Donna Greenberg sings in five languages on her newest album, Song in the Wind.
Several tracks are recorded twice on the album – once in English and once in another language – Italian, Spanish or French. The title track is sung partly in English and partly in Brazilian Portuguese.
“It has a different quality and brings out the lyrics in a different way, and it can support a different feeling,” the Toronto singer says.
Those are Greenberg’s singing languages. In order to get the songs just right, Greenberg studies the languages and she works with translators. But there’s more to it than that.
“I try not to just have a translation done,” she says. “I try to capture the essence of that language.”
For example, she described writing her song Living on the Outside, or Voiloir Quitter Son Île, as the French version is titled.
“It’s a very sad song. When we first worked on it… if it was in French, it would have a very Edith Piaf feeling,” she says, referring to a renowned French ballad singer.
“It’s a very dramatic and sad song – a ballad that you would hear on the street,” she says, in that it’s about an outsider in society. “How many people in our society feel that way?”
However, when she recorded the English version, she wanted it to have more of a cabaret feel. Though the subject matter is the same, the different instrumentation gives these two songs very different feelings.
There are challenges that come along with performing in multiple languages. For example, some languages tend to have more syllables, so some lines might have to be a bit longer.
“We have to be very careful,” Greenberg says. “You don’t want to change the rhythm of the music too much, but sometimes you have to because there are more syllables.”
She says people have commented to her that when they hear a song for the second time on the album, they often don’t notice that it’s the same. The music and the language really change it.
Greenberg says on this album, she tried to expose herself a bit more than on her previous works. Her stories range from happy fantasy – Song in the Wind is about a girl on a mountain who was reuniting with a past lover (who is represented through guest vocalist Marcelo Neves) – and harsh reality, such as Solitudes, written about her friend who had passed away from cancer.
“I had the privilege of being at her bedside before she died,” she says, explaining that she was sitting with her friend’s son. “He turned to me and said, ‘Solitudes, that’s what we really are.’”
That quote stayed with her throughout the funeral, and she ended up using it for the final track on the album.
“I was struck with the contrast of the closeness he felt, and the way we reach for other people we love,” she says. “That’s our instinct, but we know that we… die alone.”
Greenberg, who also teaches ballet, has spent 25 years working as a dance teacher and choreographer, began recording music later in her career life. She says she always admired people who chased their dreams, but never knew how to chase her own. But once she figured out, she went right to it, releasing three albums in three years.
For more information, visit www.donnagreenberg.com.