Alysha Brilla is an old-fashioned girl. We're at designer Thien Le's studio in downtown Toronto, where she has stopped to pick up a dress she will wear in Winnipeg for some of the Juno festivities this weekend. It's a white cotton frock, in a somewhat daring style from a half-century ago. She's trying it on for size, as young artists do.
Brilla, up for a trophy in the adult contemporary category for her playful (and occasionally bittersweet) album In My Head, is big-eyed, brown and dazzling – a Tanzanian-Canadian of mixed ancestry. The fresh tattoo on the inside of her left wrist reads "mind, body and soul," but only if you can read Sanskrit.
When she was a teenager, she dealt with music producers who wanted to take advantage of her versatile look. "They wanted to market me to Spanish and Indian audiences, but I'm neither of those things exclusively," the 25-year-old says. "I'm a melting pot."
No doubt Brilla's mixed heritage has helped her get airplay on CBC Radio, an organization which embraces multiculturalism. Her sassy hit Two Shots is a favourite on its air.
Musically Brilla is a bit of a mix as well. An imperfect vocalist who writes her own upbeat material, she dabbles in Winehouse retro soul-jazz, with moments of calypso, rumba and acoustic balladry. She laughs when asked about the "adult contemporary" slotting, given her adventurous bent and perky-quirky manner when it comes to lyrics. "It sounds so serious," says Brilla, about the Juno classification. "But hey, I'll take it."
As well she should. The album In My Head is a self-produced debut recorded after a failed attempt to "make it" in Los Angeles. At 19, she signed with Lava Records, a boutique U.S. label operated by Universal/Republic. Two visits to California resulted in an album that pleased neither the label nor Brilla. "They tried to make club hits for me," she says, "but it wasn't the right fit."
After the recordings were shelved by the label, Brilla returned to Canada (Kitchener, Ont., precisely). She rerecorded some of the songs from Los Angeles and added some new ones (including Two Shots) for In My Head.
It should be noted that Brilla will wear her designer frock for interviews and other events in Winnipeg. For Juno night proper, she'll don a dress of her own making.
In My Head includes the sweetly wistful L.A. Hotel Room. It's not unusual for singers to list "Toronto/Los Angeles" as their base, on Facebook or Twitter or what have you. Artists such as Elise LeGrow and former Juno winner Anjulie come to mind. Sometimes it works out in Hollywood; sometimes, not.
"There are times I miss it," says Brilla, speaking of California dreaming, with a mischievous smile. "I love Canada, but I'll probably go back there. Who knows, maybe I can be romanced by the L.A. thing again."
Naturally. One shot is never enough for the Two Shots singer. That first try? Call it a dress rehearsal.
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