Music

Basia Bulat: 5 songs that changed my life

The Canadian singer-songwriter opens up about the 'surreal' feeling of releasing new music right now.

The Canadian singer-songwriter opens up about the 'surreal' feeling of releasing new music right now

Singer-songwriter Basia Bulat's new album Are You in Love? is out today via Secret City Records. (Photo by Richmond Lam, graphic by CBC)

"I've always been afraid of the camera!"

Like everyone else right now, Basia Bulat is trying to settle into a new reality. For her, that means getting used to staring at a camera in order to connect with fans while people around the world are being ordered to stay quarantined to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulat was one of many artists who were forced to postpone their upcoming tour dates, but with a new album to promote (Are You in Love?, which is out now), Bulat figured now was the time to learn how to live stream. 

"I've never been afraid of the stage, but I've always had trepidation about being in front of the camera," she admits over the phone from her Montreal studio-turned-home. Of course she has shot music videos in the past, but even then, Bulat had always been adamant on limiting her on-screen time. 

Last week, Bulat pulled off her first live stream and the experience was "eye-opening" for the singer-songwriter. "I kind of feel silly that I hadn't done it sooner," she reveals, "because so many people were watching from all over the world. People were saying hi from Australia, Colombia, Hong Kong, Seoul — like, what! That's so cool! It's a really cool way for people to see what I do and for me to take requests that feels in the moment. That's what I like about performing is that it's in the moment." 

Being in front of the camera more is just one of the many intimidating things Bulat tackled for her new album. Are You in Love? was written in a time of transition, where Bulat was falling in love but also dealing with the grief of losing her father. It was a struggle between confronting the past while moving steadfast into the future, but the most palpable feeling one leaves with after listening to the album is the importance of being in the moment, and to find acceptance, forgiveness and more in the form of love — self-love and compassion for others.

Are You in Love? is a beautiful statement, but one that feels oddly even more resonant now, which is a "surreal" feeling for Bulat. "I certainly didn't intend for these songs to make sense in this context, but I guess it would," she says. "I mean, why wouldn't love be something that can pull you through your darkest moments? I was trying to make something really beautiful. My response to things is to always try to find what's glittering in the junkyard."

The album ends with a song that's resoundingly reassuring. "Love is at the end of the world," Bulat promises over a warm, sunny keyboard. It's a mantra that Bulat pours her voice into with everything she's got, and it's a proclamation that she truly believes in. "I wrote it for myself, as a reminder to myself when I'm in a darker moment," she recalls. "It's all very, very surreal. I definitely had some mixed feelings about releasing this album, but I just feel like taking advantage of the fact that there are people coming to watch what I'm doing and send some of that energy toward something bigger." (With each live stream, Bulat has asked viewers to donate to a different cause. So far, she has directed attention to Breakfast Club of Canada and the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal.)

"I don't want to stop playing shows," she continues. "Even if I'm stuck in quarantine, playing is going to keep me sane and maybe it'll be fun for other people to watch me be a goof online, you know?"

Right before Bulat hopped on another live stream, CBC Music caught up with her to ask for five songs that changed her life. "I have way more than five songs," she says, as she struggled to whittle down her picks. But scroll down to see which tracks she decided on. 


'Alla turca' from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major

"My mom was a piano teacher when I was growing up and this was a song that she would play for me and my brother, and we would just run around the house in circles. It still makes me want to run around like Homer Simpson going 'woop woop' on the floor! It made me really interested in playing piano. That's where that all started from — my mom playing piano and me wanting to be just like her. I dreamt of becoming a classical musician, but I didn't have the discipline so I kind of started playing guitar because of that. I was saying to myself the other day that, while I'm here in Montreal, I'm going to get my chops up on that song!"

'I Say a Little Prayer,' Aretha Franklin

"When I was a kid in grade school, I listened a lot to the oldies station. This song was on all the time and it gave me a love of Aretha and her incredible voice. The thing that's so interesting is that people talked about these songs and their classic pop songwriting, but songs from that era took so many risks. It's such a good love song; it taught me what a love song could be." 

'Good Woman,' Cat Power

"Cat Power was an artist that I really got into — and am still very into — when I started writing my own songs. I was in love with this record, You Are Free. I was in university at that point and I guess I was understanding how vulnerable you can be and still be really strong. Just her as a person, sharing her story and being herself was an example of that. At the same time, I loved Björk, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, and all these women, because they were vulnerable in their work and in their interviews, were later labelled crazy. That turned around on them so fast because there was so much internalized misogyny. There was this period of time where I couldn't understand where all of a sudden vulnerability was something to be laughed at. But I saw Cat Power during her The Greatest tour and it was just such a powerful show. Hearing her sing 'Lived in Bars' and just having this triumph of 'I lived through all this shit and I'm still standing here and so are you,' was incredible." 

 

'Mehcinut,' Jeremy Dutcher 

"I saw Jeremy live before I heard his record, and I think this was the first song that he played at Pop Montreal. It's such a profound melody and then it explodes into this beautiful majesty. His voice is just so incredible — he's everything! It feels like a channel to the past and into the future. His music and his whole record has just really changed my life, and I'm lucky that I get to call him a friend. He's special. I'm going to be so shy when he reads this, I'm really shy around my talented friends!"

 

'Overtime,' U.S. Girls 

Bulat and U.S. Girls leader Meg Remy have formed a friendship and collaborative relationship over the years. This year, Bulat appeared on U.S. Girls' album, Heavy Light, while Remy has co-writing credits on Are You in Love? including on the track "Electric Roses."

"Meg changed my life in so many ways. I'm so grateful to her for how she has helped me as a friend and also as an artist. She inspired me to be fearless. She is fearless. We understand each other and we trust each other. When we make music together, we both understand that we're growing this little plant and whatever we can do to feed the plant and put the right things in the soil, it's cool. We don't know what kind of plant it's going to be and eventually you get surprised by what kind of flower pops up in the end.

"When I was in a pretty intense moment, she was working on this song and she invited me to just come and hang out with her and her band. I just started playing this song and banging on the piano as loud as I could! So years later, when she invited me to be a part of her record, I was really happy and thrilled that I got to be a part of 'Overtime.'" 

 

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