Laila Biali Pushes Back

While a home studio might seem like a way to make things easier, it turned out as a bit of a trap for Laila Biali. With mould taking over her recording space, Biali had to power through making a record and deal with illnesses caused by the mould itself. Amongst those hardships Biali created Out of Dust, a return to jazz that is coloured by her pop recordings. We caught up with Biali ahead of her March 21 show at the National Arts Centre.

Ottawa Life: It feels like each album you're slowly mixing in more pop elements in an interesting way, though this time I noted it feels very subtle, was this an effort to avoid overindulging?

Laila Biali: It wasn't a conscious choice. My agent was talking to me, and his roster is heavily jazz. He was telling me "The world is waiting for you to release another jazz record." And this album just happened to lean more that way, I let the music guide things. This does feel closer  to my last record though than my previous jazz releases. The new territory I staked out on that self-titled record is there. And from a production standpoint it walks the line between pop and jazz a lot.

Ottawa Life: What led you to co-producing between yourself and your husband Ben Wittman, and what were the ups and downs of keeping that side of things so personal?

Laila Biali: It was wonderful and chaotic. Ben and I have this amazing synergy as partners and colleagues. So we've established a great workflow now going into our third record together. We've learned each other's language too. Where it got complicated this time was with our personal lives and that threatened to unravel the project repeatedly. I had health issues going on and we had discovered the source of those issues was mould behind the walls of our bungalow. And that's where we track all my vocals. That's when it hit us how closely tied we are to each other. If I had been recording with someone else and this mould came up, that producer could've taken me out of the space. But the chaos here was threatening both of us together, so we were hanging on to the same life-preserver. It was uniquely challenging but it drew us closer together.

Ottawa Life: I understand this album came amongst dealing with illness that resulted from mould in the same house you recorded in, so how have you found overcoming this (especially Asthma) to perform?

Laila Biali: It was definitely a bit of a…. to use the polite term… mind-screw. They tested the space in July and we'd already been pushing dates back. In the final throws of the record, the test came back that it was quote "Unfit for human occupancy." It was so bad that all the equipment, including Ben's expensive microphones, was tainted by it…and still is. So we had to go out and get these protective masks and so now there's these great photos of us in headgear as we mix the album. We had to create a makeshift studio in our living room, and it was hard to get the same soundproofing we needed.

I had been feeling the effects of the illnesses for a while but I never knew what was actually wrong with me. So I went to get checked and the respiratory specialist asked me if I grew up in a coal mine. He said I had a third of the respiratory capacity of a normal person, despite being a professional singer. I had been getting dizzy a lot on stage, I would often get to the edge of passing out but not go past it. I noticed it recording Saturday Night Jazz on CBC, because I was sneaking breaths in the middle of sentences while sitting. I'm still dealing with it, it's a daily battle but I look forward to getting out of this house. We had a temporary treatment for the mould but you can't really recover until you're out of it.

Ottawa Life: Meanwhile so much of this album, including the title, seems to reflect creating something out of a struggle, so with everything going on in your life, was this record a way to make sense of it?

Laila Biali: Absolutely. So I am fundamentally a hopeful person, even when things feel dire. History in my own life has taught me that the dawn comes eventually. I always believe that something good will come, even out of death. One picture that captured this so beautifully was from the fires in Australia, it was of a charred stump with pastel-coloured plant chutes around it. So there was all this amazing life out of the ashes. It was such a beautiful rendering of what I believe. Out of the ashes comes beauty and new life. I've had to believe that for myself and my family, and obviously it's not as bad what some other people are dealing with. Relative to our own experience it felt like a crisis. So that idea encapsulated what I was going through between the deaths of a close friend and a family member, the illnesses and even the political situation south of the border. But you see the counter movement and there's a lot of great things coming out of this time. So it's all coming out of the dust.

Ottawa Life: On this note I understand, "Take the Day Off" was a co-write with your son, was this a reflection of you trying to push too hard while making the record?

Laila Biali: I'm perpetually driven so that I'll push myself to a fault. But you have to fill your tank. And you always gain from taking time off or what some might call a Sabbath rest. I think there's a principle in farming too that you have to leave your field fallow so that it can sustain itself. So it's right there in nature that we need to slow down to preserve ourselves and remember where we want to go. And my son has really taught me that. Saturday mornings are precious to us, where we're together but all doing our own thing. Joshua picked up this African drum and played this pattern on it that was amazing, and so meditative. It felt like the perfect accompaniment to this day of rest for us. I recorded and then made a version of it myself later. I realized it could be a song and it was so simple that it was perfect for a song about rest. I wanted the song to have the same feeling he gave us that morning.

Photos: Chronograph Records