Basia Bulat is a woman on the go. The Juno-nominated singer-songwriter has travelled to Europe to celebrate the launch of her third album, Tall Tall Shadow (Secret City Records), with audiences across the pond before touring her new songs through North America. A creative weaver of melody and lyric, Bulat has made a name for herself as an optimistic and ebullient crafter of the modern folk genre. Her authentic Canadian tones and artistic style are often imitated but seldom duplicated, making her an exotic, yet down-to-earth, example of the musical genius the Great White North has to offer.
An emotional chrysalis, Bulat’s most recent work does an admirable job of displaying her soulful vocals along with her intuitive knack for devising unexpected yet instantly appealing string and piano-based arrangements. The daughter of a music teacher, she is adept at playing a variety of instruments including the guitar, hammered dulcimer, ukulele, charango (a small Bolivian lute), the piano, and, perhaps most famously, the autoharp. The chorded zither (autoharp) is an obsession she discovered by happy accident at a neighbour’s yard sale.
“I came to the autoharp late in life,” she says. “My neighbour told me it that the whole premise was that it was an instrument that anybody could learn to play. I took that as a challenge! I use it as a simple way to level the playing field. I love that the autoharp is a weird, neat hybrid; whether I’m attempting to play folk, bluegrass, or traditional music, this fretless zither is a way of bringing together the Old World and the New World.”
A departure from Bulat’s 2008 Polaris-nominated album, Oh, My Darling, her newest submission cloaks itself in the trappings of modernity. On Tall Tall Shadow, electronic buzzes and autoharp mutability fill the air with a synthetic energy that’s anything but static — the extra reverb coming courtesy of a 60-year-old dance hall that served as her hollow-bodied recording studio. Basia tapped her brother, punk rock stalwart, Bobby Bulat to take over the recording studio drum-kit while Holly Coish backed her up on keyboards and vocals alongside guitarist Kingsbury and bassist Ben Whiteley. Together they found gospel, acoustic folk, wild rock strawberries and strummer’s waltzes hiding in Bulat’s fairytale forest of towering pines.
“I can’t control where the songs are coming from or what they have to say. I often go into things without realizing exactly what’s behind that feeling of inspiration,” she relates. “Sonically, it’s great to be able to work things through with friends and to have a chance to mess around with songs before and after recording them. At the moment, I’m touring as part of a three-piece band, which includes my studio bassist Ben Whitely and percussionist Ian McKay. Each city we visit has its own flavour and every audience we perform in front of will react in their own way. I can’t anticipate who’s going to connect with what. I just do my thing and don’t try to censor the spontaneity and fun that comes out of playing with other musicians.”
From the clasping and clapping mandibles of “Promise Not to Think About Love,” to the Andean, charango-embellished “It Can’t Be You” and the tempestuous “Never Let Me Go,” it’s apparent that Bulat has plumbed some personal depths to come to terms with love and loss on Tall Tall Shadows. Emerging from her sylvan reverie with the gift of enlightenment. Her wellspring of inspiration and her positive outlook on life remain as sunny and free-flowing as her honey-coloured tresses.
“I’m pretty open to whatever comes,” she says. “I’m leaving myself room to be surprised by life. I try not to over analyze my approach, to be honest, I just love playing live shows and having fun. That’s what’s so amazing about performing live — you can play the same show a million different ways.”
Catch Basia Bulat at The Rio Theatre December 5th.
By Christine Leonard
Photo: Caroline Desilets