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August 2013 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family

Checking in with jazz musician and Brooklyn mom Laila Biali

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Sometimes, “it takes a village” to raise a child. Especially if you and your hubby are touring musicians who fly solo in New York City without nearby grandparents or close friends who can help raise baby. Sound familiar?

Award-winning jazz musician, singer-songwriter, and Brooklyn mommy Laila Biali reveals her secret for balancing her busy, but never boring, family life with an exciting music career. She’s even been praised by Sting, who called her “an exciting and unique talent.”

In July, she made SubCulture — a new venue in NoHo — her musical home. Audiences enjoyed Laila’s beautiful voice, as she tickled those ivories and took song requests, performing a mix of original tunes and jazzy covers of modern hits, with different talented guest artists for each kid-friendly show. On Aug. 5, she will perform at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

Biali sat down with writer Tammy Scileppi to share how she balances making music and mommyhood.

Tammy Scileppi: How do you juggle raising a 3-year-old son, Joshua; performing concerts at night; and touring?

Laila Biali: Two touring musicians and a toddler make for a serious balancing act, and the old saying, “It takes a village,” definitely applies to our situation. Three years in, I feel we finally have the right team of people. I’ll tell you more about that later.

TS: Please talk about Josh and your personal “mommy experience.”

LB: Joshua was born north of the border, in Burlington, Canada. Right around the time we started exploring the possibility of a home birth, we were notified by our midwife that the obstetrician overseeing my pregnancy had recommended an early induction — three weeks early, to be exact. So labor was brought on synthetically, before our little guy was finished “baking.” The results were both hard on my body and on his, but we got through it — even if just barely, at times.

The day after Joshua’s joyous arrival, three months of mind-boggling colic began. The dream I’d held of blissful bonding was dashed, and we had to hunker down and get practical.

In spite of weeks trying [breastfeeding], we never established a latch. And so, off I went to Pumpville for five months. My Medela Freestyle was an essential traveling companion, and I could tell you many stories of pumping backstage, before concerts, and in airport restrooms.

It was worth it in the end, and I think we parents can all agree that you do what you have to do.

TS: How did you meet your husband?

LB: Ben [Wittman] and I met touring with Paula Cole back in 2007. He, at 49, is 17 years older than me, but we go together like PB and J — a sweet, salty, and hearty match.

TS: What are your babysitting arrangements?

LB: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that New York City is one of the few places where a babysitter can also be a brilliant student about to enter medical school at Columbia University. Anna, who we discovered not too long after we returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 2010, has been essential to our sanity and safety as a family. She watches Joshua every Sunday afternoon and evening, while Ben and I go direct and play for a church service at Redeemer Presbyterian. She has also been our overnight go-to, the few times Ben and I have been out on tour together and unable to bring Joshua along.

For weekdays, we enrolled Joshua at Prospect Kids Academy, just down the road from where we live [in Williamsburg]. We love their programming, which is both educational and play-based.

TS: How did you get started in the music business?

LB: I started classical piano studies when I was 4 and continued until my early teens. In my final two years of high school, I transitioned to jazz, which I went on exploring through college. And it was during those collegiate years in Toronto that I ventured out into the professional world as a musician, performing and touring for the first time.

TS: I read that your hubby was performing with Paula Cole on Long Island. What does he play?

LB: Ben is an extraordinary drummer. His mojo behind the kit was one of the qualities that won me over. He’s also a sought-after producer, recording and tracking engineer, and composer. Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” reached Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 in 1997, and in 1998 she won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

TS: What do you love about jazz, and who are some of your fave musicians (past and present)?

LB: Because of the element of improvisation and collective creativity, jazz music never sounds the same way twice. It’s the unexpected that I love most. My favorite musicians are from all genres: from Björk and Joni Mitchell to Stravinsky and Maria Schneider.

TS: What was it like touring with Suzanne Vega [songwriter-singer known for her eclectic, folk-inspired hits (“Luka,” “Tom’s Diner”)], Chris Botti [trumpeter and composer], and Paula Cole, and recording with Sting?

LB: Touring with Suzanne, Chris, Paula, and Sting was something of a dream, as you might expect. I was spoiled early on — from the lavish hotels and exotic destinations, to the highest level of music on stage.

For Sting’s project, we were flown to his Tuscan estate, where we rehearsed, broke bread, and did yoga together for a few weeks, before flying to Durham to record and film his “A Winter’s Night…Live from Durham Cathedral” DVD.

TS: When and why did you move to Brooklyn from Canada? Do you have family here?

LB: I moved to Williamsburg from Canada in 2008, following touring stints with Chris, Paula, and Suzanne. I was also the beneficiary of a study grant issued to me by the Canada Council for the Arts — something we Canadians are blessed to have access to.

In the spring of 2010, a few months after Ben and I were married, we temporarily relocated to the suburbs of Toronto to have Joshua. That fall, we returned to our new digs in Prospect Heights, a luxuriously spacious duplex apartment within a prewar building, where Ben could build his studio in the basement.

Ben’s cousins, Kitty and Gwyneth Leech, live in New York City, as well. Extremely busy folks themselves — Gwyneth, an accomplished painter, and Kitty, a talented costume designer and professor at New York University — we don’t see as much of one another as we’d like, but when we do, our get-togethers are inspiring — a true meeting of the minds.

TS: How is the lifestyle back at home vs. here, in New York City? What’s the music scene like?

LB: I’m not going to lie — life was easier in Canada, with a wider network of friends and family-like connections close by — but not a no-brainer tradeoff for the New York life, which is incomparably interesting and rich amidst its challenges. That said, the music scene in Toronto is also one of the very best in the world.

TS: What do you, Ben and Josh like to do for fun in Brooklyn? In Manhattan?

LB: Our most-loved haunts in Brooklyn are (in no particular order): Underhill Playground; Prospect Park; the Central Branch Library — where you can hear live music during the summertime; Brooklyn Museum; and the Botanical Garden.

Manhattan also has no shortage of offerings for families, but our son’s favorite thing about the trips we take to the city are the train rides themselves.

TS: What do you like about living in Brooklyn?

LB: I could write a book. From the Park Slope Food Co-op to the cultural diversity and mixture of restaurants and local destinations, we feel there’s no place we would rather be.

Laila Biali at Cornelia Street Cafe [29 Cornelia St. in Manhattan, (212) 989–9319, www.lailabiali.com] on Aug. 5 at 8:30 pm, $20 (includes a drink).

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and parent who loves New York City. She has been a contributing writer for several community newspapers, and writes book-cover copy for a well-known publishing company. Her consumer-focused articles appear on the AngiesList website, and her work has been published in the New York Daily News and the New York Post.

Posted 12:00 am, August 1, 2013
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