When Basia Bulat started working on her fifth studio album, the singer-songwriter decided to free herself from the idea of working to a prescribed timeline. “It didn’t make sense to push the process for a deadline,” she says. “The best things take the time they need to take.”
Stepping away from the process, Bulat – who’s been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize three times, and received three JUNO nominations – put her attention on matters closer to the heart, from grieving the death of her father to falling in love. When she turned her attention back to the album, almost a year later, it was with a new vulnerability and rawness.
“No matter what you do, if you’re a songwriter, your life is going to come through your work,” she says. “It would be strange for me if it didn’t.”
The resulting album, Are You In Love?, out March 27, 2020 (the first single, “Your Girl,” came out Feb. 5), sees Bulat working through what she describes as “big emotions” like grief and fear, and also feelings like compassion and forgiveness.
“I think it [all] requires confronting fear,” she says. “Having compassion for yourself and others requires taking a plain look at all the things that may be holding you back from seeing yourself, or others, for who they truly are.”
As a result, she refers to the album as “the advice that I needed to hear,” referencing her 2016 JUNO and Polaris Music Prize-nominated album, Good Advice, and the fact that it was “a record about how I don’t listen to advice.” That album, which received rave international reviews in publications like Paste, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone (Italy/Germany), has since been streamed more than 10 million times.
Though Bulat, who grew up studying piano and guitar, had roughed out many of the songs for the new album in her home city of Montréal, it was a series of trips to Joshua Tree, California, that ultimately cemented the feel of the album.
“It is a place that encourages deep listening to what’s around you, and what’s inside you, inside your soul, and what kind of vibrations are trying to get out,” she says of the desert environment. “Patience is important. You have to harmonize with what’s around you.”
Bulat grew fascinated by the Joshua trees themselves, which take decades to reach maturity, finding a metaphor for her own extended creative process in their incremental annual growth. Hunkering down in the desert with her ideas and producer Jim James (My Morning Jacket), who also produced Good Advice, Bulat started to find a shape for the new album.
“I always think of songs as blueprints.”
Drawing on practices like automatic writing and improvisation, Bulat used the breathing room she’d created for herself to experiment with lyrics and sounds – whether playing things backwards, or challenging herself to find many different ways to express a single idea.
A multi-instrumentalist known for her prowess with the autoharp, Bulat also experimented by working out her melodies on different instruments. But it was the resident Nashville-tuned guitar* at Joshua Tree’s Hi-Dez Studios, where Bulat recorded her album, that most captured her attention. “It really fit with the place we were in,” she says, describing the instrument’s light, airy sound, and its ability to draw a different meaning from her songs.
“I always think of songs as blueprints [for buildings],” she says, describing her musical process. “Then you decide if the house is going to be made of wood, or brick, or stone, and whether it will have big windows or small windows.”
For Bulat, each song, once mapped with that blueprint, will take its own shape, depending on how she’s inspired – most often with lyrics suggesting themselves to melody. It’s also why she likes covering other artists. “I just love how other people draw their blueprints, and I want to live in them for that reason,” she says.
Are You In Love?, which both CBC Music and Exclaim! have included among the most anticipated albums of 2020, also features lyrics by Bulat’s friend Meg Remy (U.S. Girls), and desert field recordings by Bulat’s husband, Andrew Woods, whom she married last year.
But while enthusiasm mounts for the new album, Bulat, who’s shared stages with Sufjan Stevens, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The National, and Arcade Fire, among many others, doesn’t let it phase her.
Even as her team prepares to give Are You In Love? a big push forward, and Bulat herself prepares to embark on an ambitious international tour that will kick off with an appearance at South by Southwest, her focus remains on staying in the moment with her music – no matter what opportunities her career might bring.
“Every single day that I get to be present and play my guitar or sing, it’s just such a gift,” she says. “I have such gratitude that I get to do this.”
* Nashville tuning is when you take the “high” six strings of a 12-string set, and use them on a standard, six-string acoustic guitar.