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.”