Indie folk darling Basia Bulat’s second album Heart of My Own is out January 26, and it’s every bit as enjoyable as her 2008 Polaris Prize shortlisted debut. Heart of My Own was largely written on the road, taking inspiration from the sights and sounds experienced on tour. The Yukon had a great effect on her, as can be heard on lead single ‘Gold Rush’. The singer took some time to chat with Ca Va Cool before her tour kicked into high gear.
Kevin: You’re in New York right now?
Basia Bulat: Yeah, we play at the Bowery Ballroom on Friday.
Kevin: Have you toured the US much? I know you’ve covered Europe and Canada quite a bit, but is this new for you?
Basia: No, I’ve been across the US a few times actually, so it’s nice to be back.
Kevin: Just interesting, I went to [The University of] Western [Ontario], I know you went to Western, you were involved with the local music scene, [campus radio station] CHRW, and you were in the first edition of LOLAfest.
Basia: What were you studying at Western?
Kevin: Biochemistry, so probably not your area.
Basia: But now you’re writing about music for a pastime?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s kind of a weird twist.
Basia: You know, I don’t think it’s that weird, to be honest.
Kevin: Anyway, my question is, what does London mean to you?
Basia: Well you know, I did a lot of growing up in London. I wrote a lot of songs there, I made a lot of great friends there; I got to get to know so much good music. Like you said, I had a radio show on CHRW for about 4 years and it was so important to me, and I really think of it very fondly. I’m really excited that I get to play Aeolian Hall actually. That’s a little bit of a dream come true.
Kevin: How do you respond to criticisms that there’s not really a lot going on in the city, in terms of the music scene?
Basia: The difficulty, I suppose, of the music scene in London is that a significant portion of the population is really transient, in terms of the university. I think that’s a challenge people have been trying to find a way around for a long time, but at the same time it’s a great thing because lots of bands come to town. I mean, Call the Office has been there forever and they’ve had such a great history and line-up of amazing bands. I certainly never felt there was nothing going on in London when I was in school, I always thought there was a lot going on actually. [Laughs] But maybe that’s because I sort of immersed myself in that world of CHRW, Funk Night at Call the Office, things like that. I think you kind of have to look for it. I also think you have to be a little bit responsible for your own self, so I think that’s why it was great for me. My friends and I, we were all really interested in doing stuff, to put it in the most basic terms. I mean, even in the English department there was Olenka [of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers], she and I went to school together, we were both in the English department and there were things like coffee houses, there was kind of an active community, and I still kind of see it that way. But eventually people move, it’s difficult. I don’t know if you feel that way.
Kevin: Nah, it’s just coming from a different environment, I didn’t really have an opportunity to get involved in the whole ‘arts’ process.
Basia: It might be the different environment. While I was there, LOLA was just starting and it’s only gotten bigger ever since.
Kevin: It’s a definite step in the right direction.
Basia: Yeah, it’s just a lot of bands come through because we’re in between Detroit and Toronto. I always felt frustrated that more people weren’t coming to shows, because I saw some amazing bands and I couldn’t believe that.
Kevin: I saw the Secret Machines at Call the Office with ten people, so I know what you mean.
Basia: Exactly! I remember seeing the Dirtbombs, and it was the same kind of situation. I knew they were playing two sold out shows at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, and there was such a small amount of people in London, and I’m wondering “What is going on, how do people not know about this?” [Laughs] So it’s not that things aren’t happening, maybe things are better now, with LOLA and with the internet and CHRW, you know. I definitely think it’s pretty strong.
Kevin: How did you pick up the auto-harp? It’s not the most common instrument to pick up and play.
Basia: The auto-harp is actually by definition supposed to be a very easy instrument to pick up and play, so that’s kind of what I like about it. It’s not as common anymore, maybe I can change that, I don’t know. I’ve always been a fan of the auto-harp because I’ve been a fan of the Carter Family for ages, and you hear it in a lot of country and folk music. When my mom found out that a neighbour was selling theirs, she got it for me. The nice thing about the auto-harp is the name means automatic harp, so actually it’s really simple to play basic songs. It’s meant for people who maybe can’t afford, for example, a piano or guitar or maybe just want something to accompany themselves while they are singing. That’s kind of where it started in the 1880s when the instrument was invented. I guess I just like being able to explore what else the instrument can do, it really speaks to me. Just trying to see what other things you can do with it, where else it can belong.
Kevin: Who else do you count among your major influences in writing music?
Basia: I think…
Kevin: Too broad?
Basia: Crazy huge question, there’s a lot of different things that I’ve listened to, read and seen, and taken in over the years, you’re kind of working through it all the time.
Kevin: Were you surprised at the attention that Oh, My Darling got on the national scale, including being nominated for the Polaris Prize?
Basia: Very honoured that all of that happened. It wasn’t something I was expecting or had accounted for, but I don’t think anybody can. I don’t think anybody can expect something like that to happen but I’m very grateful for the fact that it has. It’s something I feel really grateful for, to have that opportunity to play for people and for my music to reach people, it’s really a great thing.
Kevin: I’ve had the chance to listen to Heart of My Own a couple times, it’s really in line with what Oh, My Darling is but more confident and orchestrated. Was there anything that you really wanted to accomplish with Heart of My Own that you couldn’t the last time?
Basia: What’s important to me is to capture the sound of people playing together live, so that’s something that I’ve done with both records, recording to tape as much as possible, recording as many people playing together as much as possible and not overediting, overphotoshopping things, so to speak. I definitely think that this record is a little bit more loud, a little more urgent, I think the songs are a little bit more complex. It’s just really important to me to write songs that I feel I can sing on stage every night, and really believe in. I ended up writing and recording about twenty one songs before actually paring it down to make the whole album, what I really wanted to do was take the songs I felt needed to be together.
Kevin: Who’ve you enjoyed touring with most?
Basia: I’ve had really great experiences on tour. I had a great tour when I was just starting out with Owen Pallett, I really learned a lot from touring with him, he was, is, amazing. I’m actually really excited because I get to play a couple shows with him again in Halifax next month. It’s gonna be really cool. I’ve played some really fun shows with St. Vincent, Great Lakes Swimmers, I’ve been pretty lucky.
Kevin: While I was doing some research before the interview, I found a recording of you singing a Polish song ‘To Nie Ptak’, loosely translated, “It’s Not a Bird.”
Basia: That’s good pronunciation, are you Polish?
Kevin: I am, which is why I know how to pronounce your name, for one.
Basia: Well, I have terrible pronunciation, you’re much better than I am.
Kevin: My mom’s Stasia so it’s not really that much of a jump.
Kevin: Do you find it different to sing in Polish, do you see yourself doing more of this?
Basia: I really would like to. That was a big first step for me, in November, that was my first time going back to Poland, in ten years, my second time ever in the country, and my first time ever playing shows there, and it was actually pretty emotional to sing a song in Polish and to not mess it up too badly.
Kevin: It sounded good.
Basia: It was really wonderful to be able to go to Poland and be able to spend some time there afterwards and really explore my roots a bit and be able to delve into that. There were all these great albums by these Polish artists that I didn’t know about before. I’m hoping to, but I have to do a lot more practice to do it justice. I’m glad I was able to pull that off and I’m glad there was a recording of it so I could put it online. That’s the first time I ever sang it live.
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