In a moment, Lea Longo’s life changed forever. It was on a fateful trip to India when the Montreal native, then a pop-rock singer with formal studies in vocal jazz, discovered the transformative power of mantra music and chanting. “I went to India expecting a lecture,” Longo recalls. “I thought I was going to learn about nāda yoga the same way I studied music. My teacher had to tell me to “chill” – that it’s not about the pen and paper, but it’s about the experience.”
It was during a chant in India where Longo experienced something she had never felt before, and it left her in tears. But she also felt liberated, and from that moment knew she was going to follow a new path in life, one vastly different than the one she pursued as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, which spawned the solo pop release Miserably Happy. Back in Montreal from India, Longo started kirtan classes, became a kundalini Yoga instructor and released two chant records.
In 2014, Longo came full circle by putting out Songs of a Siren, an album which combines her three musical lives: pop, jazz and chanting. Longo will perform songs from her latest album this Saturday at Montreal Chant Fest, a day-long festival devoted to yoga music which she founded in 2012. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Longo about the festival and her ongoing musical journey, which we joked has taken her from being Miserably Happy to blissfully happy.
Erik Leijon: Let’s start at the beginning, to when you studied music at Concordia University.
Lea Longo: I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I studied with Jeri Brown and at the beginning I was introduced to vocal jazz through Ranee Lee. I studied jazz improv and jazz specialization with the help of great teachers who were also great musicians. It provided a truly great musical background.
EL: Was studying music something you always wanted to do?
LL: I grew up on pop radio, like Casey Kasem. I’m a sucker for a great melody and in the 80’s there were so many great songs on the radio. I really absorbed all that melodic content and I fell in love with hooks. Then I realized there was nothing else in school I wanted to do, and my parents absolutely wanted me to continue my education. I loved singing jazz as well – I was interested in Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan – and I was amazed we had those types of programs in Montreal, so I studied music as a vocation. I had some vocal training before, but I didn’t have a music theory background until I entered Vanier College and then Concordia University. I took organ lessons when I was very young, then I stopped before taking up piano later.
EL: So what happened after you graduated?
LL: I wanted to pursue pop music. Back then artists from here would have to break into the States before breaking in Canada, so I went to New York and then moved to Los Angeles. I figured I should at least try six months in each city. New York was too hectic for me, but I fell in love with Los Angeles so I stayed there. I loved the vibe and the weather. I lived there for a couple of years, working on building up my connections and eventually landing a deal.
EL: Looking back on your time in Los Angeles, how do you feel about it?
LL: It was great. It was very turbulent, but with turbulence comes moments of personal freedom. I’m a firm believer of ying and yang – life always balances itself out for you. I didn’t know that at the time, but with my yoga and my studies, I see now the turbulence I felt then and the challenges of trying to make it in Los Angeles has brought so much richness to my life and my music. I also made so many connections. My music was placed in popular movies and TV shows. I won a National songwriting contest. Even though I didn’t get the big record deal, I got a lot out of my Hollywood adventure.
EL: The music you made back then was quite different.
LL: It wasn’t new age at all! It was very pop-rock. It had a little country tinge to it as well. The album was called Miserably Happy, and it was all about my Hollywood adventure. The title sums up my time there quite nicely. Although I was happy and free-spirited, it was very challenging.
EL: When you were in LA, did you ever think about visiting India?
LL: Not at all. I started doing yoga in LA, but I wasn’t disciplined.
EL: So how did the India trip happen?
LL: When I came back to Montreal, I felt I needed to do more of the physical practice of yoga. I tried out different yoga classes, but they didn’t resonate with me. Then one day I was online and found out about a yoga retreat in India called Yoga Chanting. I had no idea what yoga chanting was, and it made me curious. I was told it wouldn’t be your normal, physical āsanas – this is nāda yoga, where we use our voices. It was all new to me. I knew nothing about Indian classical music. This felt like something I needed to know about, as a singer. Ultimately, I was transformed by the experience.
EL: Was there a single moment when it all clicked?
LL: We were chanting “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Swaha,” which is a healing chant. I’ll always remember the beating of the drum and sitting in a circle when I felt my heart open wide. I started crying and I had no understanding of why it was happening, I was just so moved. At that moment I felt so much liberation and that there was something much deeper in these mantras that I couldn’t comprehend just yet.
EL: What did you do upon your return to Montreal? LL: I came home and continued chanting and deepening my mantra practice. I became a kundalini yoga instructor and I started a community called Montreal Kirtan, where basically every first Friday of the month we gathered in a yoga studio somewhere in the city, and we would sing these chants as a group, called kirtan. It grew from there, because people would come once, feel good, and then come back the next month. We started with four people in our first class, and now we’re always over 40. Then we’ll produce bigger events like Montreal Chant Fest where we’ll have many more people. Every month we hold space for people who want to come and meditate, and sing together.
EL: My idea of yoga is doing poses. Is yoga chanting something that people are familiar with?
LL: I think here it’s just starting. A lot of the yoga community is familiar with it because they chant “om” at the beginning and end of a class, but for those who are not familiar with yoga and meditation, it’s really new, and in fact it might scare some people away, because it’s very spiritual. We’re chanting divine names and there’s a devotional aspect to it. You’re tapping into the affirmations and deities, it’s spiritual and about opening your heart. It’s about vibrating with the different frequencies these mantras hold, when you chant them. Its a meditation.
EL: Did you stop listening to jazz and pop for a while? LL: From the moment I discovered mantras in India, I put pop and jazz completely aside and focused on chanting and the kirtan classes. I hardly even listened to the radio, I had no clue what was going on in terms of pop music. I really stopped listening to anything commercial for a good six years.
EL: Was “Songs of a Siren “about bringing your different musical lives together?
LL: Absolutely. It combines all three musical elements I have been exposed to in my life: jazz, pop and mantra. It’s also an album of love chants – all of the chants on the album are love-based. They’re happy and joyous. We wrote some original texts and then there are songs on the record that are jazz standards: “Fever,” “The Very Thought of You” and “Here’s to Life,” and in those three standards I added a mantra I thought would fit well with the meaning of the song. It’s a fusion. In retrospect, I can’t say I ever thought I would make an album like this – I’m quite surprised myself.
EL: How did you go about returning to jazz and pop?
LL: It was gradual. I liked “Sade” and her vibe, admittedly, so I knew I wanted to do an album influenced by that calm energy. She was a big influence on my record, whether you consider her smooth jazz or not.
EL: There’s something very unhurried about Sade.
LL: That’s what I like about her too. “Songs of a Siren” was something that felt right for the moment and I didn’t really think about it. I really went with the flow – doing whatever feels right and expressing what needed to be expressed. We change every day: our bodies change, our moods change, our thoughts change.
EL: Is it easy to get into a mantra vibe in the studio?
LL: Yes, It’s much easier for myself to get into the mantra vibe in the studio than it is to sing a song that has structure and lyrics. You’re flowing with energy and there isn’t much text because mantras are pretty short. It becomes a meditation, and when you’re open to it, and feel the energy, it’s easy to get hypnotized by the mantra and the music. The studio is a creative space – a lot of the music on Songs of a Siren was created in the studio. We knew the structure going in, but a lot of it was left to divine intervention. I’m a firm believer of letting the musicians play, and if you give them space, something magical can happen. I had faith that this would happen in the studio, and it did. What you hear on the record was mostly done off the floor – we hardly did any editing.
EL: Was adding chants to jazz standards equally intuitive?
LL: Unfortunately that was something I really had to think about. I really searched for the right chant, then had to listen to the song and figure out where it would fit musically without affecting the original arrangement.
EL: Does your training in vocal jazz ever factor into your chanting?
LL: Indian classical is very different from the western tradition. Sometimes, what you think might be “off key” with western music is very “on” with eastern music because of the microtones that we chant in Indian classical music. I had to learn, and I’m still learning, ragas, which depend a lot on the mood and energy of a phrase. It’s very spiritual and emotional, so it has a lot of healing benefits when you sing ragas. A lot of kirtan singers don’t sing ragas – they’ll chant mantras on western music, which I do too since I’m still learning and studying, but in India they’ll sing the mantra on Indian classical music, which is even more powerful.
EL: What can people expect at Montreal Chant Festival?
LL: Montreal Chant Fest is a celebration of life, where people can expect different variations of kirtan with 11 different artists. It’s not really a concert – it’s very participatory. We’re all supposed to become one voice, and it helps everybody enter into a meditative state, which is the goal of a kirtan. Expect some chanting and some deep, personal moments, just like how you feel when you practice a yoga class. Come and connect with your”self.” Give it a shot, because you never know what may happen. Look at what happened with me and I’m still chanting.
Lea is performing this Saturday, Montreal Chant Fest 7:30 PM Tickets and Info: www.montrealchantfest.com www.lealongo.com
–Erik Leijon is a freelance music journalist based in Montreal. He is a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury.