Basia Bulat: When the Shadow Is Yours | Q&A

courtesy photo

by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

Basia Bulat, the master of suspense.

The Canadian singer-songwriter has collected praise for multiple aspects of her work, since her debut album, Oh My Darling, captured international attention in 2007. Acclaim for her unique authority of stringed instruments from the autoharp, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer harp and now (slowly, but surely) the charango. Acclaim for the sweet and gospel-inspired bellow of her vocal tones. Acclaim for the eloquence of her two albums of confessional-sounding lyrics.

And now, with the opening lines of her forthcoming album Tall Tall Shadow, she’s a craftsman of the twist.

The towering darkness of the title looms larger and dangerous on the title track, the record’s first single. And then Bulat croons the disclaimer, “You’re running away, but the shadow is yours.” She sets the tone for an introspective third album that portrays the malice of an outside world as the companion — and sometimes, the product — of the self.

With that admission comes a joyful catharsis, a play that Bulat spars with throughout Tall Tall Shadow.

“There’s a lot of songwriters I love who are very quiet and very sad, but you still feel happy after listening to it,” Bulat says. “That’s one of the mysteries I guess, about how you can sing something sad or difficult but do it with joy. I want to make something beautiful, but I want to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is ugly.”

To make an album that marries the ugliness and the beauty, that carefully withholds some of the folk brightness of her previous albums, Bulat enlisted the help of co-producers Mark Lawson (who won a Grammy Award for his work on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs) and Tim Kingsbury (of Arcade Fire), as well as a variety of recording spaces in Canada.

Tall Tall Shadow will be released internationally on Oct. 1 on Secret City Records, and this week Bulat will play four solo shows across the Midwest opening for Jim James (My Morning Jacket). Bulat and James will perform at Slowdown on Tuesday night, but first the Toronto songstress spoke with Hear Nebraska about why she finds reflection difficult and answered some of the first questions about songs on her forthcoming record.

Hear Nebraska: I was actually just watching — a whole bunch last night — the live video of “It Can’t Be You” that you did in the Art Gallery of Ontario. The charango part you did is pretty intricate on those songs. I was curious, with all the different stringed instruments that you play, what do you dig about the voice of the charango? How does that one stand out to you?

Basia Bulat: It’s kind of like the newest instrument that I’ve been slowly learning to play. I guess I don’t play it in the traditional way. It’s actually a really challenging instrument to play in the classical method, but I first heard it played traditionally by a friend of mine from Peru.

So it started out with me wanting to play the traditional way, but it’s way harder than anything I’ve ever attempted in my life. I’ve kind of figured my own style that’s inspired by it. But I’m still slowly learning. I have a bunch of books and CDs for the classical method, but it’s a lot more complex.

HN: If you can explain it without it being too complex, the fingerpicking part you’re doing on “It Can’t Be You” is really quick and it seems really intricate to me. How is that different from the way the charango is normally played in the Andean tradition?

BB: It is and it isn’t. It’s just the pattern itself is slightly different. The fingerpicking I have is maybe more influenced by North American folk music, like guitar playing or banjo playing. On charango, you can use all four fingers and you can really quickly play tremolo strumming and these songs — it’s just a little more complicated (laughs).

I’ve never actually been to South America and I really hope I get to go one day. Because I love a lot of music from South America. Not just folk music, but also Tropicália and Brazilian rock music.

I guess I was drawn to charango, as well, because it seems so small and so quiet, but it’s capable of so much. I guess I get drawn to instruments like that. I guess I was sort of surprised by the range of it. Even though the actual sonic range is sort of in a higher range of notes, in terms of the depth or expression it can have — I haven’t fully mastered that — but it’s capable of a lot of things. When you hear someone who really knows how to play it, it’s mesmerizing.

HN: Sidenote — have you ever played one of the ones with the actual armadillo bodies? Cause that’s the traditional construction of the instrument, right?

BB: Yeah! A friend of mine has one. He’s a folk and gospel musician in Canada. His name is Ken Whiteley. He was given one as a gift so he had one in his studio and I looked at it. It’s actually a little bit smaller. I think it’s almost like concert size. Mine is a little bit larger. I have held one, but mine are made of wood. Mine are not made of animals. (Laughs.)

HN: Let me move then to Tall Tall Shadow. It’s out in a month and it’s probably — I would imagine just by virtue of the fact that the people who are familiar with Oh My Darling probably got to that place kind of gradually — that it’s your most anticipated release. You had a label right off the bat. How are you feeling about the record one month out from everyone hearing it?

BB: I just feel lucky that I get to do this, more than anything. Being able to tour these songs and tour all over the world and play with Jim James these are all things that right now I’m feeling a lot of gratitude.

I mean, I’m excited for everyone to hear it, but I’m almost in a space now where I‘m trying to figure out cool ways to play these songs live. Once it’s done, I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be received and all that.

HN: I remember you saying leading up to the release of Heart Of My Own — this might have been on Q where you said this — that you think it’s good to feel a little bit naive about the music business and the whole rigamarole of the way that works. As you jump into it again, do you still feel that way?

BB: I think at the end of the day, the record is for more than just the next six months. And I think right now people get obsessed about that. Obviously, it’s wonderful and it’s great to have promotion behind a record and I want people know that it exists and that can only happen in a certain way, but there are records that I’ll find from 50 years ago that don’t have a PR campaign behind them now.

Maybe “naive” is not the right word. I’m glad there is a music business, whatever is left of it. But at the end of the day, there’s lots of music from 300 years ago or 200 years ago that’s beautiful and your hope is you’ll make something that lasts and isn’t just a flash in the pan.

HN: Let me go then to the making and the writing of the record. Just hypothetically, what do you think would have been different about Tall Tall Shadow — aside from the fact that some of the songs may not have been written yet — if you had taken two years instead of almost four. How different of a record would we be looking at?

BB: I don’t know. It’s impossible to say. It’s so hard to speculate on the something like that. There’s so many things. I mean, the thing is I’ve been writing the whole time. There’s lot of songs that I’ve written in the past three years, that I haven’t put them out.

I’ve been in a lucky situation where I haven’t felt pressured to do anything in that regard. Maybe now I have pressure on myself. It’s hard to speculate on something like that. I’m not the same person I was yesterday.

HN: On that note, how do you reflect if we go back further? With the success of Oh My Darling and the singles, people still may point to that album as how they know you. How do you reflect on Oh My Darling at this point?

BB: I don’t know. I don’t really. (Laughs.) I try not to dwell too much on the past. I still play the songs live. People have found my music in so many different ways.

I just feel like I’m just starting out, like I’m perpetually in a stage of trying to find things that are new to me. I hope I’m not making the same record over and over. However people find me is great. If they’ve lasted that long, that’s already great. I hope it lasts a little longer than seven years.

HN: What about thinking about those older songs, Basia, not from a public standpoint. If you think about Basia the writer from 2007 who wrote “Before I Knew” and “In The Night” an “Snakes and Ladders,” does that feel very different to you?

BB: Of course. I’m not a completely different person in the sense that I’m unrecognizable. But of course things have changed. I guess I haven’t really thought about it too deeply, maybe I should, but I don’t necessarily know if it’s healthy to spend time dwelling on your past work. I’m not that kind of person, I guess. The thing I like about playing those songs live is I can still find ways to make them feel new.

I’m sorry, I guess I don’t really have those answers. I don’t spend a lot of time self-analyzing. There’s no living in the past, it’s all about now, you see? (Laughs.)

HN: Well, let’s talk about now, or nowish, then. One of the things that sonically seems to set Tall Tall Shadow apart, there’s a lot of different soundscapes going on. Maybe more experimenting with production and sonic range, if I can say that. Did you go into the studio wanting to experiment more or was that something that when you worked with Mark Lawson and Tim Kingbsury, did they guide you in that direction?

BB: I definitely, before we went in, wanted to do something different. We recorded in a bunch of different spaces. I rented out a Legion Hall. I don’t know if you have those.

It’s like the Royal Canadian Legion. They have a dance hall that was built in the ‘50s in the east end of Toronto. I rented that out and we spent a week recording there. And we did a bunch of recording in Montreal and different spaces in Toronto.

I think I was apprehensive in my past thinking that my voice wouldn’t sound good this way. Or my songs wouldn’t suit this kind of arrangement. This time around it was really fun. I wanted to make a record that at least the process around it felt different. I’m still a folky at heart. I think hopefully with the next record, too, I can keep messing around with that and play like a painter in the studio. And why not, really?

HN: Maybe thinking about some of the songs on the record that do have more complex arrangements, where are you at right now with preparing them to be played solo on a tour? Do you go back to where they were when you wrote them?

BB: I’m still figuring that out. I like playing with effects and little pedals that I can use when I’m playing them solo. Or looping things, just seeing what I might be able to do with that. Even the charango, you can kind of put it through anything and see what might come out the other end. I’ve got a couple weeks that I can keep working on it every day.

HN: I have couple thematic-type questions about Tall Tall Shadow. When I first heard the title track, I think I picked up on the darkness more, with the title and the minor chords. But as I kept listening I got to thinking that “introspective” might be a better word than “dark.” Is there something that interests you about the play between the inside and outside world on this album? Like this looming tall shadow and then turning that back on the person it comes from?

BB: I think I ended up using that track as the title track because thematically it kind of kept coming back, a little bit of darkness and light. It is a pretty interiorized dialogue or monologue. I’m perhaps referencing things that are pretty personal and real places and things in my past. Or present.

I think it’s that contrast between both. A lot of the songs have a meditative quality to them, like “Someone” or “City With No Rivers.” I think there’s also with something like “Tall Tall Shadow” the chords are one way but the singing is very inspired by gospel music or soul music, so really joyful. What draws me to a lot of that music is you can sing about pain but … I love all these sad songs that really upbeat. There’s always that play.

There’s a lot of songwriters I love who are very quiet and very sad, but you still feel happy after listening to it. That’s one of the mysteries I guess, about how you can sing something sad or difficult but do it with joy. For me, this record explores that. I want to make something beautiful, but I want to tell the truth and sometimes the truth is ugly.

But I don’t know if I’m finished with that or if I’ll ever reach that. And that’s kind of what the last song on the record is about: It’s never really done and I’ll never really be satisfied or done with what’s driving me to write.

HN: “From Now On” really interested me. Toward the end you sing: “If every song from now on is about you, I can play on and on. I can play you on and on, until I am out of breath. If you’re waiting at the rest and my cadence grows impatient…” There’s almost this kind of meta-lyrical comment on that outward idea of summer ending and then the very fabric of the song. What do you think the relationship is, Basia, between the first song on the record and this last one?

BB: Well, yeah. This is a great interview, by the way, because they’re questions I haven’t really been asked yet. Yeah, the song is a comment. One is about playing music in general, trying to write a song about something personal and someone and not being able to get it right.

I think the whole record is about me trying to find a way to … language in some ways is very futile. I just kind of realize that I can’t say what I wanted to say with my lyrics. I try to make Side One be a certain way and Side Two be another way. There are lots of spots where I think I put the focus more on the music and not on words constantly.

HN: In terms of what we’re talking about right now, about not being able to tell the whole truth in a song or not being to say exactly what you mean, in some ways is that an instigator to keep going? Hypothetically, if you wrote the most perfect honest song, what would there be left to write?

BB: I love knowing that Walt Whitman had so many version of Leaves of Grass or that Mary Shelley has so many versions of Frankenstein. I think if you grow a little, you see things from a different way.

I really love when Joni Mitchell sings those tracks now on the 2000 album, I don’t know how many years after she wrote it. I was thinking about that just today actually, about how great that version is. I think sometimes for me when I’m working on something, I don’t know what something is about. Maybe I’ll have more self awareness when I’m older. There’s an element to writing where you give up that consciousness because if you try to control your process, it’s going to go terribly.

I’m not writing The Odyssey. I’m not sure if I’m interested in writing big, overarching things. That’s what I’m saying now anyway, but maybe when we talk in seven years, I’ll say “Now, let me tell you…” (Laughs.)

HN: Well, if we talk again in seven years, you can’t tell me that you’re bad at self-analysis.

BB: (Laughs.) I’ll try my best.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. Basia Bulat at The Waiting Room in 2007 was the first concert he ever went to not in an arena or with his mom. Things were never the same. Reach Chance at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer (@chance_s_p) is a contributing writer at Hear Nebraska, and its former managing editor. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.