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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, July 6, 2000

UH Manoa Outreach College
Perla Batalla

Shunning pop divadom
pays off for Batalla

By Tim Ryan


Hearing Perla Batalla's voice for the first time is an epiphany that leaves you shaking your head and wondering why you haven't heard her before.

A former backup singer for Leonard Cohen, the Gypsy Kings, k.d. lang, Iggy Pop and Jennifer Warnes, Batalla, until a few years ago, had a lengthy and costly battle with her record company Warner Bros. She wanted them to free her from her contract so she could record an album, "Mestiza," that they weren't interested in.

"Every bad thing artists say about record companies is true," said Batalla in a telephone interview from her Ojai, Calif., home. "It's slave labor. They give you a small advance, then expect you to work forever for nothing and do what you're told."


Bullet Who: Perla Batalla
Bullet When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
Bullet Where: Orviz Auditorium, University of Hawaii
Bullet Cost $15 general, $12 students
Bullet Call: 956-3836

Batalla, who is Mexican-American, wanted to explore her roots through the eclectic "Mestiza." Warner executives nixed the idea in favor of pop songs such as those performed by Whitney Houston.

"They wanted to make me a pop diva and I am so not interested in doing that," said Batalla, who performs here tomorrow night at Orviz Auditorium.

"They certainly didn't want a world music record."

So she recorded the album with her own money and it is paying off.

Batalla last year earned the "Best Emerging Artist" and "Best CD by a New Artist" honors in's "Best of '99" roundup. "Mestiza" was ranked 34th in the Web site's listing of the year's Top 100 releases, placing her alongside performers such as Fiona Apple, Los Lobos, Randy Newman and Nine Inch Nails.

"I had to do this, to follow my heart," she said, even though recording the disc meant borrowing money and maxing out credit cards.

The native Los Angeleno grew up listening to Mexican folk music, Muddy Waters and John Coltrane in her father's record shop -- Discoteca Batalla -- in Santa Monica. That's readily apparent in "Mestiza," a bilingual disc showcasing her melodic songwriting with musical partner David Batteau, and her expressive singing.

The CD's title reflects Batalla's mixed heritage: Dad was "pure Mexican"; mom, born and raised in Argentina, is Austrian-Hungarian, she said.

"I lived in the bosom of a mixed culture," says Batalla.

She left home at 16, tired of living in "very old fashioned Mexican household" and the lack of freedom.

"That my parents didn't trust me drove me crazy," she said. "And I was such a good kid.

Telling her dad she had to leave was "the scariest thing I'd ever done," Batalla said. "But after that, I could do anything."

She proved that several times over, starting with the underage Batalla performing in several talent contests at a rowdy country-and-western bar in the San Fernando Valley.

"I would always sing in Spanish this one famous song, 'Yesterday I Heard the Rain,' and I won every single night out. It's how I paid rent."

Batalla then attended the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute on a scholarship, not because she was interested in acting, but because she couldn't afford the college she wanted to attend to study music.

In what she called a five-year period of musical self-discovery, and with Cohen's encouragement, Batalla started composing, arranging and writing lyrics for her own compositions. Her self-titled first album came out in 1993.

"I loved being a back up singer ... but I wanted to try writing to see if I had anything to say," she said. "Leonard always told me to write about my own experiences because in the end that's all you have."

"Mestiza" mixes folk, traditional Latino melodies, bluesy ballads, light rock and spiritual tunes that demonstrate her vocal range, tone, depth of emotion and expressiveness. But she also uses other influences, including a book she and her husband read about Joan of Arc. That became the song "Someday Soon."

Six years ago, after her daughter was born, Batalla insisted the family leave Los Angeles.

"I never had a back yard growing up and I wanted to make sure my child had that," Batalla said. "At that point my husband and I would never have passed a credit check because we had been starving artists for years."

Last year, they were able to buy their Ojai home.

"The greatest thing I ever did professionally was to go out on my own," she said. "Scary, yes; but it was time."

The most grand reward of being a professional singer is how people respond.

"The only reason I continue to sing is how it affects people," said Batalla, who declined giving her age. "I don't treat my voice as some precious commodity, though I know it is. I see that in people's eyes."

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