It’s not every day a local musician from a small American city gets projected onto the national stage over the course of just a few months. But for Laith Al-Saadi, this dream became a reality. Last year Laith was a finalist in NBC’s hit show The Voice where he performed on stage for over 16 million viewers. “Laith is one of the most diverse talents we have,” said Maroon 5 frontman and ‘The Voice’ coach Adam Levine. “Incredible guitar player, incredible singer.”
Fast forward a year later, Laith has completed two headlining tours, sold out the historic Michigan Theatre in his hometown of Ann Arbor, and recorded critically-acclaimed original material in the studio. Al-Saadi’s most recent release, “REAL” stood atop the blues charts for five weeks and the top 20 album chart for two. Laith also had four singles in the top ten iTunes singles charts, and his albums In The Round and Long Time Coming spent time on the rock album charts.
On Friday, Laith is slated to perform at the renowned B.B. King’s Blues Club in Times Square, New York City. While competing on The Voice, Laith captivated his voice coaches and audience alike when he covered the late B.B. King’s classic song, “The Thrill is Gone.” In this interview, we discuss the influence B.B. King has had on Laith as a musician, as well as other topics like new music, his history before The Voice, and plans for 2017. Tickets for Friday’s show can still be purchased at this link, with VIP options available.
CEG: Hey Laith, thanks for taking some time to catch up with us ahead of your show at B.B. King’s in New York on Friday, 3/24 (tickets). To kick things off here, fill us in on what you’ve been up to since finishing up with The Voice last year.
Laith Al-Saadi: We tried to hit the ground running as quickly as possible after The Voice. We had a great Summer and Fall, got to tour around the country and play a lot of great theaters, and managed to sell out almost all of the shows we did on the first run. We came through the City Winery in New York City, played at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY, and played at The Birchmere in DC as far as our East Coast dates go. Out west we played in Seattle, played in California, and were basically making the transition from working as a bar band to playing all theatre shows. The transition was also great because our shows are now mostly about my own music. Obviously I play some covers here and there because of what I did on The Voice, but I’m primarily featuring original music now, so we’re making that transition of focusing on me as an artist versus “that dude from The Voice.” I had been making and playing music for 20 years before the show, which is great because now 16 million more people know who I am and hopefully we’ll be able to make some new fans out of those people. More to that as well, we’re making new music and hitting the studio.
CEG: Great, can you tell us more about this new material? What can you share about new music in the works?
LA: I don’t want to share too much but I actually have some unique plans. I think in this day and age it’s better to have more smaller releases of music to keep the flow coming out more regularly, because most people are downloading digitally. So I have a lot of ideas about perhaps doing a series of EPs, but also keep full albums in the mix. I think it’s important basically to constantly have new music coming out.
CEG: Can we expect to hear some of this new music on Friday at BB Kings?
LA: Sure! We’ll definitely play some new songs that haven’t even been recorded yet as well.
CEG: Speaking of B.B. King, you’ve coincidentally opened for the late B.B. King twice during your career. What was is like sharing the stage with this legend, and how has his music influenced you as a musician?
LA: It was absolutely amazing both times to be able to share the stage with B.B. As a guitarist and vocalist I’ve been influenced tremendously by him. I would say that almost anybody that plays the electric guitar is influenced by him just because of what he’s done. He was so identifiable, you could hear one note and could tell just by the way he played the guitar with his hallmark vibrato that it was him playing. Of course he was a remarkable showman, he was such a big impact as an ambassador of the blues, and I think he’s changed everybody’s life who plays the guitar. So it’s an honor to be playing at his namesake club, and of course when I was on The Voice I played “The Thrill Is Gone” as one of my songs, and I’ve just always gravitated towards B.B.’s music even when I was a kid. Even when I was a teenager when I went back to the blues through my love of the British Invasion, it was amazing because B.B. was such a big influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and these other great guitar players I was coming to the blues through.
CEG: You started to mention and talk about your history before The Voice. For those who don’t know your full story, tell us about your career before The Voice.
LA: Well I grew up singing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I joined a choir when I was four years old and started to write songs probably around 11 or 12. I really had pretty bad piano skills and I had played a couple years, and at that time I started to go camping with friends. At that point I started to realize how cool the guitar was, just being able to take one with you wherever you go. I basically picked up the guitar when I was 13 so I could accompany myself and my singing. I wasn’t expecting the instrument to have such a strong hold, but once I started playing it I couldn’t put it down and started practicing 6-8 hours a day. Then I went to this really cool alternative high school with a great Jazz program that basically did not have a vocal program. So I had to make a choice of whether I wanted to do Jazz or continue with my singing, but that would’ve been grouped into drama and musical theatre. So I stuck with music and studied jazz in a combo setting, and there I actually played with three different bands. I played guitar in one band, upright bass in an ensemble, and I played keys in another. After high school I double majored in college, receiving a degree in Jazz guitar and bass. I think studying the bass has had a really positive influence in my approach to playing the guitar to this day. I guess the guitar has become this very important part of what I do, even though I still consider myself a singer to the core.
CEG: We’re in the business of live music here at CEG, so I’ve personally seen musicians with all sorts of different pre-show rituals to prepare for a show. I must ask – do you have any unique routines before a performance?
LA: Not particularly! Well, actually, one thing I do before a show to clear my mind is turn off all music and have nothing playing before I get on stage. That’s only so I can keep my mind focused, and make it so I have more ideas stemming from inside my head, rather than from whatever else I was listening to before the show!
CEG: You mentioned that after The Voice you toured and sold out a bunch of great venues. If you had to choose one venue or city that stood out during that tour, what would it be?
LA: Well, I have to be biased here! I’ve been playing for the past 20 years in Ann Arbor, a university town, so I tend to get these students that live in Ann Arbor to come out to hear me for stints of four or five years, then they’ll move away, and it goes on to the next generation. And so, I think The Voice helped rally all the Laith fans that were out there in the world, and certainly in Ann Arbor I became a bit of a hometown hero. This said, the first homecoming show I did at the Michigan Theatre was probably the most special show I’ve played in my entire life. It was the place I did my first professional theatre gig when I was a kid, and then I also graduated from High School on that stage. It’s just a beautiful theatre, and I managed to sell it out, which I was ecstatic about, and it was a great crowd of people who were kind of welcoming me back home! It was an electrifying, amazingly overwhelming experience for me.
CEG: Sounds like a great show Laith! So I like to end every interview with an open forum. Is there anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t cover?
LA: Check out my original music at laithalsaadi.com! There are links to videos and original music to listen to, as well as our upcoming tour dates. We’re trying to get everywhere we can in this country, and we hope to see some new faces along the way!