On Friday night, Canadian singer-songwriter and pianist Laila Biali was the second guest of Harker’s Virtual Concert Series, which features a rebroadcast of a past Harker concert followed by a live chat with the artist. She spoke and answered questions about her career and songwriting process.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in Toronto, the Juno-winning Biali answered questions posed by Dave Hart, upper school instrumental music chair, as well as viewers. She recalled how she found an interest in music at a very early age, starting piano at just 3 and half years old and having aspirations of attending Juilliard or the Curtis Institute of Music by her teens. At 15, she suffered an injury in a car accident that severely limited the use of her right arm. During her recovery, she began learning jazz, which she described as “like learning a new language.”
Her career as a singer began while performing at a jazz festival, where she was offered a scholarship to Toronto’s Humber College and found singing and songwriting as new modes of expression. Later, while touring with a group called Sisters of Jazz, Biali was invited to join trumpeter Chris Botti’s band, which eventually led to her moving to New York. There she found work with Paula Cole (during which she met her husband, Ben Wittman) and Sting, a gig that saw her travel to the English singer’s estate in Tuscany. “Sting is your quintessential rock star,” said Biali. “He could totally be what we call a devo, the male version of a diva. He could just waltz into rehearsal whenever he wanted.” Biali was also inspired by Sting’s discipline and work ethic: “He was the first to arrive and the last to leave, without fail.”
Discussing her approach to songwriting, Biali described the process as seldom constant. “It’s changing all the time and in some ways, it’s really informal,” she said. “There’s a point where it becomes a discipline and I have to sit down and hone the idea.”
Biali finds “raw material for songs all around me,” she said. Sources include news stories and various sights and sounds of the cities she’s lived in or visited. She often leaves voice memos on her phone.
One of her favorite activities is heading to the Banff Centre in Alberta to complete songs she has begun writing, because of its environment and access to resources. “For each of the past three records, that has been an integral part of finishing the songs,” she said. She also runs ideas by her husband, who she said “felt like an ally and a friend right away” upon meeting him when they both worked for Paula Cole.
The video of Biali’s performance at the Patil Theater in September 2019 will be available to view until Mon. Dec. 21. Her latest solo album, “Out of Dust,” and her rendition of “Silent Night” are now available on Spotify, iTunes and other services.