(Editors note: On video go to 41 mins 55 secs and checkout Laila Biali live version of ‘Lets Dance’ – (David Bowie) @ jazzahead!)
Laila’s new album brings us a stunning collection of original material along with three entrancing covers of the music of David Bowie, Coldplay and Randy Newman. Although sitting under the heading of Jazz, Laila’s music gives us a wonderful mixture of indie, pop, blues, soul with its roots clearly in Jazz. We caught up with Laila in the midst of the frantic and exciting period of album launch preparation.
Fiona Ross: Thank you so much for talking to us. You’re a classically trained pianist – can you tell us a little bit about your musical training and what led you to the point of being an artist?
Laila Biali: It all started when I was about three when my Mum was trying to determine whether I should be enrolled in classical piano lessons or gymnastics. But apparently I lept onto a piano and worked out the theme tune to Sesame Street, by ear, and at that moment my Mum decided, piano was the way to go! I fell in love with tapes my teacher would send me home with, of classical pianists and I dreamt of being a classical pianist. But when I was 15 I was in a car accident and the injuries to my arm meant that my dreams of being a classical pianist were basically dashed. But it was also at the time that I switched schools and was introduced to Jazz, having not really experienced any Jazz until that point. My tutor pointed me in the direction of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, as they were also classically trained pianists but it took me a while to find the connection with Jazz. The ‘aha’ moment for me, was watching Kenny Wheeler in performance – it was tuneful, heartfelt, beautiful and I had never heard anything like it before and I just cried during the concert. This started me on a journey of listening and exploring music that was like therapy – Norma Winstone, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler – inspiring and I wanted to make people feel the way that those artists made me feel.
Fiona Ross: You have worked with some amazing people – Sting and Dave Brubeck to name a few. How do you feel the experience of working with these artists has shaped your own work?
Laila Biali: They have all taught be something different. With Sting, it was the combination of limitless childlike joy and a spirit of curiosity and openness combined with an extraordinary work ethic. He was always the first to show up and the last to leave a 10 hour work day and he set the bar very high, but with a welcoming and friendly approach. My experience with Paula Cole was all about the importance of the fan experience over the course of a show, which was unlike some of the more traditionally formal Jazz performances I had seen. The emotional connection that can sometimes be missing from traditional Jazz performances that I had experienced at that time - it can be isolating and super intellectualized – since then, I have of course encountered many performances that do not fit into that category! Watching Paula Cole give 150% on stage, giving just everything and I just thought oh my gosh, there’s something here. With Suzanne Vega is was about the art of storytelling, the narrative, coming from an almost more folk tradition. All of these elements have been influential.
Fiona Ross: This is your sixth album but this one is self titled and you have described it as your ‘homecoming’. What is it about this album that makes you feel that way?
Laila Bial: There are all these different realms of music that I had been exploring, and through my twenties I always tried to follow my heart but still always listening to people’s advice, some of which was quite disparate. I tried things out and had some success here and there, but after I had my son, my husband and I co produced an album which marked a return for me to original music. With this new album, I’m singing, I’m playing, I’m arranging and I have three cover songs on there and I feel is a really comprehensive representation of who I really am.
Fiona Ross: The industry continually tries to pigeonhole artist into a genre, primarily for marketing purposes. What are your thoughts on this and does this impact on your own music?
Laila Bial: Well, yes it’s there at the back of my head when I’m in the studio writing and I’m aware and want there to be a focus that is cohesive from start to finish, however, if it ends up falling between the cracks in terms of genre, I just can’t seem to help that. For better or for worse, I end up doing my own thing!
Fiona Ross: And finally, leading on from that and fitting into genre, or not, what is your definition of Jazz and what does it mean to you?
Laila Bial: It is music that is very much rooted in self expression but also a shared experience with the listeners - I think the element of spontaneity and improvisation are key.
Photo credits include ©: Rockie Nolan - and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s)