Darkness and light are key sonic, lyrical and visual components of Basia Bulat’s new album, Tall Tall Shadow. There’s the striking black-and-white imagery of the CD cover, the imaginatively contrasting musical shadings, and the soul-searching lyrics reflecting on recent loss.
The result is a compelling third full-length album from the Toronto-based singer-songwriter, one being warmly embraced right out of the starting gate by both her loyal – and growing – international fan base and the critics. At press time, noted British newspaper The Independent had just named “Tall Tall Shadow” one of their Three Songs of the Week. “I’m there with Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen songs,” says Bulat. “I could do a lot worse!”
Tall Tall Shadow showcases Bulat’s transition from folk music to a more textured and contemporary sound. “I have changed, my life has changed, so I think it’s a natural progression in terms of the sounds and the production,” she says. “This record is less directly rooted in roots music. I still feel like I’m coming from that tradition, but it is definitely pushing that boundary.”
Assisting this evolution were her co-producers, Grammy Award-winning engineer Mark Lawson (The Suburbs, Colin Stetson) and Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury. “I think the focus between the three of us was, ‘What is the best way to tell the story in this song?’” Bulat explains. “We tried many different ways of arranging different songs. Sometimes that was with a full band, or sometimes just one instrument and the vocal.”
The songs on the album range from the full-blooded feel of the title track and “Never Let Me Go” to the sparse setting of “It Can’t Be You” (vocals and charango only) and “Paris or Amsterdam” (voice and keyboards only).
“I wanted to see what happened if I started writing from a really uncensored or direct place.”
Bulat’s songwriting also took a different turn this time. “I had a whole bunch of songs written, but I scrapped them after many changes in my life,” she says. “I was going through a period of loss, and they were just not feeling right to me. I just wanted something very intuitive. I wanted to see what happened if I started writing from a really uncensored or direct place.”
Via an early deal with famed U.K. label Rough Trade, Bulat quickly gained a European following, while a Polaris Prize shortlist nod (for 2007’s Oh, My Darling) and JUNO Award nomination (for 2010’s Heart of My Own) helped spread the word domestically.
Bulat is proud of her Polish heritage (she chose the Polish Combatants Association Hall in Toronto as the venue for a three-night stand in October), and she cites performances in that country as a career highlight. “That is awesome,” she says. “So much fun! They’re so patient there with my terrible Polish. I have been slowly trying to work on an album in Polish, too.”
Her love of music, and talent for it, has deep family roots. “My mom played classical music and taught classical piano and guitar,” she says. “My grandmother always sang Polish carols and songs, and she and my great uncle had perfect harmony when they sang together.”
Basia’s brother, Bobby Bulat, is a skilled drummer who has long been part of her band, while her mother was always supportive of their passion for music. “My mother always got it,” she says. “She was the one figuring out how to get tickets to punk rock shows for Bobby!”
Bulat began playing piano at three, and honed her vocal and musical talents at school. “I sang in the school choir and was in youth orchestra and youth band,” she recalls. Later studies in English literature and writing at the University of Western Ontario in London also had an impact.
And her skill as a multi-instrumentalist is now put to good use. At her recent Toronto concerts, Bulat played piano, keyboards, autoharp and dulcimer, as well as guitar. She jokingly told the audience, “I used to be a real folkie, then I got all these guitar pedals I don’t know how to use.”
Publisher: Secret City Publishing/Ptak Music
Discography: Basia Bulat (EP, 2005), Oh, My Darling (2007), Heart of My Own (2010), Tall Tall Shadow (2013)
SOCAN Member since 2008