Exploring New Territory: An Interview With Laila Biali

Laila Biali - album cover

It’s a telling point that Laila Biali has chosen this, her seventh album, as the one to carry her name as the title.  This collection of thoughtful and heartfelt songs is, she says, ‘fully representative’ of who she is as a person and a musician.  Reflecting on life, love, and (in a particularly eloquent track) the plight of refugees, Laila’s new project is a tour de force that I’ve been unable to stop playing since it was added to my player.

The album opens with the swinging “Got to Love,” a reflection on the need for a world that operates more on love than on legalism or heartless rules.  (Make sure you have the volume cranked up, too, for the absolutely terrific chords paired with a stellar bass line on this one.)  “We Go,” with its slightly Latin tinge and wailing trumpet, can’t fail to have you tapping your feet.

“Refugee,” the aforementioned tune about the plight of those (especially children) who have nowhere to go through no fault of their own, is one of the highlights on the album for me – not only a beautiful song, but a moving plea (if the powers that be would only listen) to halt the fighting that impacts so many and accomplishes so little.  It’s followed on the album by the absolutely gorgeous “Dolores Angel” and “Queen of Hearts” (whose bass line reminds me of the theme tune from “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” one of my favorite TV themes).  “Code Breaking” is probably my favorite track on the album, an intriguing, thoroughly grooving track complete with crunchy piano chords and terrific trumpet solos – I dare you not to hit repeat after hearing it for the first time.

The album is mainly comprised of original tunes but two covers especially caught my attention. The first is Coldplay’s “Yellow” (which was also one of the first tracks released in advance of this album’s release), a quietly intense take on the song to which Laila Biali gives some really interesting accompaniment, changing up the chords underneath what is undoubtedly a familiar melody to most of us.  The other is David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” – certainly a timely inclusion, but also a unique take on the song that builds from a muted intro to a terrific groove.

I’ve so enjoyed listening to the album, and we’re delighted that Laila took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions about the album.

One of the quotes from you in the press release for the new album states this is the most authentic project you feel you’ve done in your career to this point… in what ways is this project especially reflective of you as a person and a musician?

I’m someone who loves adventure and a variety of experiences – that goes for travels around the world and in music! The new album encapsulates that thirst for discovering new territory, while honouring the foundations that have shaped who I am, personally and musically.

“Refugee” is such a powerful song; how important is it, do you think, for musicians to address not only personal but social issues in their music?  And for you specifically?

I believe it’s important, but not every musician feels this sense of conviction. In fact, artists should only write about social issues if they are genuinely inspired to do so. When I heard the BBC global newscast detailing a bombing in Syria, I was heartbroken. The only response I could offer was a song.

I can’t stop listening to “Code-Breaking”… how did this song and its interpretation come to you?

I got the idea when I was on a writing retreat at The Banff Centre. I thought that using ten signal emergency codes to describe the breakdown of a human relationship would be interesting and edgy. We had so much fun tracking this, especially with Larnell Lewis on drums!

Laila Biali

The album closes with a really intriguing take on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (which was the first song I remember hearing by him)… what drew you to this song in particular?

It was actually requested by a fan! In 2013, I opened things up and began taking song requests from concert goers and listeners, without restriction on genre. This was one of the very first that came in, when we were performing in Hamilton, Ontario. People seemed to really like our take on the iconic David Bowie track, so it stayed with us and ended up on the album.

I read in another interview that you originally trained as a classical pianist but then switched to jazz… are there any particular jazz pianists who inspired you as you made that transition?

Absolutely – Keith Jarrett, whose classical influences are evident, Chick Corea, Renee Rosnes and Geoff Keezer. Of course there are countless others.

You’ve been hosting CBC’s “Saturday Night Jazz” for several months now.  How has that work impacted your own music, if at all?

My hosting position with CBC has broadened my exposure to all the great music that’s out there, especially in Canada. Every show brings new discoveries, and with them, fresh inspiration. It reminds me why I love the many shades of Jazz!

What are you looking forward to the most about taking this new material on the road?

I’m excited to see how we will be able to engage our audiences in the new music and in the stories these songs tell. Live performances also change songs from their original recorded versions, which is a treat for us jazzers, who are always hungry for adventure.  🙂

~ L

Visit Laila Biali’s website.

Listen to “Laila Biali” on Spotify.

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