Toronto singer-songwriter Basia Bulat, who will be playing this week at SXSW in Austin, dropped by The Alternate Side not long ago to chat with Alisa Ali and perform three songs from her new album Heart of My Own, out now on Rough Trade.
Alisa Ali: I heard that "Gold Rush" was inspired by Dawson City in the Yukon?
Basia Bulat: Yes, actually it's a town of about 1200 people in the Yukon, up in the north of Canada. As a Canadian I think a lot of people in Canada feel this way - there's a bit of a romanticizing about the north. And I certainly romanticize it for myself. At the same time a lot of things that have happened up there have been really ... the history of the gold rush itself. There was a lot of excitement but there was also a lot of destruction. And that song in particular, what I wanted to get across was how your imagination is a very powerful thing in a constructive as well as destructive way. I wrote that song long before I made it up to Dawson City, but once I actually played up there it was kind of crazy.
Alisa: I heard there was a mosh pit at that show?
Basia: (laughs) Yeah, my only ever mosh pit at any of my shows happened there. It's a really interesting place. There's a lot of amazing people and also a lot of great characters that live up there. I really loved it when I was there. I keep hoping I'll get to go back.
Alisa: How long did you spend there?
Basia: Just over a week actually. Just because of the opportunity to get up there, the maximizing of time was really important to me in that instance. Much of the album artwork is from the Yukon. I was just really inspired by the place long before I ever made it up there, but once I was up there, everything sort of made sense. Sometimes you don't know how much you're living in your imagination and how much is real. And I think a lot of the songs on the record are kind of about that. It made sense for photos from my time up there to be part of the album artwork. It was totally different from what I thought it would be but in a very positive way.
Alisa: How was it different?
Basia: I didn't expect it to be what it was. But at the same time it was so amazing because it was coming at a time when I was so exhausted. And maybe I didn't know what to expect. But we had these amazing hosts who treated us like family. Really generous, incredible people and it changed my whole life in some ways. I've always thought of myself as an optimist. I think the one thing is that I'm more of a city slicker than I think I allowed myself in my imagination. I was forgiven for it, which was great!
Alisa: Heart of My Own is your second record, but does it feel like your first record in a way? I heard that when you did your first record [Oh, My Darling], you didn't intend on making a record. It was a way for you to document this time playing with your friends.
Basia: Yeah. I definitely think this is the first time I've spent a lot of time on a recording. I spent a lot more time on this record than I did on the first one, even in terms of financial reasons. It's a very expensive thing. But knowing that I had a little bit more time to take with this record, I really tried to. But this is the only time I'll get to make a second record (laughs).
Alisa: But what a unique experience with that first record!
Basia: Well I basically had just been writing songs. I was attending university in Ontario at a place called Western, very similar to walking into [the Fordham University campus], this building. It looks so much like the campus where I went to school! I used to volunteer at the campus radio station where I had a show there for four years. A friend of mine at the station challenged me to open for a songwriter named Julie Doiron whose very popular in Canada and I had been all talk in terms of being a musician or playing my own songs but he said, you have two weeks to come up with some songs and you can open [for her]. And your name's on the poster so you don't have any choice. From there I really realized that I really enjoy writing my own songs. I'd played music my whole life; I'd played piano, guitar, in all sorts of orchestras, stage band, and choir. But I really enjoyed doing my own music as well. The story goes that I used some of my student loan money to make a record (laughs). And there we are! I don't regret it one bit.
Alisa: You've been playing the piano your whole life. Your mom was a piano teacher?
Basia: I started off early, around the age of three. But I didn't have the discipline to be a classical musician. Certainly not a classical pianist. But it's great to have a little of that for pop songs. The autoharp I also picked up because of my mother. She knew I loved the Carter Family and the original Carter Family as well and I was a big fan of Maybelle Carter and a lot of old folk and country music. So when one of our neighbors was selling theirs, she picked it up for me. I've taken a shine to it, I guess. I have quite a few autoharps at home. I've really fallen in love with the instrument and kind of collect them. I also play the guitar, saxophone, ukulele, bass. It's funny, on the album there's some songs where I'm not playing so many instruments and on other songs I'm almost playing everything on the songs.
Alisa: You are very inclined to playing instruments!
Basia: At least right now it feels really intuitive. Like a song like "Gold Rush" on the recording ... stripped down it's fun, but on the recording, it needed to feel like a mess and that there was every possible instrument crammed in there because it needed to feel like the gold rush. Which is a wild and crazy time. I think every song ... you have an intuitive feel for what it needs. At least on the recording and it's great to let them change and grow as you live with them longer and take them out on the road.
Alisa: What is so charming about particular instruments, or a particular quality [you like]?
Basia: With the autoharp, what I really love about it is [that] it's an older instrument, it was made in the States in the late 1800s. It's not such a novelty as many people think. It's got a little bit of a magical quality to it, but it's really hardscrabble at the same time. It's got this washboard thing going on and it's really almost an instrument of the people. It was made that way, for people who didn't have a lot of musical training or money for a piano or an organ. It's really meant as almost a leveler. Because I think that anyone can make music or sing. It's a very democratic kind of instrument! I really think that idea of 'what is good singing' is really subjective. I think that Neil Young is one of the greatest singers in the world and some people might disagree - same with Bob Dylan - but I love them.
It makes me sad sometimes to think that people see a disconnect. That music is something done by other people who are professional or trained and yes, there are people who dedicate their lives. I've spent my whole life singing and playing music but that doesn't mean that I also don't do other things and somebody who spent their whole life studying biology shouldn't sing. There's this great saying: "If can you walk, you can dance, if can you talk, you can sing." Because so much of my interest stems from earlier folk music - and folk music is just people singing - look at all of those amazing archival recordings, like the Goodbye, Babylon compilation, or any of the Harry Smith anthologies. There's something really beautiful about something being immediate and spontaneous.
Alisa: Do you get a lot of audience participation in your live shows?
Basia: Yes! It's great when people sing along or clap along. It's really wonderful and I think that's why people enjoy music because there is a community there. A real communal aspect which is what draws me to it as well.
Basia: ["Heart of My Own" is] a song that I wrote on my first ever tour. On the recording I really wanted a steady, constant beat, just the kick drum and nothing else. No snare, no floor tom, no rack tom, nothing. Just really simple. And it had to be loud. And I think [my brother Bobby, the drummer] was frustrated at first because he thought it was crazy. [He] was just going to be so bored just playing this kick drum considering the other things he could do with the song, but it turned out I was right. Though he did add a shaker. But that was my favorite aspect of the song - just struggling with him for ages about the kick drum. The simplest song on the record.
Basia Bulat's SXSW schedule:
Wednesday, March 17:
Paste Magazine Party @ 12:00 pm, Galaxy Room, 507 E. 6th St
Rough Trade SXSW Showcase @ 10:00 pm, Emo’s Jr, 603 Red River
Thursday, March 18:
Pop Montreal Presents @ 2.30 pm, Lovejoys, 604 Neches St
Friday, March 19:
Billions Showcase @ 10.00 pm, Antone’s, 213 W. 5th St