Following a person’s trajectory from childhood to adulthood can be personally uplifting. When I asked Ali Slaight for this Q&A I had just come across a photo of her at, I’m guessing, age eight to ten years of age at The Mix 99 Beachfest at Sunnyside Park. I recalled the bands in play; Shaye, Fefe Dobson, Hawksley Workman, all hanging out backstage as a young Ali and her friends went about being kids.
Flash forward to the Berklee College of Music, Ali in her late teens and me having the privilege to fly down to Boston to work with Ali’s singing class and later that evening a night club cabaret-style performance. It was at one of those late summer get-togethers in the Slaights' backyard with other Canadian families preparing for their sons and daughters entering Berklee – two students earning full Slaight scholarships, it hit me. It was the social awareness Ali Slaight exhibited that evening. I told my partner Kristine, “Ali has big skills beyond the classroom, the nuts and bolts of singing and performance – she has a unique way with people, and they gravitate to her.” The future was already written. A decade later it was time to catch up and see where this premonition landed. Here is that conversation.
Bill King: It has been a decade since you graduated from Berklee College of Music with a bachelor’s degree in Professional Music. From student to professional. Looking back over the decade, how do you see your evolution?
Ali Slaight: I can’t believe it’s already been a decade! Berklee was a whirlwind of experiences and life lessons, mostly great and some harder ones, but I wouldn’t change anything because I wouldn’t be who I am today. Being at Berklee was incredible because I got to spend all of my time with people who were as passionate about music as I was, and not only that, I got to meet people from all over the world who helped me look at music in different ways.
B.K: You entered music as a performer dating back to At Last on the Real Divas – Torch Light Volume 2, in 2008, to the annual holiday duets with Theo Tams. Were you comfortable listening to your voice back then? Over time were you aware of it changing?
A.S: I’ve never been comfortable hearing my voice. I don’t think I’ll ever be! If you listen to those records now after 15/16 years, I do sound like a baby, but I can also hear the growth and development of skill. As for my Holiday duets with Theo, that’s a special thing we’ve been doing for over 10 years now, and I am super comfortable in the studio with him. We’ve grown up a lot since we started recording together, and it’s really cool because Theo is also on our Artist Roster, so I see him at least once a week.
B.K: Working alongside Tams, a former Canadian Idol winner, must have been a bit intimidating at times yet instructive. How did he inspire and build confidence?
A.S: I wasn’t too nervous about working with Theo, but I did know he had an amazing voice, so I think I was just hoping our voices would work well together! Theo was and still is a sweetheart and is easy to get along with, and after we heard how special our voices sounded together it was comfortable with him.
B.K: You’ve grown up in a unique situation into a family with an extensive history shepherding the growth of Canadian radio. How aware were you of the power and influence of the medium? What were conversations over dinner like?
A.S: I think I had some inkling when I was younger, as my sister and I used to go in and visit the station regularly when we were little, so we saw my father in his element, so to speak. I don’t remember talking about it outside of his office. However, we did attend a lot of events growing up, so a lot of our outside activities were based in that world. I do remember being forced into singing Christmas tunes on Ted Woloshyn’s morning show when I was 6 or 7, so that was a unique experience.
B.K: Early on, what interested you the most?
A.S: After college, I interned at Maple Music, and it was my job to go through the boxes of demos people mailed into the label and I absolutely LOVED it. For me, there’s nothing better than discovering and sharing new music, so that internship fanned the flames of what I’m genuinely passionate about and helped shaped what I’m doing.
B.K: With music in play and radio hits, performing live isn’t an option but a must. How did this sit with you?
A.S: I prefer listening to music so much more than performing live! I have horrible stage fright and had to take beta-blockers during my last couple of years at Berklee for performance classes because I would be nearly passing out from anxiety. I’ve never really had any interest in performing live, and I don’t know why I would put myself through something that gives me such horrible panic attacks, so I knew 100% I would never go down that road. I’m lucky my father accepted it as well after seeing how miserable and nervous it made me.
B.K: On graduating Berklee College, did you walk away with a plan or goal in mind?
A.S: I didn’t have a specific goal or job title that I was gunning for, all I knew after Berklee was that I wanted to listen to music and share new music with other people. My internship at Maple Music cemented that direction for me, and now I get to listen to music every day.
B.K: I understand you were promoted to Manager, Artist Development and Music Repertoire at Slaight Music. What does this entail?
A.S: I took on the new title of Manager of Artists Development & Music Repertoire last week, Some of the things I do is provide song and production advice to our artists, supervise recording and mixing/mastering of demos and masters, manage the studio, assist with assets and social media, branding, and help with song pitches for briefs from our admin company Reservoir Media. Those are the main things I help with and there are a bunch of things that fall under those roles as well. I do a bit of everything when it comes to our artists and publishing!
B.K: A&R is a desirable position in which a good many business giants cut their teeth on before moving into the boardrooms and management. Are you more interested in the interaction and discovery – meeting artists and developing?
A.S: Definitely. Being able to get in at the ground level and help shape an artist is an amazing experience. I love seeing an artist discover themselves through experimentation and co-writing and seeing something “click.” The last thing I want to do is tell someone what they should look or sound like, so even if the process of them discovering who they are as an artist takes a bit longer, I think it’s completely worth it for them to have the experience of crafting their artistry.
B.K: There are some great songwriting instructors at Berklee. How did they influence your understanding of a well-crafted lyric?
A.S: I didn’t take any songwriting classes at Berklee! I think it was mainly because there was a public performance aspect involved, so I didn’t want to have to get up and sing in front of anyone. My major was Professional Music so, apart from the prerequisites that were required for that major, I was left pretty open to what classes I wanted to take. I took a bunch of Music Business and Film Scoring classes, and I filled up the rest of the spaces with some incredible Liberal Arts courses. I was more interested in the business side of things.
B.K: When a new artist comes into your office and plays an original track or two – what do you listen for?
A.S: Well, first I listen to their voice, is there something unique about it? The second thing I listen to is the lyrics/song structure. Having something special gets your foot in the door, and I like to think the team I work with, and myself, can see potential in an artist even if they’re not quite “there” yet. It’s the potential that excites me the most, that and an open mind. If the artist is open-minded to suggestions and feedback, it makes for a much easier partnership!
B.K: What excites you beyond the song about an artist?
A.S: I think what excites me most is the potential. If I hear a great song from an artist, it’s always exciting, but to know that this person has a natural gift and that “there’s more where that came from,” so to speak, that’s the most exciting part along with the artist having a drive and passion to see it through.
B.K: Jessica Mitchell was a young singer/songwriter you championed and offered unwavering support to. This past year Celine Dion, Trisha Yearwood and others covered her co-writes and self-penned songs. You must feel immense pride knowing you and the organization invested in her travels to Nashville and beyond – the writing and learning sessions to get to the level of a marketable professional.
A.S: Jess is incredibly talented, and it was so wonderful being a part of her journey and seeing people finally “get” what we’ve known since the beginning. There were some tears in the studio when we all sat around listening to the demo of The Chase from Celine’s team. It was surreal hearing her singing one of Jessica’s songs!
B.K: How has your passion for the recording studio grown? Having a demo studio only feet away must give you the freedom to react quickly and get material recorded for reference and review?
A.S: It is convenient having a studio in the office, and it’s great having it on hand for all of the artists we work with! I also like that I’m able to pop in there whenever I want to hear the progress of songs or ideas. All of the artists we work with are super open-minded and take direction well, so if I come in and think of an idea and ask them to try it out, I’m able to hear it almost immediately. I’m not sure why we didn’t have a studio in the first place, but I can’t picture the office without it anymore!
B.K: What’s in play for you at the moment – bands or artists and why?
A.S: Right now, we’re working on developing our current roster of artists and getting them back into some sense of normalcy during these times by having them come into the studio during the week for sessions.
B.K: How is Slaight Music coping without having a public arena to showcase developmental acts?
A.S: These last few months have been an interesting period for the entire industry, and if there’s one positive I can take out of all of this, it’s been the new and unique ways in which people are getting their music across or engaging with potential audiences. We’re having to think in ways we’ve never had to before, and the team at Slaight Music has just been trying to keep an open mind and try new things to get music in front of an audience.
B.K: You and sister Chrissy have experienced the world in different states, from the villages of war-torn Africa to the family getaway in the Bahamas. What have you learned the most from your travels, and how have these experiences shaped your outlook on life?
A.S: My sister and I have been truly fortunate to visit a lot of different places together and with the family. The main thing I can say is that it keeps me very humble and grateful for everything that I have and am able to do in life. Both my father and mother have huge hearts, and I think it’s something they’ve passed onto my sister and me, so it keeps me grounded. It also leaves me in a position where I’m able to help others. If you’re in a position like that, how could you not want to help others?
B.K: What’s a great night for you?
A.S: A great TV show or movie – I am so boring! Seriously, give me a TV show or movie with an excellent score or soundtrack, and I am set for the night. I’m also a serial “repeat” watcher, so if I like a TV show or movie. I will watch it over and over again until I’m sick of it (apologies to my husband).
B.K: What’s playing on the sound system?
A.S: I’m a big mixed bag! I have favourites that I return to all the time like Astrid S, Kllo, Zola Blood, Ry X & Manchester Orchestra, as well as some pretty cool new finds that I’m excited about like this incredible Scandinavian group called Wardruna (I’m a big Vikings fan). I find a lot of music in TV shows that I’m watching as well. Dark on Netflix is my favourite series of all time, and I pretty much Shazamed every song played in all three seasons!