One from the heart
Past meets present on singer-songwriter Basia Bulat’s superb sophomore album
The autoharp is not exactly a rock 'n' roll instrument – it’s more likely to conjure autumn-misted memories of Peter, Paul and Mary’s campfire classic Puff, the Magic Dragon, or maybe the country tunes of the Carter Family.
But this stringed instrument is at the heart of the work of Toronto singer-songwriter Basia Bulat. It can be somewhat comical to watch this five-foot-nothing nymph wrestle the clunky, cereal-box-sized device onstage, but all jokes stop as soon as you hear the gorgeous sounds she produces.
The autoharp is "a pain to tour with," Bulat admits during an interview, rolling her eyes. "But it’s worth it. There’s nothing wrong with playing just guitar, but I’m limited in my skills on guitar. What I love about these instruments is how they give you a different vocabulary, or palette."
Nearly every track on Bulat’s superb new album, Heart of My Own, leaves you with the sense that you’re being whirled through centuries of music. The lead single, Gold Rush, begins with folksy fiddle and autoharp as a backbone, then builds into a torrent of muscular drumbeats, choral swells and a plangent vocal melody. The Shore is a strange, magical ballad that skirts the edges of both Soul Stirrers-style gospel and 17th-century madrigals, buoyed by the resonant strains of a hammered harp.
The daughter of Polish immigrants, the Toronto-born 27-year-old singer claims her formative years were spent pining for the past.
"I was behind the times growing up," Bulat explains. "I was really obsessed with the '50s and '60s, obsessed with older literature. Anything that looked old, anything that looked antique, anything that looked like it had history, I thought it was interesting, and I wanted to find out what it was."
She pauses. "Maybe that was because I didn’t hear so much about my own history. I’m first-generation [Canadian], and like so many people who are in my place, you’re looking for roots in anything. My parents were very interested in being Canadian, whatever that means. I think it happens with a lot of kids who grow up in my situation – their parents come from somewhere and it’s hard to find a balance. You either want to try to keep a lot of your former home with you, or you try to immerse yourself completely in what’s new."
As a kid, Bulat’s love of the oldies didn’t mesh with the slick Top-40 pop that dominated elementary schools in the early '90s. At one point, a bouncy hi-NRG hit called Good Vibrations was all the rage. Bulat didn’t realize until too late that the song was by an abs-baring hip-pop goof named Marky Mark (now known as Serious Actor Mark Wahlberg ).
"I got made fun of constantly, because I liked this Beach Boys song and thought it was the same song that everyone else was talking about. I was ostracized for all of Grade 2 for being a weirdo. It was rough! But," she laughs, "I’ve had a very charmed existence – being made fun of for liking old-people music isn’t so bad."
It wasn’t until she moved to London, Ont., for university that Bulat started to try her hand at songwriting. She connected with a handful of kindred spirits, like viola player Allison Stewart, and recorded a spare self-titled demo in 2005. It was when Bulat connected with Montreal producer Howard Bilerman, however, that something clicked. The two worked together on Oh My Darling, which became a surprise breakout hit in the U.K. and Canada, where it was shortlisted for the 2008 Polaris Music Prize. They teamed up again to record Heart of My Own.
Bulat says Bilerman was key in shoring up her confidence for the new album. The response to Oh My Darling was so tremendous, she explains, that she was concerned she might not live up to people’s expectations.
"When I first started doing interviews for this record, [I realized that] I’m in such a different place now from when I started making it. I forgot that actually, I was very nervous. And I did have a lot of doubts, I think. I had all these ideas, but when I actually walked in the door, self-criticism can take over. It was something I wasn’t expecting and I wasn’t used to. There were all these songs I’d been playing in concert for ages, but now I was starting to doubt whether they should be recorded."
Bulat credits two other factors with helping her overcome her doubts. The first was a transformative trip to the Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon, where she spent days channelling the awe-inspiring surroundings into her songwriting. The other life-changing moment occurred in a Toronto club in October of 2008, when she came face to face with one of her lifelong heroes, the legendary folk singer Odetta, just months before she passed away.
"I didn’t know if she was going to be able to sign autographs or do anything like that, because she was already ill," Bulat begins. "You certainly don’t want to trouble somebody who’s already given such a big performance. Her voice was as good as it had ever been. From the first second that she started singing, everyone in the room was crying – everyone.
"On top of that, I totally embarrassed myself, because we saw that she was signing autographs, and I went up to her and I had my record and said, ‘Oh my God, I love you so much! You’ve been a huge inspiration to me all my life!’ And she said – I’m totally paraphrasing here, but – ‘Well, that makes me really happy. And I just hope that you’re singing like yourself.’"
It's clear that Bulat, wide-eyed and beaming, is still overwhelmed by the experience.
"To meet your hero and for them to treat you like you’re on the same level as they are? You just realize why you’re doing what you’re doing and what’s worth doing."
Heart of My Own is in stores now. Basia Bulat plays Winnipeg on Feb. 25, Saskatoon on Feb. 27, Calgary on March 2, Edmonton on March 3 and Vancouver on March 5.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBC News.