In the 1980s, despite never charting in America, no Canadian singer could touch Montreal pop star Luba — not even her contemporaries Alannah Myles, Sass Jordan or Carole Pope. During that decade, Luba won three consecutive Juno Awards for Female Vocalist of the Year and today remains one of the most successful female artists in Canadian music history. Despite a lengthy absence, because of many personal issues, the pop-music hitmaker is making a grand return and is enjoying looking back on her success.
“I took my own cues from the women I grew up listening to: Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Donna Summer and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart,” she says. “Then there was Tina Turner.”
After Luba performed at the 1985 Juno Awards, with hosts Andrea Martin and Martin Short, Turner spotted Luba from across the hotel lobby.
“She made a beeline straight for me,” Luba says. “She had this aura, and she grabbed my hand and said, ‘You’re an amazing singer!’ She blew me away. Here was Tina Turner, who I grew up listening to on The Ed Sullivan Show, and she was paying me a compliment?”
Today, after a long absence from the charts, Luba is back with her just-released anthology of greatest hits, Icon, many recorded with legendary producers Daniel Lanois and Narada Michael Walden. Included on the compilation, which features songs from the singer’s four albums, is an unreleased version of “Let It Go” (European single and acoustic versions) and “a new song, ‘Heaven,’ which has a jazzy, lounge kind of feel, and the reaction on social media has been very positive,” she says.
Born in 1958 to Ukrainian immigrant parents, Luba — aka Lubomyra (which means “love and peace”) Kowalchyk — studied piano, guitar, flute and voice; during her teens she travelled across Canada performing traditional Ukrainian folk songs at weddings and festivals. She was a fine-arts student when she formed a band under her first name in 1978. Then, when her father died in 1979, she wrote what would become her signature song, “Everytime I See Your Picture,” as a tribute to him.
“Both my parents are dead now,” she says, “but the rest of the family all live in Ukraine, and I’m worried for them. Here [in Quebec] people are trying to pull apart a nation while people in Ukraine are trying to keep their country together.”
Meanwhile, through her career ups and downs, Luba’s gay audience has stuck by her.
“Many of my most devoted fans are gay and are not afraid to express their love,” she says. “That is something I’m very pleased about because they always make me feel like, ‘Wow!’ The gay community also love survivors with big voices, and I fit the bill. It hasn’t been a charmed career or a charmed life.”
She performed at the same-sex marriage of renowned Canadian painter and Calgary art gallery owner Robert E Wood. “Robert and his partner asked me to sing at their wedding, and it was definitely the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever been to,” Luba says, whose own marriage to her former drummer and manager, Peter Marunzak, ended in divorce. “The depth of their love and commitment to one another is beautiful and brought me closer to the gay community."
She hopes to follow up her new release with a concert tour.
“I’m working on putting a show together, but I don’t want to reappear with just a guitar or piano; I want to give it my all,” she says. “There are plans to develop a short tour, and I would prefer a series of outdoor shows this summer. But I also love small, intimate venues. And I miss singing live. Recording in the studio is great, but there is no greater thrill for me than performing live.”