RAC alum La-Nai Gabriel is on a musical voyage. Drawing inspiration from pandemic-induced isolation and a little Star Trek binge-watching, she boldly explores new sonic landscapes as laaain. Her new single, “Planet Surface”, lands on February 5th ahead of her sci-fi-infused EP, Away Mission, coming this June!
La-Nai Gabriel is a restless creative spirit. Not only has the talented musician, arranger, composer and sound designer performed extensively around the globe, but she’s also lent her versatility to countless projects spanning the entire musical spectrum. As a highly proficient multi-instrumentalist, La-Nai has played saxophone on recordings by Madame Gandhi, keyboards for T. Thomson, and recorded vocals for Prince Amine. As an arranger, she’s worked with artists such as Maylee Todd and Gary Beals and is featured on the artist and activist Vivek Shraya’s 2017 Polaris Prize-nominated album, Part-Time Woman, featuring Queer Songbook. Following the release of the musical, burden of proof in 2020, which she co-composed with composer Scott Christian and writer Rob Kempson, La-Nai is now focussing her attention on a new solo venture, laaain. RAC is proud to present our interview with La-Nai Gabriel on the launch of her single, “Planet Surface”, the first track from her forthcoming EP, Away Mission.
RAC: Let’s start with the required preliminary questions: Who is La-Nai? Tell us a little bit about where you're from and your early life.
LA-NAI: I’m a queer Black woman. I grew up in Markham, Ontario, but spent my formative years as a musician in Toronto. I took an interest in music really young. My mom signed me up for piano lessons when I was about seven, and I never stopped. I did everything my schedule would allow for. By the time I was 17, I was teaching private lessons, gigging in bands–for money [Laughs] and doing community theatre on weekends.
RAC: Who would you say are your earliest musical influences? How have those influences changed over the years?
LA-NAI: It’s funny looking back on all the artists and bands that have had an impact on me. Growing up in the suburbs and being one of few black kids in my age group at my school, most of my friends were white kids who listened to rock and alternative music, so that was my wheelhouse for a long time. At home, my family listened to reggae and soca, and gospel. I got into jazz and electronic music in high school and really focused on jazz in college. Now, I listen to whatever catches my attention. There are artists that I will listen to forever, though, like Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Radiohead, Janelle Monae, and Soundgarden, to name a few.
RAC: When did you first realize that music and sound production was something that you wanted to pursue?
LA-NAI: I knew I wanted to be a musician when I was a teenager. I had been a performing artist for years, but I didn’t get into the production side of music until 2014 when I got my first free copy of Ableton Live Lite. It came with my first MIDI controller, and I instantly fell in love with it. It changed how I approached writing and arranging so much, just learning it on my own. Then, in 2017, I had a rough year healing from a physical injury and being chronically unemployed as a result. I wasn’t gigging and was wondering how I could still have a life in music. At the time, I wanted to learn more about audio engineering so I could make my production better. I was struggling to learn what I needed to know on my own, and I found it very isolating. It was then that I decided to take the plunge into production, and I enrolled at RAC.
RAC: What aspect of the musical landscape do you like the most?
LA-NAI: I would have to say post-production, followed by sound design, live performance, and recording. Writing, theory, music history and learning all live in the same part of my brain. When I write, I’m obviously using theory–melody, harmony and rhythm. I’m drawing on the musical history of the genre I’m writing in, and in most cases, learning the most effective way to achieve the emotion I want with the instruments I’m using – that part is always a learning process.
RAC: How does the music you listen to now influence your work?
LA-NAI: After years of arranging and composing music for people playing real instruments, and listening to acoustic music, I’ve shifted into listening to more dance, pop, house, and EDM music, specifically for production and mixing techniques. As a composer, I feel it’s really important to at least try to stay on top of current music trends, and it’s been really fun adding new artists to my library. I’ve been able to use things I’ve heard in EDM tracks on kids’ music and used concepts I’ve heard in jazz on pop tracks. In my opinion, it makes me a really well-rounded musician.
RAC: What projects have you been working on these days?
LA-NAI: I just finished producing a track for Leah Canali that’s being released on her upcoming Light & Dark EP, and I had the pleasure of being co-producer on a track called “Who Knew” by a fresh new artist named Aminah Rose, who is 11 years old and amazing! Look out for that kid! I also just signed on to write a score and do sound design for an animated short, but I can’t share details about it yet. It’s my first film score, so I’m really excited about it!
RAC: You have a new EP, Away Mission, coming out this June. Can you tell us a little about the project and its first single, “Planet Surface”?
LA-NAI: Away Mission started as a pandemic project. I never sat down with the intention of writing a completely instrumental dance album, but I had a LOT of time on my hands. I was also watching a lot of, specifically, Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which has some great synthesizer work throughout the season. I imagined myself outside of my apartment, visiting strange new worlds, experiencing wonder and excitement instead of sadness and death. I wanted to be somewhere else, if only for half an hour. I also wanted it to be danceable and fun. Away Mission is the tale of two crewmates on an adventure into the unknown. During “Planet Surface”, our crewmates finally land on the planet they found and start to explore. They discover an enchanting place with an infectious groove and something mysterious bubbling underneath.
RAC: Is there anyone in particular who helped you on your artistic voyage so far? Anyone you want to give a shout-out to?
LA-NAI: Everyone I’ve ever collaborated with, shared a stage with, got mix notes from, or who has bought my music has helped me on my musical journey. Literally, everyone–good criticism and bad. Anyone who says they made it where they are without help is lying.