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At Home in the Spotlight

Ojai pop vocalist Perla Batalla will give a concert for the neighbors.

April 13, 2001|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perla Batalla, she of the angelic voice, will make a rare local appearance Saturday night at the intimate Zalk Theatre on the campus of Happy Valley School in Upper Ojai. Batalla will be backed by her usual stellar cast of musicians as she attempts to sell you a copy of her latest album, "Heaven and Earth."

Batalla has been a singer pretty much her whole life, performing with all sorts of people, including the Gipsy Kings and Iggy Pop, but her big break was when her friend Julie Christensen introduced her to singer Leonard Cohen. She toured with him for many years (and still does occasionally) before moving from the sidelight to the limelight.

Along with her writing partner, David Batteau, Batalla has been successful as an independent artist and regularly tours nationwide. This is her first local show in quite some time.

The Ojai-based singer had stories to tell during a recent phone interview.

Tell me about this show at the Zalk Theatre, a place no one who's not from Ojai can ever find.

It's in Upper Ojai. It's kind of poorly marked, but all the people around here know where it is because of the Beatrice Wood mailbox--the big pink mailbox. There are no lights, that's the problem, but I think there's going to be a banner out there. I've got a great group of musicians that I work with, such as Deborah Dobkin, David Batteau, Kevin McCormick and Greg Leisz, who plays with k.d. lang and Joni Mitchell, and Karen Hammack, who usually plays with Julie Christensen.

How does a person make a living as a musician here?

Because all my touring is done not here. I just got back from Philadelphia, where I did a concert for 900 people, and a couple of weeks ago I was at Royce Hall and played for 2,000 people. Those are the types of concerts I do normally. And Ojai's great--it's a great place to come home to--it's really nice.

How often do you hit the road?

Since I have a 6-year-old daughter, I don't leave for any more than three or four days at a time. The next time I go on the road is in May, and I'm going to do six dates in four days.

So how does this work? Are you getting airplay or what?

Well, my first record, "Meztiza," got a lot of airplay from NPR stations, and Amazon.com supported it and voted it best independent release of 1999. That was great because then through Amazon, I got all this marketing support, and their Advantage Program, which is for independent artists, is a great tool for people like me who are doing it on their own. Ever since then, it's been pretty steady. I travel all year round--I'm touring--but with a lot of thought about being home when I need to be. That way, I don't overlap my husband Claud's shooting schedule. He's an actor who goes and shoots in Burbank every six weeks. So we have calendar meetings to be sure we don't overlap, and that way we can handle parenting and our careers.

So it can be done?

It can be done, yeah. Also, we're not driven by the idea that we're doing this for fame and a ton of money. We're just driven to do this enough so we can all hang out together and have a really great time.

Unlike several other musicians we both know, it sounds as if you have achieved perspective.

Yeah, and that to me is great success. If you can do that and live a life where you just eat great food and hang out with your friends--that's what it's all about. In the summer, we hang out in the backyard a lot having barbecues.

How many Perla albums are there so far, and how does the new one fit in?

Three. It's not different because for me, recordings are a good sort of snapshot of who you are at a given moment and what your beliefs are. And this is just in keeping with how I've hopefully grown as a person.

When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

All my life. My father is a singer--he was a mariachi singer.

So there wasn't much chance you were going to go into banking?

Well, you know, I tried everything. I went to law school and did really well; then a friend of mine from Harvard told me, "Please don't go to law school. Pursue your music career now because when you're 60, law school will still be there." And when you're young, that's when you have to pursue the career because you need that kind of energy.

How did you meet Leonard Cohen?

My big break and the opening of everything was meeting Leonard Cohen, and that was thanks to Julie Christensen. They had auditioned everyone in L.A., then she suggested calling me. I went in to meet Leonard and it was really funny because he, of course, was dressed in black from head to toe, and I came in dressed in white from head to toe. We immediately fell in love with each other and the rest is history. During my audition, we all sang and sang and sang and I thought to myself, "Even if I don't get this gig, this is the most fun I've had in a long time." That was in 1988, and I'm still working with Leonard.

And you sang with Iggy Pop? Tell me an Iggy Pop story.

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