Naya AliWith Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude), the first part of an album to be released in a few months, Naya Ali reminds us that good things come to those who wait.

The adage is well-known, sometimes even overused, but the Montréal rapper lives it to the fullest, with utmost sincerity in (almost) every one of her songs. Her philosophy remains unaffected by the current global crisis, even though all her promotional plans – including a record launch concert that was supposed to happen at SXSW 2020 a few days ago – have been scrapped. “We’ve re-visited the execution of our strategies. We didn’t have a choice and at this point, even next summer is up in the air. But I trust in the process. . . Je fais confiance à l’univers,” says the Anglophone Ethiopian rapper, whose spoken French has greatly improved since we last interviewed her in January of 2019.

The very existence of her new double-album is one more manifestation of those universal forces that make things happen in due course. “Initially, I wanted the album to be a single track,” Ali says, “but for reasons I’d rather keep to myself, we changed our approach. Ultimately, with everything that’s going on, it’s a good thing, because it’ll allow the album to get a second wind later in the year, when we release the second part of it.”

That will likely be in the fall of 2020, two years after the release of her first EP, Higher Self, which saw her explode onto the Québec rap scene, and one year after the deadline she set for herself for the release of her first album. “I had such a big summer out on the road!” sjhe says. “It was basically impossible to find the time to create something that had any kind of consistency. I have to admit, also, that I had a tough time finding producers, initially. Some of them ignored me or didn’t take me seriously because I was a newcomer. Now they all want to work with me…”

Others, like Chase.Wav, Kevin Figs, Benny Adam, and Banx & Ranx, had a nose for good material, and participated in the creation of this prelude to Godspeed: Baptism. “It was quite a challenge, because I’d only ever worked with one person up until now,” says Ali, referring to Kevin Dave, the producer of all six tracks on Higher Self. “He was in L.A…. and it’s really important for me to be in the physical presence of the people I work with. Getting beats over the internet is not a way to work, for me. I want to create songs from scratch, together.”

The final result is vastly more diversified than its predecessor. Without going as far as turning her back on the raw and dark trap sound for which she first became known, she uses richer melodies, and uses her voice more like a harmonic instrument than a percussive one. This is particularly true on “For Yuh, a pop- and dancehall-tinged love song produced by Montrealers Clipz and Nomis. “It might sound surprising [coming from me], but it shows another side of me. I’m not uni-dimensional,” she insists. “It means a lot to me, because I wrote it a long time ago about someone very specific. The emotions are no longer the same, but the song still touches me, because it has evolved and is now on its own course.”

“Shea Butter” is another song with a special meaning for the young thirtysomething. The cloud-rap song is filled with light, softness, and growth, not unlike the fruit of the shea tree, which grows in her country of origin, and it required many re-writes and much re-structuring, alongside Kevin Figs. “We went through four different versions to get to this one,” says Ali. “I wanted it to sound like the musical universe of the movie Drive.”

The opposite was true for Godspeed (also produced by Figs): it came about very quickly, “just a bit more than two hours,” a sign that the rapper had a very clear idea of what the album-permeating concept of “divine speed” actually means. “It’s all about trusting the timing of things,” she explains, when asked to clarify the notion. “For years, I felt like it would take an eternity to find my own path… Right up until the day I turned 29, when I decided to turn my life around instead of staying on the safe path – meaning my studies and job in the field of marketing. I decided to focus entirely on myself instead of devoting my energy to working for other people… I chose to trust the universe, and, slowly, music became increasingly important in my life. From that point on, things fell into place at lightning speed.”

And although her ambition is very real, Ali refuses to put any kind of pressure on herself. Time needs time to do what time does. “I don’t have goals with set deadlines,” she says. “The universe will decide all of that. In the meantime, I focus on being the best artist and the best person I can be.”

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.

Biali’s Back Catalogue

Out of Dust (2020)
Laila Biali (2018)
House of Many Rooms (2015)
Live in Concert (2012)
Tracing Light (2010)

“Take Me to the Alley” (2020)
“Sugar” (2020)
“River” (2019)
“The Book of Love” (2019)
“A Child is Born” (2018)
“Heart of Gold” (2018)
“We Go” (2018)
“Got to Love” (2018)
“Yellow” (2018)

“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.”

Jesse Zubot is a man of many talents.

It’s not enough that he plays a mean violin: his versatility stretches from recording JUNO Award-winning albums with Steve Dawson (as folk duo Zubot and Dawson), to bluegrass jazz concoction Great Uncles of the Revolution, and post-rock instrumentalists Fond of Tigers. He’s a touring sideman to Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and producer of her 2014 Polaris Prize-winning album Animism and 2016’s Retribution, and has also hit the road accompanying Dan Mangan, Hawksley Workman, and Stars, among others.  Zubot has also been hired for session work with Destroyer, Mother Mother, and Alan Doyle, to name a few.

Lately,  he’s been pursuing another passion.

“I felt many years ago that I wanted to eventually focus on film scoring,” says Zubot, who’s especially earned praise for his score to the movie Indian Horse. “I just naturally evolved into the area of creating soundscapes, and working a lot of ethereal, surreal effects into my album and session work. With Tanya, I started creating this sound that seemed like a good direction for scoring.”

“I just naturally evolved into the area of creating soundscapes”

Zubot said he let acquaintances know that he was interested in pursuing the pastime, and was hired to provide some short film soundtracks. “My first big feature happened when my friend Dan Mangan asked me to help him arrange and create the score for Hector and The Search for Happiness,” says Zubot. “A pretty big thing, because the lead actors were Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. That catapulted me into a new realm.”

The film’s producer, Christine Haebler of Vancouver’s Screen Siren Pictures, liked what she heard, and helped Zubot secure scoring duties for other feature films, including Two Lovers and A Bear, starring Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan, and directed by Academy Award nominee Kim Nguyen. Zubot has just finished scoring Monkey Beach, based on the Eden Robinson novel, and The Whale & The Raven, a documentary directed by Mirjam Leuze. Other projects in the pipeline include an NFB documentary on Tagaq. “Right now, I pretty much have a score or two going at all times,” he says.

For Indian Horse, a film that chronicles the life, within the residential school system, of an aspiring indigenous hockey player – loosely based on former NHL player Reggie Leach – Zubot employed three singers: North Vancouver Métis singer-songwriter Wayne Lavallee;  Squamish First Nations Shaker Church Minister and Cowichan Tribe member Eugene Harry; and Toronto Anishinaabe singer Marie Gaudet.

“I scattered their work throughout the film to make sure that there was some real indigenous content,” says Zubot. “That was a challenge – to create music for a story about the residential school system that supported the story, but didn’t overtake it. Subtle, but spare, it gave me the space to do what I do.”

Directed by Stephen Campanelli, Clint Eastwood’s longtime camera operator, Indian Horse – based on the Richard Wagamese novel and executive-produced by Eastwood – has a score largely determined by extemporization.

“Usually I’ll get a script three or four months beforehand, slowly make my way through it and get a subliminal feeling of the story,” says Zubot. “I’ll try not to think about it too much. Then I’ll get some first drafts and different scenes from the film – even if they’re not colour-corrected or fully edited – and start improvising to video.  I’ll create and let what I’m feeling about the story combine with what’s onscreen to guide me when I improvise. I’ll create the initial sketches and build things from there. It’s about emotion and feel for me.”

With numerous scores under his belt, Zubot is now eyeing Hollywood. “I want to spend more time in Los Angeles, and work with U.S. filmmakers that I respect.”