A Toronto Transformation

5-9: Walking the Line between the Law and Country Music

Start calling yourself the thing you are in your heart, the thing your mind bends towards when you dream, the thing your fingers itch to do.

Start describing yourself in terms of the things you do from 5-9. Because we’re not defined by our 9-5s.

Lainey Balagia

The first time I heard Texan lawyer Lainey Balagia’s voice was on a recent episode of the Petecast. The second time I heard her voice was immediately after that when I clicked on a link to listen to her belt out a tune.

Because while the funny and charming Balagia spends her 9-5 practicing law, she spends her 5-9 working away at her other passion: music. Country music, to be precise.

Is it wrong of me to hope that she might be kind of a terrible lawyer? Because let me tell you, this woman is a very talented singer, and it doesn’t seem to be quite fair for her to be equally stellar at both.

When I got in touch with Balagia to get her take on the idea of being defined by our 9-5s she told me that when someone asks her the question “What do you do?” she typically tells them that she is a lawyer, because, “At the end of the day, practicing law is what pays the bills and allows me the financial freedom to perform without being worried about the money associated with music (which is usually little to none by the time the band gets paid). It’s also something to which I devoted three years of graduate school, a hellish summer of bar exam studying, and the majority of every day since then…I delve deeper if they seem like the kind of people who would appreciate my passion, but I find that sticking to “lawyer” ends the kind of conversations that start with “what do you do” more quickly than “singer/songwriter.”

While she’s quick to point out that she is actually passionate about her 9-5 (she describes the law as a logic puzzle with really high stakes), there are a lot of other things that she’d prefer people use to form an opinion about her, including her culinary skills. “If I could do anything in the world other than the things I’m already doing, I’d open my own restaurant and just make 3 specials a day, and it would be magical. And there would be live music at night. And people would call it their second home. And it would just be the very best,” Balagia says.

“My songwriting is really the best way to understand who I am as a person. I think you can listen to my last 2 records and pretty fully understand my sense of humor, my sense of heartache, and my love of literature. That would be a great source if you were attempting to form an opinion outside of my job title. And I have a fantastic wall of Broadway Playbills in my office that I have accumulated over a life of musical theatre nerdiness. It’s my pride and joy.”

As for why she doesn’t just save herself some time and energy and stick to her more lucrative passion, Balagia explains:

“There’s really nothing in the world like the moment when you finish writing a really great song and you’re struck by the notion that something really magical just happened and the fear that it might never happen again. But it does. And when someone tells you that your songs matter to them, that a song helped them make a decision or brought them comfort or just made them sing along with the windows down, that makes you want to do it one more time. Then one more. And one more. And so on.”

Still, she acknowledges that finding a balance between her day job and her music and everything else she manages to fit into her life takes some creative and savvy scheduling. I suggested she must be in possession of one of those time-freeze, spinny necklace things Hermione had so that she could take multiple Hogwarts classes at once.

“I wish. Or a clone. People ask me that all the time and I usually tell them I’m highly medicated and poorly rested. Which is not entirely untrue. But the real answer is that I have to prioritize. If I have too much work to do, I can’t play a show. If I have a huge show, I have to work late the night before and come in early the day of. I leave shows as soon as they’re over so I can get to bed, which prevents me from getting to spend time with people who want to talk after the show, and I hate that I have to do that,” she says.

“But even Superman disappeared as soon as he finished saving someone’s life so that he could get back to Clark Kent’s super dull existence. And you know Superman would have loved to give autographs and sell copies of his biography.”

Fortunately, rather than sapping her (incredible to me) stores of energy, Balagia says music actually energizes her, at least moreso than her 9-5. “When you perform, you get all this wonderful feedback, she elaborates.

“People applaud. They tell you how great you are. They buy things that you created. They take pictures of you. They wear shirts with your name on them. I mean, if I walked into my office every day to applause from the secretarial staff who were all wearing my shirts and singing my songs, I’d probably find more energy there.”

I would give up practicing law the way I do it now. If I could work solely as a full time singer, I would donate my time as a lawyer to people who can’t afford their own counsel. I do that now, but not with the freedom I could if I had another, legitimate source of income.

Interestingly, money is not the largest obstacle Balagia has come across while navigating the music industry.

“Music is still very much a man’s world,” she says.  “It’s the same challenge I have faced in law. I’m a woman trying to pursue a dream that is historically dominated by men. In music, I have found that by singing backup for people I’ve been able to get the initial attention needed to direct people to my solo work. But it’s still a system where if you’re a woman, you must be 1) attractive 2) connected and only lastly, 3) talented. Whereas the men in this genre simply have to be connected. So, it’s a challenge.”

Luckily, the rewards for taking on that challenge make it all worthwhile. Balagia has been fortunate enough to play shows with performers she grew up listening to, and has had the opportunity to meet incredibly talented performers and songwriters in the U.S., many of whom she says she might never have heard of if not for being a part of the industry herself.

“I’ve played stages I used to dream of playing. I’ve had people email me out of the blue to tell me how much my music has meant to them. I’ve had my songs played at weddings and funerals. I’ve gotten to be on the radio. I’ve gotten to do really great things like this interview, and my podcast with Peter, and several articles with the Houston Press. All of these things that are so special. I wouldn’t have any of them without music. I’d just be one of those people who sings in her car and cries a lot after too many vodkas.”

I asked Balagia what advice she would give to someone who feels they are too busy working 9-5 to pursue their passions.

“Life is so short. I have lost so many friends over the last decade. People who should have had 90 years but only got 20. For all I know I may get hit by a bus tomorrow. There is no guarantee that you have time. You have today. And if you died tomorrow, would your last day have been spent wishing you were doing something you actually cared about? How awful would that be?” she asks.

“If I die tomorrow, I can say that in this life I sang on the same stage as some of my heroes, ate fried fish with Ray Wylie Hubbard, had a song on the radio and loved a truly wonderful man, all while practicing law in the greatest state in the Union and making my grandmother proud.  I could go Home tomorrow and know that I really lived. And if you can’t say that, then it’s time to make a change. Today. Cause you might not have tomorrow.”

She might just have the makings of a song there.

Want to know more about Lainey and her music? Check out her website, www.laineyb.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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