Laila Biali on Her JUNO Win, Learning from Failure, and New Album

Laila Biali is an award-winning jazz pianist and singer-songwriter. She is also the host
of Saturday Night Jazz, a weekly program on CBC Music that features jazz music from Canada and around the world.

In 2018, Biali reintroduced herself with a self-titled album that saw the Toronto musician bring together jazz and pop. The album won Vocal Jazz Album of the Year at the 2019 JUNO Awards.

Let’s go back a few months. Your self-titled album receives the JUNO nomination for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. What is going through your mind?

Shock. Because I live in-between the worlds of jazz and other genres, I really didn’t expect to get a nomination at all. I have only submitted an album once. It didn’t get nominated, but it was the last record that I put out called House of Many Rooms [released under Laila Biali & The Radiance Project], which was a total departure from jazz. You don’t want to get your hopes up. You want to focus on the reason why you make music in the first place which is not necessarily to get a JUNO or to receive a nomination.

Of course, I was also thrilled because it felt like affirmation of this direction I have been going in which blends jazz with other genres.

While preparing for this interview, I found an interview with you from 2005. How do you think 24-year-old Laila would have reacted to your JUNO win?

Oh my gosh. You know what? I think 24-year-old Laila would have expected it more than 38-year-old Laila. I was more optimistic and, to some degree, not more confident…a part of me was seeking my sound, which I think I have settled into more authentically now than ever.

Back then, I was a little less beat up, just by virtue of years on the planet. I hadn’t weathered the ups and downs that come with being in the music business. I would have been like yeah, man, I could get a JUNO.

You were already making waves. You won the CBC Galaxie Prize at the National Jazz Awards in 2003, and then two years later you won SOCAN Keyboardist of The Year and Composer of the Year.

Yeah! It felt like the world and the industry, and what we might have called gatekeepers back then, were more on board with who I was at that time. And then I went through this spell of 10 plus years of searching. During that time, I started to question — Is what I do viable? Who am I? I love jazz so much, but I really love pop and mainstream music. Is there a way to combine those worlds? Or am I always going to be too pop for jazz and too jazz for pop?

But we are now in an era where artists like Esperanza Spalding are all over the map. Jazz has claimed Snarky Puppy and yet the Grammys they’ve won have been in different categories, like contemporary instrumental. Jazz really embraces them as a fusion group because those guys all come from and respect jazz. It is an integral part of their sound, even if it’s not jazz as many people would conceive of it. I feel like I’m in this neat creative time where the idea of what jazz is, is becoming more expansive and allowing more room for play and crossing over.

I want to go back to the 10 year period you just mentioned. It seems like it was a difficult time for you. What is your relationship with failure, and what lessons have you learned from it?

It’s a real cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. You know how they say the journey is as important as the destination? In a way, that is completely my motto, musically speaking. Anybody who’s gone backpacking or travelled knows there are always ups and downs. Challenges. Missed flights. Illness. Maybe the destination you get to isn’t even the destination you expected. You have to allow for that as part of the process and embrace that for what it is knowing that it is, I think, as important as the destination.

You also can’t let it define you. The process is not the destination. They are not to be confused. When somebody writes a really critical article, or you put out a song that doesn’t do well, that can be a teaching moment. There might be some good you can take from that. You can allow it to shape you and inform steps forward. Or, if you disagree with it, then hopefully it enables you to focus all the more on the places where you think the truth lies for you.

Failure is a refining part of the process. It’s like when people talk about the crucible. When you want to refine gold, you put a flame to it. If you think about the equivalent for us as people, it’s like “Aah! That hurts! That is not comfortable.” But you come out a little more focused, a little more purified, and hopefully a little more you.

You mentioned that sometimes a song doesn’t get as much love as you would have liked. Is there a song or project that you wish had picked up more attention?

Yeah, House of Many Rooms. We got so much love from this whole other community of younger listeners and the college radio crowd, kind of the indie-alternative world. But because I was known as a jazz musician, very few within the jazz community really embraced that project. They were like, what is she doing? That kind of hurt, because that was like my music family. And so, I felt like a woman divided. I really had hoped that I could still be Laila Biali the jazz musician, or the contemporary jazz musician, and then have this other project that would signify to people that it was a different approach but equally me.

I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone about Taylor Swift and her transition from country to pop. Even though she is wildly famous, that was actually a very difficult transition for her. She kind of wanted to be in both worlds, but she went through this period where she was getting rejected by both. She said, and this is a loose quote, you can’t chase two rabbits. The genres representing the rabbits. I was like, oh, maybe I’m chasing two rabbits. That was when I was like: what happens if we try to combine these worlds? That’s what I felt like I did on the self-titled record which is why we made it self-titled. It felt like it brought these two formerly disparate aspects of my artistic self together.

It seems that these days, there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention: Netflix, YouTube, podcasts. Where do you think jazz music falls in the mix? Do you think Canada’s jazz scene receives enough attention?

I think we are lucky in Canada to have grants bodies like Canada Council for the Arts, all the provincial arts councils, and then also SOCAN Foundation and FACTOR. They are getting behind all the genres, including jazz. Jazz musicians are able to pursue their art without packaging it in a way that gives it its best chance of commercial success. So, you are getting a lot of music in our country that is distinctive and has managed to reach more listeners because of the grant support and being able to hire publicists. It gives album releases the campaigns they deserve in terms of marketing, radio, and publicity. I think that’s kept our scene more diverse.

In terms of the general public, I actually think audiences are increasingly open to different styles and the blurring of the boundaries between different genres. I do think the appetite for longer form music has decreased to some degree, but then at the same time, we are engaging with music a lot of the time as the soundtrack to our lives. In that sense, and especially with Spotify, it doesn’t matter if a track is seven or ten minutes long and is less radio friendly. People will have access to it anyway. And if they really enjoy what they are hearing, then they are going into incorporate into their day, even if it’s just as background.

Since 2017, you have been the host of Saturday Night Jazz on CBC Music. Has the program changed the way you listen to and appreciate jazz?

Yes! Other than the fourth hour which is intentionally a little more experimental, I am reminded of what makes jazz, jazz in terms of its traditional roots. There is a real sense of the tradition and the roots of the tradition. It’s good for me to be reminded of them because sometimes an artist like myself is at the risk of breaking away from those roots altogether. 

My producer Lauren chooses all the music. A lot of the times she chooses songs I wouldn’t choose myself. And so, it stretches me which is healthy!

What keeps you grounded when life gets too stressful?

My family. They are my northern stars. They are the constant. And my faith. People have come at life from many different faith perspectives. I was raised in the church and then moved away from the church in my late teens and early twenties. I came back to it with a different and more broadened worldview, but it still provides a real sense of anchoring and where I want to go as a human on this planet with one life. Those two things are very centring. Faith, family, and friends — if you want to go with alliteration!

How do you organize and schedule your day?

My husband is a freelance musician. We are constantly colliding and trying to manage co-parenting and everything else. We routinely have a morning meeting, because we don’t have day jobs. One of us, or both of us, will drop off our son at school and we will come back home for tea/breakfast. We will sit together and talk about the day, sometimes the week, sometimes the month, or sometimes the next few months. We lay out what we can. We might say a prayer together to get our hearts focused in the right direction. And then, we dive into the work, but also try to be flexible when things arise, which they often do.

We don’t lock into our schedule obsessively, but in a time like this season where I have a pretty tight deadline to come up with a new record, we have to map things out and stick to those commitments as much as we can.

Can we talk about the new album? Going into this new album must feel pretty good with a JUNO under your belt.

It’s also terrifying, because I’m like, aah!

What do you want to achieve with this album?

It sounds so cheesy and so basic but be myself without judging so much. I think the thing that’s my undoing now and in some ways more than ever in light of the JUNO is: are people going to like this? Is this jazz enough? I won a jazz vocal JUNO, so now I have to be a jazz musician — that thing is creeping back in. Instead of allowing the songs to dictate the direction we go in. My husband, who is co-producing the album and co-produced the last one, always reminds me of the importance of that.

Once you have birthed these songs into the world, they no longer belong to you. They belong to everybody who listens and for whom they take on meaning. You have to let that be what it may be. That’s the beauty of being an artist. For me, the goal is to express and then connect. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish on this one.


Laila Biali will be playing Saturday, May 25 at the CBC Music Festival in Toronto. The festival will feature performances from Alvvays, Coeur de pirate, Peach Pit, and many more!

She will tour across Canada starting next month. For more information, visit: https://lailabiali.com/

 

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