Interview – Basia Bulat
– by Shawn Conner
The cover of Oh My Darling, her 2007 debut full-length, cast Basia Bulat in a slightly mysterious light, with a complete lack of info besides a tight portrait of the blonde singer in a witchy black hat. Her husky vocals, sounding older than her 24 years, and bewitching folk songs – which for some reason remind me of the very hot Gypsy movie Montenegro – did nothing to dispel the idea.
In fact, Bulat is as down-to-earth as they come – she’s a singing, autoharp-playing songwriter still discovering her talents. She’ll have a new album out later this year, but in the meantime we took advantage of the fact that she was coming back to town to play the 2009 Vancouver Folk Music Festival to talk to her again.
We reached her in Toronto, where she was running errands. She’d recently played the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario, and was still was excited about sharing a stage (during a workshop) with Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Basia Bulat: We didnít get to talk that much. She did tell that I can really sing. I was more than happy for that. Sheís just the nicest and friendliest person you could ever meet. Itís always really cool to meet somebody you look up to and they end up being as wonderful and kind as you imagined them to be. And sheís a great singer and songwriter, just a real inspiration. Everybody up onstage – we were up there playing with another musician named Guy Davis whoís really great, and Royal Wood was fantastic – all of us had a great time.
SC: Speaking of being nice and a performer and all that, when I met you at your show in Vancouver not too long ago, you were terribly rude.
BB: Oh dear, I try my best. I suppose we all have our bad days! [laughs]
SC: No no, Iím kidding. You were really sweet. I bought the single off of you.
BB: Maybe I do remember, that was on the tour with Devotchka.
SC: I wanted to ask what the single [a recording of the gospel tune “I Touched the Hem of His Garment”] did for you, if anything.
BB: Oh, the seven inch? It was just a really fun experiment. We had this idea of recording a cover and we did it all- recorded it, mixed and mastered it – all within an hour. Kind of the old way, the good old days so to speak. Itís just a song I love and that was it, really. Itís fun to have something on vinyl. And you can play it on half-speed, as my brother pointed out to me.
SC: Thatís what siblings are for: ďListen, sis, this is how you sound on half-speed.Ē
BB: His drumming sounds even better. Heís great. Weíve played and toured together all our lives. Iím pretty lucky to have him as my brother, and my drummer.
SC: Heís your older brotherÖ
BB: Heís my younger brother but he acts like my older brother! He may as well be my older brother, when all is said and done. But Iím very lucky.
SC: So was it your record collection that influenced him?
BB: I think it was a little bit of both. We were finding different bands and playing them for each other. I wouldnít have heard as much punk music if it werenít for him, I wouldnít have gotten into The Clash. But maybe he wouldnít have gotten into Radiohead or Sonic Youth if it wasnít for me. Well, Iím not sure who listened to them first. We were growing up listening to records and discovering them together. I discovered the Exploding Hearts through him.
SC: Have we had this conversationÖ?
BB: Theyíre kind of famous for their tragic story of how most of the band passed away really tragically in a touring accident, so they only have two records out, one formal record and a collection of B-sides. Thatís the best part of that, not the best part of that, but I discovered them through my brother, and I donít know if I wouldíve found them, and if I would have maybe a lot later on. And theyíre a fantastic band.
SC: Where are your record searches leading you these days? Do you look for obscurities?
BB: I think itís a little bit of everything. Ironically, at Mariposa, in the CDs and merchandise section, someone was selling used records and I picked up all sorts of different stuff, some I already have. Sometimes if something looks good and itís a good deal, even if you already have it – I mean, everyone can own two copies of Desire by Bob Dylan.
What did I pick up more recently thatís a little more weirdÖ letís think letís think. Today I picked up the new Bill Callahan. I havenít listened to it yetÖ Iíve been listening to my friend Harris Newmanís stuff on vinyl. Heís a fantastic guitar player. Heís good, an instrumentalist. I always listen to Odetta. Otis Redding. Sam Cooke. They are people I put on no matter what. Neil Young Live at Massey Hall, got that on vinyl recently. Thatís been fantastic.
SC: I wanted to ask you about the next album but I read youíre superstitiousÖ?
BB: Well, itís pretty much done. Iím superstitious about talking about the songs themselves. Someone asked me today, What is this record about? I can say basic things like there are lots of drums, and different instruments, different things I was listening to or reading at the time.
Itís a little easier now that itís done, and Iím not in the process of writing it. Weíre playing some of the songs live this summer, and thatís been fun. Talking about them seems weird, maybe because I feel I havenít gotten to know them so well yet. A few years in I still feel like Iím learning about songwriting. It may be just a little bit silly to be superstitious about itÖ maybe thatís not right the word.
SC: Do you have a title?
BB: Thatís secret.
SC: Oh, okay.
BB: Youíll know soon enough. Iím superstitious about giving away stuff like that too soon. As Iím writing songs, as I was making this second record, maybe thatís what I felt like. I still wonít know what itís about five years from now, probably.
SC: Do you tweet? Are you on Twitter?
BB: I am not on Twitter. I have to confess, Iím a little bit backwards in this regard. I donít even have my own Facebook account, thereís a Facebook page other people contribute to. And Iím not very good at updating Myspace. Youíre asking somebody whoís in love with the autoharp! I donít know, maybe thatís not fair to say because I play an electric autoharp and thatís pretty new. Iím not sure what it is. I think maybe Iím better in person. I feel like Iím very technology inept. Maybe Iím scared of it. I donít know, I grew up with computers. I just feel likeÖ Iím not that important that people need to know what Iím doing every single moment of the day. And how can I read Middlemarch if Iím reading everyone elseís Twitter? Itís too much at once.
SC: I also thought I might find a blog by you.
BB: Itís something I would like to do, next time Iím on tour. Because I do love writing. You know what ends up happening, inevitably? When I start writing it comes out in a song. I think even though I love writing and I studied English – Iím passionate about literature and books and poems and essays – but inevitably anything I really feel I can stand behind is in song form.
SC: I think I read somewhere that you were reading a book of Paris Review interviews?
BB: Yeah, theyíre awesome.
SC: I figured you must have a fairly eclectic bookshelf.
BB: I guess I do. I was saying to someone earlier, I think Iíve read 50 books in the past year. It ranges from everythingÖ
BB: No, not Twilight [laughs]. I know a lot of peopleÖ I havenít read those books at all so I canít say. Within the span of two months I reread Jane Austenís Emma and I read Dave Eggersí What is the What and I read Zora Neale Hurstonís Their Eyes Were Watching God and a Kafka anthology and I reread Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas. I reread things a lot too because I feel like I missed stuff the first time sometimes. I really have no preference, I just want it to be good. And I like hearing all sorts of different voices.