in that way, more so than in France? 

Mélissa: No, I find that there’s more pigeonholing in the French music industry.

Nadine: Really?

Mélissa: French people really, really want me to sing in French. I don’t sing in French as much as I used to, because stuff comes out more in Creole or in English. Recently I started writing in French again, because a friend specifically asked me to write in French for their record, but generally, French isn’t a language that I sing in as of late. Just because when I moved to France, I was told that my French wasn’t French enough, because it was French-Canadian, and I just took that like, Well, I don’t need to give you any French at all. [Laughs.]

Nadine: I speak also three languages, and I’ve only sung really in English, but that’s mostly because the music I grew up listening to in London [was in English]. And I also am maybe a little bit self conscious about how I sound in those languages while singing. But I think it’s something I’d like to to explore. And [it’s something] that you do so well, and Lhasa did as well.

Mélissa: Oh, thank you. I mean, I don’t like hearing my talking voice in Creole, because I don’t sound good. I have a really thick accent. I took a cab the other day and the driver was Haitian, and he was blasting compa from the window — which is like a dance music from from Haiti from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s — and he kept trying to goad me into speaking Creole. He was saying things and I was like, “No, but I understand you, I just refuse to speak it because I speak it so poorly.” What I wanted to tell him was that I sing, but I’d never hear the end of it. [Laughs.]

What I find is that I quite enjoy singing Creole and I quite enjoy my accent, and it’s a lot more fluid than when I speak it. For me, it’s very strange to speak it, because I can really hear the flaws my accent and it sounds so coarse and I don’t like it. But when I sing — what I often like to say is that it isn’t me singing, it’s somebody else’s voice. It’s spirits, it’s my grandmother, it’s somebody else. I’m just a conduit. 

Nadine: Your parents, did they flee Haiti? 

Mélissa: So, my parents did flee Haiti when they were 17 and 18. My dad left first, because he finished high school first — my dad is really smart, and he graduated high school at 17. Then he went to engineering school, and then he went to Montreal, and then he made some money and paid for my mom’s visa. Because she really needed to get out, because their friends were getting murdered from right to left with the dictatorship of Duvalier. They they left for Papa Doc, and my dad came back for his mother’s funeral during Baby Doc — which was Duvalier’s son — and spent basically 35 years away from their home, which I don’t know how you can possibly do. 

Nadine: My family also fled Lebanon when I was a kid, during the civil war. I was quite young; I was, like, eight years old. But it’s one of those things — my cousin was telling me the other day, “It’s like one day you were there, and then the next you were gone.” Leaving a place like that is difficult because it’s much harder to process than when you’re leaving someplace [because] you really want to go somewhere.

On the subject of displacement: I was wondering, because obviously Lhasa was quite an itinerant singer — she lived in the United States and Mexico and France and Canada and all these places — do you find that displacement informs your music?

Mélissa: I think it definitely informs my music, because wherever I go — it’s funny, I’m first and foremost influenced by food. 

Nadine: [Laughs.] Same.

Mélissa: I remember one of my first tours in Spain, I was offered caldo verde and I was like, What is this? And that was really nice. [On] a different Spanish tour, we went to the Canary Islands, and I was really interested because it’s off the coast of Africa. And technically it is Africa, but it’s still Spanish. It was really interesting, and that was very inspiring to be in a in a place where the indigenous people had been completely or completely wiped out to the point that their language isn’t even decipherable, and so on. The habit of traveling to do a lot of shows influences my music in a way that makes a lot of what I write easy to absorb. I tell very specific stories that then end up being very universal. 

Radyo Siw​è​l, my third album, was reimaginings of songs that I had heard from my childhood, — these traditional Haitian songs that were militant songs, and that I thought were just lullabies, but were like fighting songs. When I tell the stories, people are like, “Oh, we’ve had something like this in Chile,” or — because people have had dictatorships and US military occupations. There are over 200 US military bases around the world; there are no foreign military bases in the US territory to this day. So a lot of people can relate to that. 

Nadine: Yeah, absolutely. 

Mélissa: So the more I travel, the more I pick up on stories and the vibe and the histories of people. I really like to get a sense of the place that I’m traveling to, especially if I have a day off. And that definitely gives me a not just a sense of what the people are like, [but] how I’m treated as a Black body in the country — performing in Indonesia was very different than performing in Colombia, for example, or performing in Bogota isn’t the same thing as performing in Barranquilla in the north, which is closer to Caribbean region where there’s a lot more Black people there. So it definitely influences my music, and it’ll influence the performance: What I say to present the songs, the angle I choose to bring people into the song as well. Do you find that travels influence the way you reinterpret your songs for an audience?

Nadine: It’s interesting, talking about traveling. You never know — some of the most surprising shows I’ve had were in the most random places that I first would never thought I would get to play. But also, the reaction from the audience always surprises me. Sometimes I wonder if this music is going to translate, especially if nobody’s understanding the words. But it surprises me how audiences from really different places will react to the music. 

Often I just try to feel the vibe of the place, and what energy I’m getting from the space itself and the crowd. And also obviously try to connect to the crowd and the location where I am, just by trying to know a little bit more about it. But as far as the music itself, I don’t think I would present it differently. I just try to sort of be in the moment with the people that are there, if that makes sense. 

Mélissa: Mhm. I also wanted to ask you something, because you mentioned Beirut and having to leave. A friend of mine made a movie about her family — it’s through the eyes of her Swiss grandmother who came to Beirut as an au pair, and ended up getting married and having children. And so she basically tells the story of her family in Lebanon, and this love story between her grandparents and the family they built, and how civil war sort of broke into the beauty of their home and how the family holds themselves together. It’s really quite beautiful. 

Nadine: Wow. Yeah, being displaced seems like such a common condition to being born in Lebanon. And going back to Lhasa, I remember [at a show at the Jazz Cafe in London], she was introducing this song about her great-grandfather, and she mentioned he was from a village in Lebanon called Ehden — which is a beautiful village — and I started to cheer. And then she looked down at me and she was like, “Well, I don’t have to ask where you’re from.” [Laughs.] It was really embarrassing, but funny. 

But, yeah, the migration from my country has been ongoing. So many young people have had to leave in spite of themselves, you know? 

Mélissa: Yeah. Lebanon is one of those countries very much similar to Haiti, where a lot of the population is outside of the country. There’s a huge Lebanese community in Ottawa. I remember that I fell into the work of Wajdi Mouawad, because he made the movie Incendies based on his plays — the plays are insanely sad, but I loved his work and, and it sort of gave me more context for what my friends in Canada who are of Lebanese descent had grown up with, in terms of emotional and baggage and transgenerational trauma. And it sort of made me understand why these friends were specifically friends that I could definitely relate to. We just understood each other quietly. [Laughs.] 

Nadine: I was going to say, the concept of being a post-colonial body, or coming from that kind of situation, I feel like it’s not something a lot of indie singers are affected by, or even think about in their day-to-day. So sometimes I feel a gap in that regard. Do you ever feel that?

Mélissa: Oh, I think we’re definitely affected by it. It’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris right now, and I’m going to go see an artist called Yaya Bey — somebody, I think a French interviewer — or an American — anyway, the person was white and definitely racist — told her something like, “Oh, you’re a lot less agreeable than Black singers who are doing indie music.”

Nadine: Oh, god, what an awful thing to say.

Mélissa: What an awful thing to say! And I feel as though, especially if you’re doing independent music and you’re doing music that isn’t necessarily — like people are often angry at me for not doing music that is purely Haitian, or [not doing] music that is purely francophone. My manager says, “You’re not dancing Zumba on stage, so people are going to be angry about that.” Because it’s like you’re damned if you do using your body, and you’re damned if you don’t, because that’s the box they’ve given you to. You’re either invisible-ized or you’re oversexualized; there’s no good middle ground. And even if you do have a sexuality that you’re happy to express on stage, there’s always somebody who is going to break that down, who’s going to try to take away whatever joy you feel from it. 

Nadine: I totally feel that. 

Mélissa: But I remember listening to that [Yaya Bey interview], and it was so jarring. I was like, Man, you and me both sis. And we thousands and thousands and thousands of women in the music industry who are of color are probably going through the same thing, where you have to be agreeable. But say if you were a white woman and you were angry, or doing punk or doing metal, nobody would give a rat’s ass about you being unpleasant. 

Nadine: Do you think it’s also sort of the condition of being an immigrant, or a first generation immigrant, a bit? 

Mélissa: You have to be grateful. [Laughs.] And you should have survivor’s guilt, because you made it out alive. Actually, I’m grateful that I’m alive, and I’m grateful that I live in a city where I’m not getting bombed or captured or kidnapped, like what’s happening in Port au Prince right now. Of course. But do I have more value than singer-songwriters that are over there who are busting their ass and writing amazing songs? Sometimes I get really annoyed, because I feel that they really do try to find the most palatable…

Nadine: Most inoffensive. 

Mélissa: Most inoffensive. Most digestible — and and I use that word specifically because it does feel like you’re being consumed as an artist. People consume your music, people consume you as a product. It’s rough thing. 

Nadine: Thank you so much, Mélissa, for taking this time to chat. 

Mélissa: Thank you for having me. 

Nadine: It was such a pleasure. 

Mélissa: Likewise.

(Photo Credit: left, Steve Gullick)

Nadine Khouri is a Beirut-born, London-based artist. Her latest record, Another Life, is out now on Talitres.

(Photo Credit: Steve Gullick)