“I wouldn’t describe it as a split; it’s not like I’m Beyoncé then all of a sudden I’m Sasha Fierce,” Laila Biali says.
The Vancouver-born artist, who has made her career as a jazz singer and keyboard player, is set to release House of Many Dreams, an album of many firsts: her first pop record, first record of all-original material, first time as co-producer and first time composing for a string orchestra and choir.
“It’s both scary and exhilarating,” Biali says from her Brooklyn home. “I think if you had asked me two months ago, I might have self-edited and said I’m excited—but the true response would have been I was nervous.”
While she is best known for her jazz work—her record Tracing Light was nominated for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year at the 2011 Juno Awards, and she’s a National Jazz Awards winner for her keyboard playing—Biali’s music has always had mainstream sensibilities: the new record is the sound of her unapologetically embracing the pop.
Biali says she was inspired by her time singing backup and playing keys for Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega and Sting. Those artists, she says, are widely respected as performers and songwriters—and their songs created amazing connections with their fans.
“I started to dabble in songwriting in the cracks and crevices of touring,” Biali notes. “The songs emerging actually were more influenced by the music I was immersed in during that time—with Paula and Sting and Suzanne—rather than the music I’d been performing myself as a jazz artist. It was by osmosis.”
The result, House of Many Dreams, is eclectic and cohesive. Opening track “Shadowlands” and “Home” are bombastic slabs of undeniable art pop, with huge, swelling choruses complete with full choirs. “Little Bird” has a spicy Moroccan feel, while the sunny Beatles-bounce of “Love” is perfect for dancing in the kitchen on Sunday morning.
The record, co-produced with her husband, drummer Ben Wittman, also has moments of tender vulnerability. Biali wrote “Sparrow,” a sparse piano ballad, the day after a friend’s sister lost her twin babies when she was eight months pregnant. And the lullaby “Shine” was her trying to make sense of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
“I was a new mother at the time,” Biali explains. “These songs are tributes to those babies, who had obviously become the hope and dreams of those mothers. The greatest gift has been hearing from people who share the impact the music had on them.”
The singer-songwriter says she is not abandoning her jazz side, reckoning she’ll alternate jazz and pop records and book shows for both.
“I had the desire to show people I was doing something new,” Biali adds. “It’s an opportunity to reach new people.”
Wed, Apr 22 (8 pm)
Mercury Room, $18 advance, $22 at the door