MUSIC

A bashful candidate for pop stardom

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH August 4 1986
MUSIC

A bashful candidate for pop stardom

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH August 4 1986

A bashful candidate for pop stardom

MUSIC

Dressed in a colorfully embroidered costume, Luba Kowalchyk became a household name in Canadian Ukrainian communities when she sang traditional folk tunes across the country as a teenager. Now 28, the Montreal-born musician still receives letters from Ukrainian fans asking her why she no longer performs those songs. The reason should be obvious: Luba, her five-member band, has become one of the premier acts in Canadian pop music. After a successful first full-length album in 1984, Luba has now released Between the Earth and

Sky. Featuring the stirring, gospel-flavored hit How Many (Rivers to Cross), the new collection is about to eclipse that promising debut. Now performing across Canada, and with Earth and Sky about to be released in the United States, Luba is a shy candidate for stardom who appears destined for international success. Already, two of her songs have been featured on the soundtrack for the recent romance film 9*A Weeks. And U.S. producer Narada Michael Walden, who has worked with Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, proclaimed Luba “the Great White Hope of soul music.” Such high expectations are based on Luba’s consummate mastery of her craft. A 1985 winner of a Juno Award as Best Female Vocalist, she combines a charismatic stage presence with a

powerful singing voice which critics have likened to contemporaries Houston and Pat Benatar. Secrets and Sins, her debut album which sold more than 80,000 copies, featured a polished pop sound and yielded the hit singles Let it Go and Storm Before the Calm. But it was the soulful qualities of her voice that led Canada’s Black Music Association to name her 1985’s Best Female Entertainer. Said Luba: “I have always liked soul music, but now I’m more comfortable performing it.”

Fluent in three languages, partly conversant in three others and blessed

with a broad musical aptitude, Luba has frequently demonstrated versatility. One of two daughters of a Ukrainian laborer and his wife, she grew up in Montreal’s working-class neighborhood of St Léonard, speaking Ukrainian and English at home and picking up French and some Italian on the street. She was also able to learn Russian and Polish because of their similarity with her mother tongue. Beginning vocal studies as a child, Luba was playing guitar, flute and piano by her teens and even made several Ukrainian recordings. Those talents served her well in 1979 when she, drummer Peter Marunzak and guitarist Mark Lyman formed a rock group. Three years later the band released a mini-album featuring Every Time I See Your Picture, an emotional tribute to her father,

who died in 1979. With uncharacteristic immodesty, she describes the song as “one heck of a ballad.”

Luba’s offstage shyness and firm sense of morality are almost legendary within rock circles. Said Walden: “She has the voice of an angel and the personality as well.” She seldom socializes with her colleagues in the music industry, and until her marriage earlier this year to drummer Marunzak, 28, she still lived at home with her mother. Now the two share a modest house in St Léonard. As well, her lyrics are far removed from traditional rock themes,

touching on topics ranging from the family and the threat of war to a love-stricken priest. Luba has also refused to follow industry trends and make her videos sexually suggestive, because she views herself as a role model for girls. Said Luba: “I’m not Madonna. I display my voice, not my body.” Indeed, Luba said she was “quite mortified” when she first saw 9V2 Weeks, a steamy love story which featured scenes of graphic sex and sadomasochism. Declared Luba: “All I knew when they asked me for music was that people like Joe Cocker, Corey Hart and Bryan Ferry were involved. I left the

theatre with my face burning.” Still, she admits that the exposure from the movie advanced her career.

Now, Luba is anxiously awaiting the Aug. 14 U.S. release of Between the Earth and Sky: the response it receives will determine the size of a tour there. One promising indication of U.S. enthusiasm is the lucrative deal which she recently signed with Colgems/ Screen Gems Music for publishing rights to her songs. Still, Luba foresees few dramatic changes in her life. “I don’t drive, so I don’t need a car,” she said. “I love Montreal, and I never want to leave. So what in our lifestyle could change that much, even if we become wildly successful?” As her group’s popularity continues to grow, the former Ukrainian folksinger may soon be discovering the answer.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal