Laila Biali has made considerable waves on the Canadian jazz scene as a pop-friendly singer/pianist, as adept at covering Feist, Ron Sexsmith and Joni Mitchell as Cole Porter or Tom Jobim.
The Brooklyn-based, Vancouver native’s latest disc, House Of Many Rooms, is her most pop-influenced and original outing yet. It’s a lush, expansive disc of original songs rather than covers that Biali, 34, told me is more of an indie art pop record than jazz. With its horns, strings, gospel choir and overall vibe, it’s much bigger sonically than the music Biali has made with her own trio. But the disc is also a natural, if ambitious, move from an artist who has sung backup vocals for Sting, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega.
Biali has been touring Canada this month in support of House Of Many Rooms. She makes stops Thursday, April 30, at the Neat Cafe in Burnstown, and Friday, May 1, at GigSpace in Ottawa, with concerts in Toronto and Montreal to follow.
Here’s the EPK for House of Many Rooms, followed by a little Q&A in which Biali elaborates on her latest project.
I began delving into songwriting in between tours with Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega and Sting. I believe most musicians are spongy people. They absorb what they’re being exposed to. Hearing and supporting these singer-songwriters in their unique stylistic approach impacted me and my work, musically. The songs that were emerging had elements of the music I was steeped in between 2007 and 2009, which was primarily “pop” and mainstream. I tried to adapt and change some of the earlier songs, to see if they could work with my jazz trio, but it wasn’t a natural fit.
What are the chief differences between the Radiance Project and the Laila Biali Trio?
At the moment, The Radiance Project is larger in scope and employs a greater variety of musical configurations -– for example, string orchestra and gospel choir. The sound of The Radiance Project also has a bit more of a pop/rock flavour; but, I must tell you that in live performance, the new material works quite well alongside some of the more crossover jazz songs, like Daniel Lanois’ Where Will I Be, k.d. Lang’s Simple, Feist’s Mushaboom, Imogen Heap’s Let Go, even Bruce Cockburn’s Stolen Land.
How are the jazz influences still there?
There are still elements of improvisation. The wonderful violist, Eyvind Kang, who tours with Bill Frisell, is a featured soloist on Little Bird. The presence of horns and some of the arranging techniques I used also come from my background and experiences in Jazz. Many of the harmonic choices made in the songwriting process also point to my love of Jazz, using more adventurous and unconventional chords in a few of the songs.
Are you hoping to reach a new audience with this change in your music, or simply expose your fans to a different side of your artistic self, or both?
Is there a track on the new album that you’re especially proud of, and if so, why?
Home is my personal favourite because it’s the most expansive. It features nearly everyone who was a part of the album – the gospel choir, full strings, full horns, full band. Our aim was to take listeners on a journey, and I feel we accomplished that.
Live, does the music get more “jazzy?” Do you do any Laila Biali Trio music while touring, or is it full-on Radiance Project?
Yes, there are some solos on the new repertoire in live performance; but, the songs are still true to what is presented on the album. And we absolutely mix in some of the Laila Biali Trio repertoire, leaning towards music that works well alongside The Radiance Project.
You’re touring, I believe, with your husband (and drummer) and your son. How is the balance between family life and musical life going — at home and/or on the road?
It’s been wonderful, but it is an ever dynamic and changing process. Josh’s needs and our needs continue to evolve, and it is our ongoing goal to find a happy intersection for all of us. No matter what, we want our son to be in an environment where he will thrive and flourish, and it has taken some interesting planning to ensure that’s the case.
The music on House of Many Rooms seems very big to me — you could easily fill a big, soft-seat theatre with it. How does it work in some of up-close-and-personal rooms that you’re playing such as GigSpace in Ottawa?
Yes, we are playing some smaller venues. The new music definitely fills the space! But, everyone in the band is musical, and so we adjust our approach and “play the room” without losing the grandeur (we hope).