Looking for silver linings with Laila Biali

Laila Biali will be at the NAC on March 21.

When we think about the obstacles in a musician’s life it’s usually about the travails of making CDs and touring across this vast country and beyond.

But things also happen to them personally and that makes their stories more compelling.

Laila Biali has faced some personal tragedies and trials in recent years as she has worked on the album Out of Dust that will be released this month.

The album ranges from the political in the song Revival. Glass House – which Biali wrote with her husband – addresses a family member’s suicide and Take the Day Off, written with her nine-year-old son, talks about the need to heal.

The record includes a stellar lineup of contributing artists such as Lisa Fisher, Alan Ferber, John Ellis and Larnell Lewis. She has also released an uptempo single called Sugar.

Biali has had wins recently including a JUNO for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2019, but also Out of Dust shows, she has had losses too.

The album was written in that reality and it reflects her sorrows.

“For me, I can only write from reality,” she told ARTSFILE. “And I think in that sense it’s a very authentic and vulnerable process for me.

“I actually had planned to make a different record. I had a whole other concept lined up. I had just become dual citizen and my family and I were going to go on a road trip across the U.S.”

Her new album is dedicated to two women who were close to her and passed away in tragic circumstances. The first was her husband Ben Wittman’s cousin Kitty Leech, who committed suicide in 2015.

“We hold onto pain and don’t realize it. There can be a traumatic event and you only begin to process it years later,” she said. “The first major incident was the suicide of Ben’s cousin. She died in New York. Ben found her and that was traumatic for him.”

It shocked Biali and led ultimately to the family moving home to Canada within a month of the suicide.

“It was the last straw and we needed a refuge. Canada was that for us.”

She talks a lot about making lemonade out of lemons and about silver linings these days.

“There is a beautiful saying: beauty from ashes. That’s kind of where I was coming from almost literally. You see it in nature where things die and out of the death, new life forms. Photographs of Australia after the wildfires capture green shoots poking out of this charred earth.”

Next was the 2018 death of her great friend Wendy Nelles.

“She was a person who got under my skin in the best way. She was a lot older, yet this beautiful friendship formed. She became a place of refuge for me … one of those magnanimous, beautiful people. She was a brilliant writer, very artsy and very practical.”

Nelles contracted renal cell carcinoma and Biali said she “was privileged to be at her bedside when she passed away. I told her I would dedicate new album to her as she was in her final breaths.”

That is what she has done. Wendy’s Song was the first to take shape a few months later, she said.

“I was crying while I was writing it. I also knew I was onto something. I knew was coming from a deep place.”

She sings it in shows now and people come to her after the performance and talk about their own stories of loss.

“One man told me about a brother he had lost to cancer. I tell the story on stage because I think it helps the song connect. In a way it carries the memory of this great woman forward.”

You’d think that was enough wouldn’t you. Sadly Biali and her husband have been fighting a different battle these days.

The home they rented in Toronto had a secret in the basement where much of this album was recorded. Behind the drywall in their personal recording suite was mold.

That has affected both of them but Biali, in particular has developed asthma and even more surprising alopecia, which is an auto-immune condition that attached the hair.

The couple are still living in the house because there aren’t a lot of options for them in Toronto’s tight housing market. They are also in a battle with their landlord.

“We recorded the music in the basement in the room where the mold was. It was the worst room in the house.”

They brought in a specialist to test for mold spores and gases and she says the result was 750 times the allowable level.

Because they were on a tight deadline to deliver a record and because they need to work they continued to record.

“Thank god, the upstairs is not as bad. But my husband was spending eight hours a day down in the basement suite. We were wearing the most hysterical protective masks.”

When Biali was tested in 2018 she was told she had one third of the lung capacity of an average person.

“That’s big deal for a singer and a radio host.” There was no scarring of the lungs then, but she worries she may have caused permanent harm.

“I believe in the resilience of the body and I’m hopeful auto-immunity won’t have the final say.”

But now her breath control is even more vital in concert.

Biali is a coloratura soprano. She can sing the Queen of the Night.

“I have moments when I let it rip. Some nights I have it and some nights I don’t. So far the audience doesn’t notice anything. I can still do a great live show.”

And even though being on the road a lot, especially on her current tour, is demanding physically, the music gives on an emotional level. Plus she’s out of the house.

“One thing my health struggles have taught me is I have to be very accountable to my body. I need to do it in a way that conserves my health as much as possible.” So she’ll go for a walk on a beach for 10 minutes even though a deadline looms.

Her 80-something dad always tells her to look after No. 1 and now at 39 she’s listening to that.

The fact that hair loss is happening is a visible sign of her condition and that’s scary.

“I’m known for my hair … it’s a trademark. It is falling out slowly.”

She has a friend who is now bald who got her head tattoooed

That’s not for Biali. She’s not using wigs and hair prosthetics yet, but she probably will when the time comes.

“I try to keep in perspective. People go through far worse. My husband and I are now joking that I will be like seven different women in one week wearing different wigs.

“I’m trying to have a sense of humour about it. What else can you do?”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.