Indie-folk singer/songwriter Basia Bulat's "blessing and curse" is music to our ears
Basia Bulat, a musician blessed with an appropriately melodic name, seems to split her time between the road and the clouds hanging out above it.
"I live a lot in my imagination," says Bulat over the phone during a brief stop in Toronto. "As soon as I get into the van or the bus or onto the train, as soon as the wheels are moving, your mind can start wandering off and ideas start coming to you."
Those wheels have been moving a lot in recent years, and the songs from her latest album, Heart of My Own, reflect not only where touring has taken her but where the places she’s visited have taken her songs.
"After a lot of time on the road and being away from home, you have a lot of questions that you’re asking of yourself: What am I doing? Can I keep doing this? Am I doing the right thing? Am I any good?" says Bulat, before explaining the fortifying effect of playing the Dawson City Music Festival.
"I’ve had a bit of an obsession with the north, so to be able to actually go to the Yukon and play was huge," says Bulat. "The community was incredibly generous and treated us like family. I think we played about five or six times in one weekend, some of the time with a band from Whitehorse, the Done Gone String Band, a band that we share similar influences with. It was another perfect reminder of why I play music."
THE SMALL HANDS THAT MAKE BIG SONGS
The music industry is top-heavy with stars that sing songs written by committee and imbued with a return-on-investment aesthetic. But the rest of the industry, the real world of music, is made up of people who have always been and will always be musicians, full stop. When they take time off from their jobs, they make more music (Bulat has been spending her free time on a top-secret musical side project).
"I have a one-track mind. It’s an insatiable thing, a blessing and curse."
This cursed blessing/blessed curse has been with Bulat for a long time, as she says she’s considered herself a musician for all of her 25 years.
"I remember wanting to be a classical pianist as a little girl, though I knew I didn’t have the discipline to make it that far with piano. Plus the hand span – I have really small hands."
Lucky, then, that she got those small hands on an autoharp, the zither-like instrument whose distinctive sound has become one of her musical calling cards.
"My mom found it at a neighbour’s yard sale. I was already familiar with it because I was a big fan of June Carter Cash, Maybelle Carter, the Carter family and some of the older folk artists," says Bulat. "The other thing I like is that there’s a history behind it, one of community. It’s an easy instrument to play, and was invented for people who couldn’t afford a piano or organ and were doing some sort of group singing and needed an accompaniment."
AFTER THIS, A MORATORIUM ON THE WORD "ROLLICKING"
At this point I mention the preponderance of the word "rollicking" when it comes to describing her songs, especially those backboned by the autoharp, and how it relates to the notion of folk "party" tracks.
"I guess there’s a bit of party vibe to [the autoharp], but it has a range and it can be very melancholy. I’m not sure – something about it just really speaks to me."
Since her 2007 debut, Oh, My Darling, which was short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, her music has spent equal time with both the rollicking and the melancholy. Heart of My Own starts off with Go On, a perfect example of the former, which kicks into a propulsive kitchen party-like atmosphere while Bulat sings, "I never knew a voice like yours."
Indeed, as much play as the autoharp gets, her voice is always front and centre. Capable of the kick-off-the-shoes power required to keep pace with all that rollicking, it also manages, with a clear Celtic quaver, to hit a dirge-like solemnity not often found in someone only a quarter of a century old. If there were ever a time to make an "old soul" claim, listening to Basia Bulat certainly invites it.
Like her debut, Heart of My Own was recorded with producer Howard Bilerman in his Montreal studio, Hotel2Tango.
"I made the record in Montreal, I had a lot of friends in Montreal who played on the record and it’s a city that’s inspiring to feel creative in. But I think it also manages to reflect those other towns that I’ve hung my hat in – Toronto and London, Ontario – and that little piece of me still up there in the Yukon."
Bulat is not precious about where the songs go, happy to replace the autoharp with the piano when the mood suits. Some of this is simple necessity: For most of the shows, Bulat will be touring as part of a three-piece that includes her brother Bobby on percussion and Allison Stewart on viola and vocals.
"A song should have its own ebb and flow. It evolves, whether you’re playing solo or with a group, live or in the studio. It can die if you don’t end up playing with it and it has to be able stand up to it. Even in a formal structure, like a three-minute pop song, there’s a lot of room to experiment."
Throughout our half-hour interview and the countless times I’ve listened to her, both in person and on the stereo, my bullshit meter has yet to go off. So when she talks about putting her success in perspective, I believe her.
"It’s not something that anyone has the right to demand or expect – it’s something not to take for granted. When it happens, you have to realize it’s a gift and be grateful for it. And I am."
w/ Leif Vollebekk
At L’Astral (305 Ste-Catherine W.), Feb. 12, 8:30 p.m.