In anticipation of her January 26 concert at Town Hall, we asked Yungchen Lhamo about music, travel, and her creative process.
When did you start playing music?
I have never played a musical instrument, but I began singing at a very early age. I was taught traditional songs and a Tibetan opera by my mother and grandmother, so I sang and danced in Tibet and also later when I moved to India. Even though my name translates as “Goddess of Melody,” I always wanted to be a nun, rather than a singer, and my singing career only really started in Australia in 1995. I was invited to perform at WOMADelaide that year, so I recorded a CD, which won the ARIA Award for Best World Music Album. After that, I was signed by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label and began touring the world.
What is your creative process like?
That is a difficult question for any artist to answer, because many, if not most, of us don’t really know! For me, there can be many different sources of inspiration. Some of my songs are based on Buddhist mantras, such as that for compassion, “Om Mani Padme Hung,” which I recorded on my first album, Tibetan Prayer, and have included in different versions on subsequent albums. Others are traditional Tibetan songs, including “Ari-Lo” on my second album, Tibet, Tibet, which my grandmother taught me. It’s a mountain song about turning an unknown land into a homeland.
Or they can be in response to major world events, of which the most obvious example is the song “9/11” on the Ama album — I was living in New York City on that day and I could see the World Trade Center from my living room window.
Inspiration can also come from meeting and collaborating with other artists. The most unusual example of this is my Tayatha album, recorded with Russian classical pianist Anton Batagov. One morning I suddenly decided that I wanted to record a meditative album with Anton, so I called him up and, although somewhat surprised, he said to come over. When I got there, he asked me what I wanted to do, so I said that I would start to sing, and if he felt like playing he should play, and if not that would be ok — and we then recorded the whole album in one take!
Finally, several of my songs come to me through dreams — which often have repeating storylines that tell you what you need to achieve, or need to get over, for your life to improve. Everyone has a belief system, be it a religion or not, and “Dream Song” on my latest album, One Drop of Kindness, explains that every moment, everything we do can be an offering of your life for the benefit of others.
If you could collaborate with one musician (living or dead) who would you choose?
From the very beginning of my singing career, I have been fortunate to have collaborated with many great artists from different cultures and genres — not just singers, but musicians, songwriters, producers, dancers, poets, and painters — and I always much enjoy these collaborations. There have been so many, but Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Natalie Merchant, Peter Rowan, Billy Corgan, Bill T. Jones, and Anton Batagov readily come to mind.
There are several other artists with whom I would like to collaborate, but if I must choose only one it would have to be Dolly Parton. Not only is she a great singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, but I also greatly admire Dolly for her wonderful charitable works — particularly her Imagination Library which provides books for young children.
Have you ever visited Seattle before? If so, what was your favorite part of visiting the Northwest?
Oh, I have performed in Washington State six times before — at a WOMAD Festival, at the Meany Hall for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington, at Seattle University, and at a Bumbershoot in the Seattle Center, at all of which I sang a cappella. I also participated in Lilith Fair with Sarah McLachlan at The Gorge Amphitheatre and performed at another WOMAD Festival in Redmond.
My favorite memory is of when I was able to bring my son, Tenzin Shaydrup, with me to the WOMAD Festival in Seattle and we went to the top of the Space Needle.
You can catch Yungchen at our next Global Rhythms concert on January 26th at 7:30PM. Click the link below to get tickets!