We spoke with Laila Biali about the nature of privilege, the personal and political effects of gentrification, meditating on precious jewelry, the shock of creating a new person and the common properties of earthly bliss and the Divine.
I picture the mist that rises up from Niagara Falls, teasing all the senses. When you can’t quite see what’s beyond the mist, there is a delicious feeling of mystery.
I moved to New York from California in 2016 without ever visiting the city before, and immediately realized I was in the midst of a constant cultural flux. Not necessarily for the better, either — it’s a cliché at this point that successive populations of cities bemoan the “way it used to be.” Please tell me your interpretation of gentrification, and what’s been happening to our cities. Why do you think these changes occur, and do you think they could sort of wipe the slate clean for future eras and subcultures?
Over the course of the five years we lived in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, we watched our neighborhood change from a beautiful mess of people from divergent socioeconomic backgrounds and walks of life to something far less interesting, more homogenous. The less financially endowed were forced out by punishing rent hikes and faceless property management takeovers. It wasn’t that they were targeting specific individuals and trying to purge a certain “type” of person; it’s just that the bottom line was money, money without heart.
And it was often those who had been there the longest who were the most affected — generations of families who had put down roots, as much as a tenant can in a city like New York. Even those of us who had moved in more recently, though still in a time when the neighborhood was still considered “less desirable,” felt we’d earned our right to stay and carved out a place for ourselves, a home. But waves of growth and commerce kept rippling outward, deeper into the boroughs surrounding Manhattan. The water levels kept rising, until people were left with a choice that wasn’t really one — sink, or swim elsewhere. That’s how we ended up in Canada.
That said, the issue of gentrification isn’t unique to New York, of course. It’s something that’s been happening in major cities around the world for decades, including Toronto, where we now live.
Really quickly, could you meditate on these three objects — vapor, jewelry and coins? Without thinking about it too much, what does each remind you of? Any interesting memories, thoughts or feelings immediately come up?
I’ll just list some quick, unfiltered word associations, followed by a short memory and/or association.
When I think of vapor, I picture the mist that rises up from Niagara Falls, teasing all the senses. When you can’t quite see what’s beyond the mist, there is a delicious feeling of mystery, awe and anticipation.
Jewelry and I don’t really get along. Necklaces, clasps, and hooks have wreaked havoc with my skin from babehood. I have no attraction to the stuff, since it only seems to harm me. I even feel a bit repelled by it, though I can appreciate how others use it to accessorize and express themselves. And every now and then I’m wowed by the way diamonds shimmer under ultra bright lights. I’m also easily transfixed by Swarovski crystal sculptures (no matter how tacky!), especially in fancy hotel lobbies and during the holidays. All that sparkle!
As a child, I was a bit of a kleptomaniac. My dad kept trays and bowls filled with coins sitting around the house, and I’m sure he watched their numbers dwindle from day to day. I was the culprit! The feeling of all that weighty, shiny, cold metallic stuff in my hands made me feel powerful. And then off I’d go to the candy store to put those spoils to good use! My conscience did eventually kick in…
Being grateful for what you have doesn’t require a certain level of comfort or privilege. It’s a posture of the heart, something that transcends money, status, even health.
The word “privilege” is bandied around quite a bit these days, but I think it’s important to remember that everything’s relative. I’m not sure if you could totally discredit the problems that someone has when they live on a 100-acre ranch versus a studio apartment. What are your thoughts on all this — the whole sliding scale of needing to “check your privilege”?
I often manage my own expectations and disappointments in a relativistic way, resorting to the “first world problems” disclaimer or something like it. This discredits my concerns and preemptively shuts down a self-pity party. And while it is important to keep things in perspective, our personal feelings and experiences shouldn’t be so quickly and arbitrarily cast off, as though it’s the noble thing to do. I’m not sure that actually helps anyone in the end.
We can never know the fullness of someone else’s experience, and so it’s futile to judge — to judge them, and to judge ourselves in relation to our perception of their experience. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” — being grateful for what you have — doesn’t require a certain level of comfort or privilege. It’s a posture of the heart, something that transcends money, status, even health.
Have you dealt with grieving or loss in your life? If so, how have you processed it? What’s the contrast between when you first felt it and now, when you kind of have a buffer of time and space from the trauma?
Yes. In the summer of 2015, my cousin-in-law took her life. Out of all our family members, she lived the closest to us. We were in Prospect Heights and she was in neighboring Park Slope. We didn’t see one another as often as we would have liked, but she was a rare kind of person — someone who gathered people together for holidays, hosting parties, marking special occasions with zest and flair. She was smart, funny, and full of life.
My husband and I don’t talk about it much, but Kitty’s death was another reason we moved to Toronto. New York was already feeling unsustainable, and when we lost her, it was more than we could bear. Now that a couple of years have passed, it’s easier to share memories of her out loud with one another, without the tears, though they still come. There is more freedom to fully celebrate the wonderful and quirky woman she was, although I’m not sure the bitter sting of her loss will ever fade. I’m not sure that it should, either.
I understand you perform double-duty as an internationally touring musician and a mother. As a non-parent myself, I’m fascinated by the universe of responsibilities, fears and changes that a child brings. It seems like a total ego-vanquishing — suddenly, you’ve gone from first to second (or last!) place on the priority list. Could you tell me about your experience in this regard?
Oh yes. Our boy was a surprise. We hadn’t planned to have a child, and when Josh came along, his presence rudely magnified the depths of my own selfishness. When I found out I was pregnant, I was 29 years old and had just started touring with Sting. All my dreams came crashing down. And the idea of having a dependent was terrifying! Before I became a mom, I hadn’t realized how much I was still a dependent myself. But while parenting has been the most demanding work of my life, it has also been the most rewarding. These days, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though I still appreciate and occasionally envy friends and peers who don’t have kids.
The state of bliss is attainable in this world, and I feel we move closer to it when we experience true communion with one another, with nature, and, for some, with the Divine.
I’m personally a guitar player and a singer, but I nearly always listen to jazz or solo piano when I’m at home working or cleaning. I like how piano can kind of encapsulate an entire band, including an implied voice. What do you hear in the sound of the piano?
I hear an orchestra. One of my college instructors, Don Thompson, used to tell me to treat the piano like it was an orchestra. At first I was frustrated by this style of teaching. I wanted specifics, tangible exercises I could practice and apply to instantly play better. But this idea of the piano as an orchestra did ultimately capture my imagination, and now it’s all I hear — an exciting range of colors and timbres that can be used to create a myriad of sonic landscapes.
Finally, can you describe the first moment in your life you remember feeling actual bliss? What was going on, where were you and why do you feel that way? Do you feel bliss is attainable in this world, or is it more of a fictional construct?
One of the first experiences of “small b” bliss that I can recall was in a dream I had as a little girl. There was a parent on our block who intimidated me. She was elusive, distant and, frankly, kind of mean. I really wanted her to like me, to be kind to me, and one night, I had this dream where she picked me up by the hands and started spinning me around and around to music that was playing in the background. I was squealing with delight, and I remember wishing the moment would never end. When I woke up, I could still taste that feeling. I felt unwaveringly content. That was what I imagined bliss to be.
But when you talk about “actual bliss” — “big B” Bliss — I sense you’re referring to something deeper and more spiritual perhaps, more in the category of nirvana. Though it may be fleeting, I think the state of bliss is attainable in this world, and I feel we move closer to it when we experience true communion with one another, with nature, and, for some, with the Divine.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: January 16, 2018
Total questions: 7
Word count: 1622
Reading time: Eight minutes
association, attitude, bliss, breath, Brooklyn, Canada, chocolate, city, communion, contentment, disclaimer, divine, futility, gentrification, gratitude, heart, intrigue, kleptomania, Laila Biali, landscape, New York, Newfoundland, ocean, orchestra, perception, piano, posture, pregnancy, Prospect Heights, puffin, socioeconomics, songwriting, Sting, summer, Toronto, tour, transcendence, zest
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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