It all began sometime in February of 2004. I had been issued one of the coveted Canada Council Grants to Professional Musicians for a period of study with jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. Luck and an ex-boyfriend had landed me a dream sublet on West 11th Street by the Hudson, steps from the centre of all things Jazz in the west village. This was my second attempt to make a go of it in New York City, and I was off to a winning start.
My first attempt the previous fall was less auspicious. I had scheduled my NYC move for November, and by October I still hadn't procured a place to stay. It was an odd series of events including a silent retreat at a convent in Mississauga (a premature quarter-life crisis booking the weekend of my 22nd birthday) and a not-so-silent lunch there with a catholic couple who gave me the number for an organization that might help me find housing in NYC, that led me to my first "official" New York digs -- a tiny dorm-like room in an Inwood convent overflowing with sweet Dominican nuns who affectionately named me "Querida." Curfew was 9:30 p.m., which was when most jazz clubs were opening their doors to welcome tourists, music appreciators, night-lifers, and eager young students like myself. Needless to say, this was less than ideal.
But come January, I was in an altogether different situation - a west village loft so palatial I swear you could have fit a Boeing 747 plane inside. It came with an old yet functional grand piano. But after just one day of sporadic practice, I discovered a not-so-neighbourly letter slipped under the front door, informing me that I was not to play piano at all outside of a 30-minute sliver of time in the mornings. This neighbour worked from home and made it clear she would find a way to oust me if I didn't comply with her rules.
In a way, this was quite a fitting initiation into life in the Big City. It wouldn't ever be perfect, and it still isn't. But just when I felt I would not be able to push beyond all the unforeseen obstacles, I picked up an issue of Time Out New York and saw on its cover a photo of Nellie McKay, a young jazz vocalist and pianist who was a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music program and was going to be opening for Sting. Sting! It must have been those skyscrapers that towered above me as I walked the city streets, making me feel not small but rather larger than myself, that dared me to dream and utter aloud the words, "I'd like to work with Sting someday." My boyfriend, on the receiving end of this rather bold statement, responded with incredulous laughter of course. (Side note: Our relationship ended shortly thereafter.) But you see that is the Apple's magic. Anything can happen. And crazy things do happen. So I learned quickly that it was my job to be ready, ready for anything.
Fast forward to August of 2009. I had moved, lock, stock, and barrel, to Brooklyn in March 2008 after brief touring stints with Chris Botti, Paula Cole, and Suzanne Vega. Over a year had passed since things had wrapped with Suzanne, and I was practically hemorrhaging money just to try and stay. In July of 2009, I called my dad in Vancouver to talk finances (more specifically, the lack thereof), and he gently said, "Laila, why don't you just come home?" I got off the phone and pondered what it would mean to move back to Canada, which was and still is the home of my heart. Would it mean that I had failed in New York? Were all these months of trying just a waste of time and money?
Then I got the call. Yes, the call. Within a week of that conversation with my dad, a singer named Lisa Fischer (legendary in her world, she toured for years with Mick Jagger and Luther Vandross) had left me a message asking if I would be available to audition for Sting's upcoming DVD recording. And within another week, I had gone into Clinton Recording Studios to audition and had been offered a spot as one of four background singers for Sting's A Winter's Night... Live from Durham Cathedral DVD.
It was like I'd been struck by lightening. This was my big dream -- to work with Sting. Now I would not only get to make music with him, but stay at his beautiful Tuscan estate, practice yoga with him, and break bread together. I experienced first hand his brilliance, his exemplary work ethic, and his unique ability to draw out the best in those around him through his gentleman-like leadership. He took care of his body and his instrument, and he always managed to somehow establish the kind of balance between structure and freedom that enabled collective creativity to reach new heights. No matter what the situation, he was always prepared, and he expected the same of us.
That was one of the key takeaways from my time with Sting: Be prepared. And in a less genial manner, New York City demands the same thing of its inhabitants: to be prepared. Whether I'm playing piano and singing backup on another artist's show, music directing a service at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, or getting ready for my own residency at an exciting new venue like SubCulture, that is the distinct ethos that shapes and directs how we all do things in this city. Be prepared, and always dream big.
Who: Laila Biali
What: NYC Residency
When: May 10th, 24th, 31st
Visit subculturenewyork.com to learn more about her residency and to purchase tickets!