Until she released House of Many Rooms in 2015, Liala Biali’s recording career had been comprised mainly of cover versions. It was only after years of seeing other singer-songwriters perform their own songs in a live setting that she found the courage to speak in her own voice. Over the phone from her home in Toronto (she’s been living in New York for much of her career), Biali explains how life insinuated itself into her new, now very personal, songwriting on Out of Dust, her new album out on March 28, 2020.
Following up all the accolades she deservedly received for the album Laila Biali in 2019 (which earned the JUNO for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, and both the SOCAN Composer and Keyboardist of the Year honours at the National Jazz Awards) was going to be a challenge. Initially, Biali had sold her record company on a travelogue-themed album – a collection of songs inspired by a proposed cross-country U.S. road trip, since the Vancouver-born artist had just become a dual citizen. “But then all of this stuff started becoming undone in our personal lives.”
A family member had committed suicide; a dear friend and mentor succumbed to cancer; and then, after returning with her husband and child to live in Canada, she fell seriously and mysteriously ill. It turns out that the house they rented, and where most of Out of Dust was written and recorded, was infested with an invisible, crippling, toxic mold. “There were moments when I thought, is this the end of my career?” says Biali.
Up to then, her songwriting subjects tended towards societal issues, like the refugee crisis, the Sandy Hook shootings, neighbourhood gentrification. Now the inspiration came from closer to home for her and her husband, co-producer and drummer Ben Wittman. The struggles were “consuming our lives and consuming my thought life,” says Biali. “As writers and as musicians, those [life concerns] ultimately do become songs.”
“I used to think that you sort of tame songs into a genre.”
The results are moving, inspiring, and – remarkably – life-affirming songs. In particular “Wendy’s Song” addresses the passing of her friend, and “Glass House” deals with suicide.
“What I’ve been learning, as a relatively new songwriter since I released House of Many Rooms in 2015, is that the songs themselves dictate the direction of the music to a large degree,” says Biali. “I used to think, especially as someone who comes from jazz, that you sort of tame songs into a genre.” Biali was trying, successfully at times, to shove square pegs into round holes. But it wasn’t satisfying.
Then she remembered a lesson she learned from her days working behind some other songwriters. An early career detour had her backup singing and/or playing piano alongside some stellar performers (including Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, and Sting). “I got to listen to how they connected with their audiences, and how the stories they told behind [their] uniquely personal material connected on a whole other level,” she says. “[The original material] impacted me as a musician – it was something that I just began to explore.”
Her side-gig as host of CBC’s Saturday Night Jazz since 2017 has also proved a major influence. As per CBC policies, the show’s producer, Lauren Hancock, picks the music, so Biali gets to hear some tracks for the first time, along with her audience. She explains that, because of the show, “I’ve been exposed to music that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. As a songwriter, what that has led to is the discovery of songwriters who I can identify with in jazz, who are exploring the nexus of jazz and something other, perhaps, taking a slightly more mainstream approach to jazz. Having a chorus that repeats, and using techniques that borrow from more straightforward, more commercial songwriting.”
With a jolt, and a laugh, Biali swings back to talking about Out of Dust and offers a positive exhortation: “The album’s not a big downer!” she says. “The topics could suggest that it’s a bit of a down record, but there’s always this thread of hope, because,” she pauses, then after some consideration, audibly shrugs and concludes, “that’s who I am.”