By Michael J. Warren
Alejandra Ribera has an amazing album on her hands, although she apparently has had it in her hands for a couple years now. Now that it’s finally been released, the world has become a slightly better place — or perhaps she has simply taken the better things the world has to offer and synthesized them into one near perfect set of recordings.
Performed in English, Spanish and French, La Boca cohesively unifies elements of Ribera’s international influences. From the bagpipes of “Goodnight Persephone” to the bevy of latin percussion on “No Me Sigas” to the second line swing of “Bad Again,” the album amalgamates brilliantly. With a voice reminiscent of a low-register Leela James, and often compared to Björk, the accompanied arrangements from producer Jean Massicotte allow room for Ribera’s every breath.
While the slow slide guitar-driven rendition of the Pretenders’ “500 Miles” is a little too sleepy for my tastes, the sonically similar but much more dynamic “St. Augustine” takes the listener on a hauntingly enjoyable journey. “I Want” is the stand out single, and it suggests that Ribera will continue the tradition of Feist and Serena Ryder in creating a new and unique pop niche. La Boca is a remarkable record, and now is the right time for it.
MONTREAL — Alejandra Ribera is so Mile End — in the best sense of the term — that it’s kind of amazing she actually was born and bred in Toronto. When I say this singer with the deep, remarkable voice is so Mile End, I don’t mean to refer to the post-Arcade Fire so-hip-it-hurts crowd that now inhabits the area but rather to the classic Mile Ender — cool, multicultural, artistic, smart.
We met Monday at the Blanc de Blanc café/laundromat on Villeneuve St. W. and she was telling me how much she loves the ’hood that she’s lived in since moving from Toronto two years ago. She digs it for the community, but also the geography.
“When I lived in Toronto, I’d always walk down to the lake really early in the morning and watch the sun rise,” said Ribera. “And when I moved here I was a bit lost as to where to find that space. The mountain has become my favourite place in Montreal. It’s been a real respite. You feel the energy when you’re up there. It’s a different space. If I have a question on my mind, if I’m facing something, I’ve just gone for walks on the mountain, and she’s so wise. You go up there and you always come home with something. It’s really nourishing.”
Like so many musicians from across Canada, Ribera migrated here and easily settled into this musically-happening neighbourhood.
Originally the plan was just to come here to record her second album with producer Jean Massicotte, but as the months went by, Ribera — who was born to an Argentine dad and a Scottish mom in Toronto — realized she didn’t want to head back west down the 401.
“I discovered a really beautiful community when I arrived,” Ribera said. “I’m so blessed. I just kind of immediately felt at home.”
The result of that collaboration with Massicotte, La boca, was launched Tuesday. It’s an extraordinary album, a collection of songs in English, Spanish and French that’s impossible to categorize, a set of nuanced strangely exotic songs that contain echoes of the late great Lhasa de Sela, Tom Waits, and Bjork.
If she’s living in our town now, it’s at least partly thanks to Lhasa. The first week she touched down here, in January 2012, she performed at a tribute concert to Lhasa de Sela at the Rialto Theatre, alongside some of the city’s hottest alt musicians, including Patrick Watson, Ariane Moffatt, Yves Desrosiers, The Barr Brothers, and Plants and Animals. It was like a crash course on our local indie scene and she became pals with a bunch of the people she shared a stage with that night.
“Imagine what a crazy introduction to the Montreal scene it was,” Ribera said. “It was just this incredible community of people I met my first week.”
A week later, she was in the studio working on La boca. She was determined to work with Massicotte for the very simple reason that he’d worked on three of the albums she’d most loved in recent years — Pierre Lapointe’s La forêt des mal-aimés, Patrick Watson’s Close to Paradise, and Lhasa de Sela’s The Living Road.
“You think how diverse those three artists are but what struck me is the world he is able to create, the atmosphere in the arrangements, just sonically,” said Ribera.
There are four songs in Spanish on La boca, one in French — Un cygne, la nuit, which is a duet with Arthur H — and seven more in English. All are penned by Ribera, with the exception of a bluesy, languorous late-night take on Scottish band The Proclaimers’ massive 1988 hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). That language mix neatly sums up Ribera’s multi-cultural personality — her first language is Spanish, though it’s a little rusty now, she spent a few years in Argentina while growing up, and totally loves Glasgow, her actress mother’s home town.
(We lost easily 10 minutes Monday talking about our shared love for great Glaswegian comedian, musician and actor Billy Connolly.)
The other nod to her Scottish heritage on La boca is the presence of Jérémy Tétrault-Farber’s haunting bagpipes on Goodnight Persephone.
She says she doesn’t choose the language of the songs — the songs choose their own language.
“I wrote those songs on the record (in Spanish) because, in a way, Spanish allows me to have a little bit of distance from what I’m singing about. Because it’s familiar but it’s still removed. So when I’m writing about a heartache that’s really present, writing it in Spanish is a little bit like writing it in code, even to myself.”
Just don’t call it Latin pop. She once saw herself described as such on a concert poster and it had her laughing. Spanish music is an influence but so are the Scottish folk songs she and her family sang in the living room when she was growing up.
And so is Billy Connolly.
“He’s a hero for me. I learned so much about performance from watching that guy.”
“La boca” is now available.
You can get it digitally on iTunes HERE
and physically from Maplemusic HERE
Every now and then a singer comes along with such an unusual approach to her voice that the Canadian folk scene stops in its tracks to make space for something they didn’t know they were missing.
Darkly theatrical and deep-voiced, Toronto-raised, Montreal- and Paris-based trilingual (English, French and Spanish) singer Alejandra Ribera is such a performer.
For her second album, she waited three years to work with her producer of choice, Jean Massicotte, who also worked with the late singer Lhasa de Sela. And judging from the warm magic of the rhythms and textures captured – including piano, marimba and bagpipes – that was a good call.
But despite the presence of roots-pop single I Want – whose chorus is anthemic, full of longing and will likely play on radios everywhere soon – Ribera sometimes comes across as a stronger interpreter than a writer. For example: check out her slow and moody version of the Proclaimer’s hit song 500 Miles.
A great original, though? Un Cygne La Nuit (a bilingual duet with French singer Arthur H). Her direct, pure voice contrasts nicely with his grittiness and sexy french accent.
Top track: I Want