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.”

It’s been a mere three years since Cuban-Canadian duo OKAN – comprised of percussionist Magdelys Savigne and singer/violinist Elizabeth Rodríguez – hit the music scene, but in short order the pair have released the Independent Music Award-winning EP, Laberinto, their 2020 JUNO-nominated debut album, Sombras, and received a JUNO win for their work with Battle of Santiago. This summer, they’ll release sophomore album, Espiral.

Raised in Cuba and educated at the same university – Rodríguez knew of Savigne as being one of the few female percussionist at the time – it wasn’t until their separate moves to Toronto, and subsequent involvement in Jane Bunnett’s all-female-ensemble  Maqueque, that they became friends and collaborators. Since then, they’ve married the traditional and modern, Cuban rhythms and western influences, via Afrobeat and jazz, in an increasingly celebrated sound.

“I’m from a very traditional city – Santiago de Cuba,” says Savigne. “I grew up with ballads, ancient, traditional Cuban music. Composers and singers like Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, Oscar de Leon [was] my childhood. No kids’ songs – all ballads from ancient times.”

“You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you.” – Magdelys Savigne of OKAN

Rodríguez, raised in Havana, enjoyed classic Cuban artists like Benny Morea, while also embracing salsa sounds, and controversial performers like Cuban, Miami-based singer, Willy Chireno. “[He] was completely forbidden in Cuba,” says Rodriguez. “He would sing songs about liberation of Cuba, and liberation from communism. I would have to listen to him very quietly and low.” Both say that Western pop music, from AC/DC to Madonna, were also forbidden musical treats.

Their own work merges ancestors, immigration, love, heartbreak, and the Cuban political climate. “We’re from Cuba, but we want to show our Cuba, not the Cuba always shown,” explains Savigne. She says that as new Canadians, they’ve found creative inspiration in the diverse cultures, musicians, and genres they’ve encountered living in Toronto. “It’s impossible not to be influenced in this city,” says Rodriguez. “Songs like ‘Quick Stop’ show my fiddle and bluegrass influence, along with Turkish rhythms. ‘1000 Palabras’ shows our Spanish heritage. ‘Mas que nada,’ our similarities [with], and love for, Brazilian culture.”

For the pair, composing and songwriting together is about allowing both voices, including their differing influences and ideas, to be organically expressed, no matter how initially opposite they might seem.  “You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you. It’s finding that fine line of putting those two worlds together with respect. We share all the songs,” says Savigne. “Elizabeth helps me with lyrical content when I need it, and I help her with arrangements and chord progressions. We debate the songs a lot, and then, when we have a clear picture of it, we share it with our musicians. The more we play them, the better the songs get, until their final stage.”

Instrument choices are essential to composing and songwriting for both multi-instrumentalists. “Elizabeth uses the piano most of the time. [It’s] a very complete instrument and the perfect tool for composition. I sometimes use my percussion instruments [most notably the bata percussion] for rhythm patterns that I can use on different songs.”

“I usually compose very late at night,” explains Rodríguez. “I love the silence of the night for that.  Mags [aka Savigne] is more of a day person. She has a crazy idea [for] a song and suddenly it’s done – printed and ready to go. She pushes me to write lyrics if she needs some.”

While the pair find strength in combining their creativity, their advice to artists making music solo is to always be true to your own voice, embrace feedback, and – most importantly – keep the faith.

“Try, try, try, and never stop trying,” says Rodríguez. “Maybe the first result isn’t the best, [but] it will open the door for another result, and so on, and so forth. Never give up.”

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.”