How Laila Biali found her artistic identity, and embraced it

Juno Award-winning pianist, composer and vocalist Laila Biali seems to be in a constant state of motion.

She has just wrapped up a European tour, she’s releasing a holiday tune on Dec. 13, and she’s about to celebrate Estonian Music Week with shows in Toronto and Hamilton. And earlier this year, Biali was taken by surprise when she won her first Juno Award for her 2018 self-titled album.

The album marked a new beginning for Biali, who returned to her roots to make an album that has jazz at its core but also contains plenty of crossover pop appeal. The record features mostly original songs, along with covers of songs by David Bowie, Randy Newman and  Coldplay.

She joined us to talk more about what it meant to win that first Juno, and how it felt like validation of a career spent finding and honing her personal voice and identity as an artist.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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I haven’t seen you since you won your Juno, and it probably seems like a long time ago but congratulations. I had the sense from the way you were treating it on your social media that it meant something to you, that it was a big deal. Did it surprise you?

It was 150 per cent a surprise. I actually did not prep a thank-you, and I sat down at the table with Jodi Proznick — who was also nominated — and she’s the queen of preparedness. I turned to her and her publicist and said, “I haven’t written anything.”

Was that your way of protecting yourself in some ways?

That’s a deep psychological question. But I just didn’t think I was going to win. In fact, I was so honoured to have just been nominated. I’m not being self-effacing, I just thought it was wonderful that I was nominated in the same category as Diana Krall and Tony Bennett. I actually thought Jodi would win, which I guess by extension would have been a win for me because I was the singer on her record. Diana Panton, Holly Cole… these women are heroes, and all no-brainer wins in their own right. And Jodi and her publicist said, “You know, you might want to just sketch out a few thoughts.” So I whipped out my iPhone and started thumbing it out. And then when they announced it… you could have knocked me over with a feather.

So what are the implications of winning a Juno? Do you feel some momentum? Is there something tangible that comes from this for an artist?

Well, you know that I’ve struggled for many years with being in this unique space between jazz and something other. To me, it was such a beautiful affirmation of the style of jazz that I’ve chosen to embrace. The reason that album was self-titled was because it felt very representative of who I am. House of Many Rooms, the one that preceded it, was a departure. And then I really came home and put together a true amalgam or hybrid of the pop sensibility but with all the ingredients that make me who I am as a jazz musician. It was wonderful to be embraced and given an industry nod with a Juno.

Do you think you could have made that record, though, without making the previous one? It was a stepping stone, right? 

It absolutely was. I was really a writer and a composer, and with From Sea to Sky and Tracing Light, I kind of became known as a cover artist. My voice was getting buried, in a way. House of Many Rooms was totally original material. Yeah, it was a little bit in this indie, alt-pop zone, but it was a chance for me to reconnect with the writer in me. That was good. That was important.

When you came back to being a writer, was it different than how it was before? Was the intention different? Was the approach different?

Yes, because I had started singing. The direction I was heading in my early 20s was to become an instrumental jazz composer. Maria Schneider was a hero, Kenny Wheeler was a hero, and I wanted to write music for large ensembles.

So, very different.

Absolutely, yeah. I had been touring with Sting, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega, and I think they had given me a taste of what it looked like to connect with an audience with one’s own songs. There was a level of vulnerability. Even if songs were not as strong as Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, who I idolized, there was still something significant about sharing my own experiences as a lyricist that would connect with listeners on a different level.

When you step back from it, does it almost seem like everything made sense, that there was a reason for all the things that got you here, even though they were all over the map at the time? 

It does. I remember feeling a little lost. But I am a firm believer that everything in our lives gets used to some end that pulls it all together. Looking back now, I really do see how all those albums were a stepping stone, and representative of where I was in that moment. And that’s all that we can do as creatives.

You seem to be this perfect marriage of art and ambition. I have so much respect for you as an artist, yet you have all these other skill sets that don’t seem like they would always mix in an artist’s brain. But you are equally talented at the other stuff that has to push you along in your career.

My husband Ben and I just finished recording an album, and I turned to him and said you know, it was wonderful to be in this intensely creative season, but if you look at my daily life, I’m at the wrong keyboard. I’m at my computer all the time. It is a necessary evil. And I do enjoy it, because it still ties in to the creative work, but it’s actually really out of honest, if I’m being honest. I’m so driven. Maybe I need to take my foot off that gas pedal, and focus more on the creative and artistic side of things, because I can feel an unrest in my spirit when things are disproportionately weighted on the business side.

Where do you think the drive comes from? Are your parents super driven?

My dad is. But they never pushed me. They didn’t have to. You know what, God bless motherhood, because that has slowed me down and it’s so good for me. My son, he’s the most important thing in my life, and if I kept going at the pace that I did when he was first born … My health took a hit. I’m still bringing myself back and trying to find that balance so that I can be in this for the long haul — because I love what I do.