Last summer, eclectic singer-songwriter Perla Batalla began brainstorming a second volume to her 2007 Grammy-nominated tribute to the late Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire. A longtime backup singer for the iconic crooner, she realized how much of her friend’s work she still wanted to cover. When her idea evolved into making the tribute not only an album, but also a concert, her show House of Cohen was born.
With the passing of Cohen in November of 2016, Batalla put the project on hold. In her first performance since his memorial, Batalla’s upcoming show for the pop-up art initiative Santa Ana Sites revives the tribute and aims to use the timelessness of Cohen’s art with her cross-cultural style to convey sincere respect and love for the music and the man. This time around, the project blends the mestiza singer’s House of Cohen with the historic acoustics of a Santa Ana church. Batalla will be performing music from the late icon’s songbook at Church of Messiah on March 4.
“Leonard Cohen is the focus of the evening. More than anything I want to pay tribute to what a force he was for culture and poetry and the world,” Batalla says. “He appreciated that I truly investigated all the different parts of myself. And he did the same.”
Batalla grew up in Santa Monica to the owners of a Mexican record-shop, Discoteca Batalla, which served as a hub for Latino culture in west L.A. She pulled the Afro-Mexican influence from her father and the Euro-Argentinian elements from her mother, infusing her music with all the flavors of her mestiza culture.
“It makes for a very interesting way of expressing yourself, when you feel the strength of your ancestors and all the color they bring to your personality and your soul,” Batalla says. “You can find comfort in your culture. You can find comfort in your language. Any chance I get, I celebrate my Mexican culture.”
Even though Cohen didn’t speak Spanish, Batalla explained how much he cherished the language and noted influences of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca on Cohen’s art.
“Leonard appreciated the Spanish language more than anything,” Batalla says. “He even had a difficult time writing in English. He said it was like rocks in his mouth, and that Spanish was like flowing water, so lyrical and musical in the way it sounds.”
During the March 4 concert, Batalla will perform Cohen’s music in both Spanish and English, and will be accompanied by Jon Gilutin on piano, one of Cohen’s favorite violinists, Bobby Furgo, and Dimitirs Mahlis on guitar and oud.
Santa Ana sites paired Batalla’s sound with the progressive multi-cultural Episcopal community of Church of the Messiah in downtown Santa Ana. The singer is excited to singing in the red turreted church and one of Orange County’s oldest places of worship.
“Performing in churches is one of my favorite things to do. There’s something extremely unique about the architecture and the building process of a church,” Batalla says. “For me, music is church, so bringing it to that space pushes it over the top with emotion.”
While preparing for the Santa Ana performance of House of Cohen, Batalla reflected on the artist’s humor and storytelling during their long friendship. She plans to share some moments during the concert, but highlighted the kindness he showed to her parents when she first went on tour with him in 1988.
“We were at the airport and my mom and dad show up,” Batalla says. “Very formally, very old-fashioned, they pretty much asked Leonard to take care of me. It was cute. And you know what, he did.”
Batalla looks forward to spending the night together with the audience commemorating a man she called a great boss and a great friend for so long.
“There are times when I ask my audience to sing with me,” Batalla says. “I feel like that coming together of voices, especially in a place of worship, it takes life and this level of spirituality to new heights. Live music is about being in the moment, but I always have this secret expectation that we lift our voices up together and feel the power in that.”
Presented by Santa Ana Sites in association with Boca de Oro: Art & Literature Fringe Festival, performances of Perla Batalla’s House of Cohen will be held at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m on March 4, at Church of the Messiah at 614 N Bush Street in Santa Ana. Tickets are $10-$18.