Interview by Adam McKibbin
Basia Bulat's Heart of My Own is one of the breakout albums of 2010 - at least for anyone who wasn't introduced to her Polaris-nominated debut, 2008's Oh, My Darling. But even those smitten with the first record should be able to admit that the new one is a major step forward. Once upon a time, much was made of Bulat playing the autoharp, and it seemed like "autoharp gal" could become her calling card. Heart of My Own recommends a slightly bolder signature: "one of the best singer-songwriters in the new generation of folk artists."
Bulat has seemingly been permanently on tour, and she's currently on another North America leg that will conclude (allegedly) with a string of dates with Josh Ritter in late October and early November. She's currently hitting some of the best markets in the East, then a few in the Midwest and West before hitting the stage for Austin City Limits - and then a brief Canadian jaunt with Josh Ritter (full dates at http://www.basiabulat.com).
The Red Alert caught up with Bulat in a van somewhere outside of Boston. The conversation ranged from vocal coaching to Willa Cather to gender inequalitiy. And if the Van Morrison thing winds up happening... well, you're welcome.
You’ve been in a pretty steady cycle of touring and releasing music for the last few years. How has the experience helped you grow as an artist; what do you think is the biggest difference for where you are now compared to where you were when you were on the road for Oh, My Darling?
Well, I think the opportunity to perform as much as possible has definitely helped me grow not only as a performer, but as a songwriter; I’m always thinking about a song in terms of how I’m performing it, as opposed to how I’m recording it. Those are two very different things. I focus a lot on the performance within the recording experience; I like to record live as much as possible and capture that performance aspect. So that’s been something that I’ve done more and more, and something I’ll keep working toward.
The difference between touring for Oh, My Darling and touring for Heart Of My Own is the experience: I’m a lot more comfortable on stage, I think. It was so new to me when I was touring for Oh, My Darling, and every aspect of touring and performing and traveling had such a steep learning curve. Not that I’m an old hat at it. I still think I’m green in some aspects. But I’m a lot more comfortable on stage – and I’ve gotten really good at packing light. [Laughs]
You have some fairly demanding songs vocally. How do you keep your voice intact, night after night after night?
Yeah, that’s something I’ve learned as well, and I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve been really fortunate – whenever I have time, I go and see an amazing voice teacher, a professor at the University of Western Ontario [named] Rachel Mallon. She’s wonderful. It’s the basics – breathing, pay attention to your body, warming up, and, it sounds strange to say this sort of thing, but finding the right space to sing in, physically.
You’ve gotten to sample quite a few styles of venues. Do you have a favorite? Is there a type of theatre that is most conducive to your live show?
Hm, I don’t know. It’s been really cool, I’ve gotten the chance to play big festival stages, really small clubs, churches, big theatres – it’s all over the map, really. I think the challenge for me in every situation is connecting with people, regardless of the venue. It’s not necessarily that it’s difficult, but it’s something you focus on. One of my favorite things was playing at an outdoor festival and I was doing what’s called a workshop or song circle with the Great Lake Swimmers at a folk festival. The power went out on stage, and all these different kinds of performers still found a way – the show had to go on. It was really cool, actually! I’m hoping that no matter where I go, I can find a way to make sure that people enjoy the music.
I haven’t had a chance to see you play a show yet because there always seems to be a tough conflict for me whenever you come to LA. This time around, I bought Van Morrison tickets for my wife and of course it’s on the same night.
Oh, my gosh. That’s the Echo gig?
Ah, but I’m playing at Old Style Guitar Shop two days later. And it’s free! 7pm on the 7th.
But Van Morrison is incredible – you should go to that. [Laughs]
Now I can do both! But I was wondering: I’ve heard you take on Dylan, Sam Cooke, Daniel Johnston… and I think you’re a very skilled interpreter. Have you ever bitten into a Van Morrison song?
I’ve definitely wanted to. He’s one of my favorite singers ever. I don’t know if I would do a Van Morrison song or a song from Them. I’m not sure which I would do, but I definitely love him; he’s such an inspiration as a singer and as a songwriter. I listen to him all the time. It’s funny… I’m asking my bandmates. [to her band] Have I done Van Morrison? Have we? [back to The Red Alert] Maybe a really long time ago. But I need to record a Van Morrison song for sure. For sure, actually. [Laughs] I can’t believe it… I never even thought of that. I totally have to.
It seems like it would be great.
Thanks! Well, now it’s going to happen, and you get the credit for it.
Generally, how do you know which songs you’d like to take on?
If I like a song, I’ll just play it, whether or not I have the intention to quote-unquote “cover” it in a show or recording or anything like that. A lot of music I just play for myself.
I don’t really ask about influences too often, but I read an older interview with you where you were talking about authors who have influenced you as an artist. I’ve done hundreds of these [interviews] and I’ve read thousands of them, and I’m always surprised by how seldom people go outside of their own medium when they’re talking about influences. So let’s talk about books! What have you read lately that has impressed or inspired you?
I was reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia and crying the whole time. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful book. I was reading that on the tour I just did in August in Europe. It was incredible; I was totally obsessed with it. It’s a prairie book, and I was dreaming of the prairie for weeks after I read it. [Laughs]
We’re on our way to Boston right now and it’s killing me because my favorite poet is Emily Dickinson – and we actually have free time tomorrow, so I thought we should totally drive to Amherst, but the Emily Dickinson Museum isn’t open on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve been trying to make my way there. She’s one of my favorites. Every since I was a little kid, I’ve loved all of the work of the Bronte sisters. That’s something that’s remained since I was given the complete works when I was a kid – I was probably eight or nine when my mom gave it to me. I don’t think she really expected me to read it – or to read it all. But I read it many times over.
Starting at eight and nine?!
Yeah, I was really young. It was one of those big discount bin bargain books, and I read the whole thing. [Laughs] I’ve read it time and time again over the years, because I know I didn’t understand everything completely when I was that young. But I love all three of those sisters. I love E.E. Cummings. I like a lot of 1920s writers; I like Gertrude Stein, I like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For some reason, I’ve been primarily reading writers from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s right now. Faulkner, a lot of Faulkner.
I think it’s so important to revisit those things that made an impact at some point in your life. Sometimes for me it’s “Why did I ever love this so much?” And then sometimes you fall in love all over again.
Yeah, the best novels for me are the ones that teach me something new each time I read it. That’s what I like about poetry, too – you have to turn it over in your head and in your hands, and examine it from every which way, and then it will tell you something new every time. Songs are the same way. You can never listen to something the same way you did the first time. Every successive time is a little different, even though you’re looking for the same experiences. I’ll hear things in a different way depending on where I am, or hearing it at a certain time of day, or on headphones versus on a stereo or a really good hi-fi system. It all changes.
Definitely. And it’s one of the things that makes being a music critic seem really pretty pointless sometimes.
[Laughs] Oh, dear.
I’d like to close with a tried-and-true question for our site. If you wound up with a Bono-sized platform – or really regardless of platform size – what’s a cause that you could see yourself getting behind?
I think there is a lot of work to be done all around the world – including in parts of North America – with helping women in cases of abuse and in terms of education. There are certain countries, obviously, where women are not viewed as equals. That’s something that is very important to me [and] has been near to me for a long time. Whether or not I ever have a Bono-sized platform, I hope I can do something to make a difference. … We all have a lot of work to do. [Laughs]