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 didn’t get to talk that much. She did tell that I can really sing. I was more than happy for that. She’s just the nicest and friendliest person you could ever meet. It’s 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 she’s a great singer and songwriter, just a real inspiration. Everybody up onstage – we were up there playing with another musician named Guy Davis who’s 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, I’m 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. It’s just a song I love and that was it, really. It’s fun to have something on vinyl. And you can play it on half-speed, as my brother pointed out to me.
SC: That’s what siblings are for: “Listen, sis, this is how you sound on half-speed.”
BB: His drumming sounds even better. He’s great. We’ve played and toured together all our lives. I’m pretty lucky to have him as my brother, and my drummer.
SC: He’s your older brother…
BB: He’s 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 I’m 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 wouldn’t have heard as much punk music if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten into The Clash. But maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into Radiohead or Sonic Youth if it wasn’t for me. Well, I’m 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 conversation…?
BB: They’re 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. That’s the best part of that, not the best part of that, but I discovered them through my brother, and I don’t know if I would’ve found them, and if I would have maybe a lot later on. And they’re a fantastic band.
SC: Where are your record searches leading you these days? Do you look for obscurities?
BB: I think it’s 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 it’s 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 that’s a little more weird… let’s think let’s think. Today I picked up the new Bill Callahan. I haven’t listened to it yet… I’ve been listening to my friend Harris Newman’s stuff on vinyl. He’s a fantastic guitar player. He’s 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. That’s been fantastic.
SC: I wanted to ask you about the next album but I read you’re superstitious…?
BB: Well, it’s pretty much done. I’m 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.
It’s a little easier now that it’s done, and I’m not in the process of writing it. We’re playing some of the songs live this summer, and that’s been fun. Talking about them seems weird, maybe because I feel I haven’t gotten to know them so well yet. A few years in I still feel like I’m learning about songwriting. It may be just a little bit silly to be superstitious about it… maybe that’s not right the word.
SC: Do you have a title?
BB: That’s secret.
SC: Oh, okay.
BB: You’ll know soon enough. I’m superstitious about giving away stuff like that too soon. As I’m writing songs, as I was making this second record, maybe that’s what I felt like. I still won’t know what it’s about five years from now, probably.
SC: Do you tweet? Are you on Twitter?
BB: I am not on Twitter. I have to confess, I’m a little bit backwards in this regard. I don’t even have my own Facebook account, there’s a Facebook page other people contribute to. And I’m not very good at updating Myspace. You’re asking somebody who’s in love with the autoharp! I don’t know, maybe that’s not fair to say because I play an electric autoharp and that’s pretty new. I’m not sure what it is. I think maybe I’m better in person. I feel like I’m very technology inept. Maybe I’m scared of it. I don’t know, I grew up with computers. I just feel like… I’m not that important that people need to know what I’m doing every single moment of the day. And how can I read Middlemarch if I’m reading everyone else’s Twitter? It’s too much at once.
SC: I also thought I might find a blog by you.
BB: It’s something I would like to do, next time I’m 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 – I’m 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, they’re awesome.
SC: I figured you must have a fairly eclectic bookshelf.
BB: I guess I do. I was saying to someone earlier, I think I’ve read 50 books in the past year. It ranges from everything…
BB: No, not Twilight [laughs]. I know a lot of people… I haven’t read those books at all so I can’t say. Within the span of two months I reread Jane Austen’s Emma and I read Dave Eggers’ What is the What and I read Zora Neale Hurston’s 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.