When Canadian singer-songwriter and pianist Laila Biali released her seventh album in January 2018 many observers were quick to seize the significance of her choosing to title it eponymously. Alongside her signing to German label ACT Music, here was the clue that she finally found her voice as an artist. Sure enough, Laila Biali debuted at number 1 on iTunes Canada and won Biali the top prize for Jazz in the Canadian Songwriting Competition. The accolades didn’t end there as this year she won a Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.
Having noted on her social media that Biali is back in the studio I ask her if this level of recognition also bring its own pressures, and while she acknowledges that there is an element of that she also has faith in her own ability.
“You know, I’ve just turned 39, so I’ve been at this for a while and I’ve been nominated for a Juno in the past but this was my first win and in that sense it’s a bit of a game-changer for me, especially here in Canada because it’s our Grammy,” she begins.
“But prior to winning that award, while it’s wonderful to get that nod from the industry, it’s never been why I do what I do and so it can sound a little clichéd but it’s my job to continue to walk my path as an artist and to put out work I can stand behind in terms of its quality and authenticity. So that’s what I’m doing.
“The last record kinda crossed over between jazz and other styles of music, pop, a little bit of classical and soul, and songwriting, and the new one does the same. So I think I sort of established a place in which I artistically feel very much like myself. Because I think for a long time I was trying to figure out where I would sit. I came from classical, was trained as a classical pianist and then went to school for jazz, and then toured with singer-songwriters and pop stars and rock stars like Sting and Suzanne Vega. So I t took me a minute to find my own identity and I think I did that in the last record, which is why even though it was my seventh release we made it self-titled and I think with this current project it sits in the same genre territory.”
Biali’s musical background is an eclectic one and with Laila Biali she was able to embrace it wholly. Clearly, before she even released it, she knew she had something to fully stand over.
“I did,” she declares. “And you know what’s interesting though, and there’s something to be said for this, when I released it, in terms of recognition if you could have read my mind my thought life was sort of in the direction of ‘Well, I’m not sure where this will fit. Like are we going to get support from the jazz world or is it too pop for jazz and is it too jazz for pop. Is it going to kind of end up in no man’s land?’
“But at the end of the day I stood behind it because it was uniquely me and in that sense it felt good to release the album as it had been created. And then to get the nod was a great surprise and, as you say, validation and that, Okay, you know what, I actually wasn’t worrying about trying to appease the industry or to try to check certain boxes. I just released it trusting that it was an accurate representation of who I am. And then it did wonderful things for me so it was great to see that align.”
As an artist who has tossed out exuberant takes on tracks by Coldplay and The Magnetic Fields, Biali has found one of her records being described as indie pop. However, that underpinning of jazz is important to her. I wonder if that very off the cuff definition she gave of being too pop for jazz and too jazz for pop is a territory she’s reluctant to find herself in or, if I expect from such a fearless artist something she’s quite happy to turn into a virtue? As expected, she’s unconcerned with being pigeonholed, citing artists who move easily between genres while maintaining their jazz roots like Esperanza Spalding, Snarky Puppy and Jacob Collier.
“I think the industry is more concerned with categories than listeners these days. You either like an artist or you don’t. I used to fear falling in the cracks but now I sort of feel like the cracks themselves have been sealed,” she reasons.
Laila Biali plays the Guinness Jazz Festival Club, Metropole Ballroom, on Sunday, October 27.