I’ve been to Basia Bulat’s shows twice.
The one in 2010 stuck with me because of the number of instruments the singer and her band could play: each person averaged about three. They kept switching from one to another, and there were some instruments that neither I nor anyone around me had ever seen.
The second show I attended was in October 2013. This time, I was impressed by Bulat herself. She wore a funky outfit with a red top that had golden-coloured shoulder pads. Her hair was long, with smoothly styled bangs. Her songs told stories of love, loss and deep emotion. I looked around and saw that many people had tears in their eyes but also a big smile on their face.
To give you some background, Bulat is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Toronto. She has produced three albums and has been nominated for two Juno Awards, as well as shortlisted for a Polaris Prize. She has also collaborated with Owen Pallett, who created orchestral arrangements of a selection of her songs that have been performed by many Canadian orchestras.
Fast forward to December 2013, when Bulat and I meet for coffee and a chat. Having already seen her shows and liked them, I am concerned about being too subjective during the interview. When we meet, I realize that Bulat is humble and shorter than me (we joke about the fact that I always have to physically look up at her on the raised stages). The conversation unfolds. Here is the verbatim version.
HANNAH YAKOBI: So, I’m going to start off by telling you that I’ve been to two of your shows.
BASIA BULAT: Really? Oh my Gosh, where?
The first was about three years ago and I was still relatively new to Toronto, so I don’t even remember where it was. And then the other one was more recently at the Polish Combatants Hall. It was a weekend of three shows.
Oh that’s awesome, that was fun. Those were a fun couple of shows, they were all really different. Each night had its own ‘personality’ and that’s another example about what I always say to myself. I always think about live performances: that it’s not just what I’m doing on stage, it’s so dependent on the crowd. We had the same stage, the same people on the stage, same songs, and then the people [in the audience] changed the energy of the show every night, just depending on how they were feeling. Each night was really special just because of it: it was cool. It was interesting.
I was reading some of your past interviews and I remember this quote where you said: ‘I’m really not a professional interviewee.’ I thought that was funny.
Yeah, it’s funny because, you know, three years went by between Heart of My Own and this [album]. And people are responding to this [album] in a way that I didn’t anticipate. It feels like everywhere people have lots of questions, which is really exciting and really scary. Because I write songs, but I don’t give lectures or speeches. So just finding ways to be confident about what I’m saying is a whole other skill set. Though that’s not to say I don’t know what I’m talking about. (laughs)
You’re pretty eloquent. But your current album is different in many ways; I also read that there was a wider variety of instruments used, and that a lot of this album is very emotional. It’s very personal.
For you, personally, how do you think this album is different from the work you’ve done before?
I’ve always written about things I cared about, but for this album I wrote all the songs but one. It was after one of my closest friends, who I had grown up with, passed away: she was very young, it was very sudden, and it broke my heart.
Was this recently? A couple of years ago?
Yeah. I was writing really for myself and for her, and for all of our friends and families. When I was writing it, I wasn’t being very aware of what was happening. Only in the recording process did I realize: ‘Oh, this is what this album is about.’ I was really interested in the folk music and folk tradition, but certain elements of folk music didn’t really apply anymore because it was such an extremely personal story.
Do you think that music can be therapeutic?
Yes, of course, I listen to music to make me feel better.
Do you write to make yourself feel better?
I don’t know if that’s what happens.
But after you sing it, is there an element that makes you feel that way?
I mean there is, but I think playing music with other people is a really uplifting thing. We bring music with us everywhere in our lives for many different reasons and one of them is to help yourself get through something. Some people paint to do that and some people write to do that. You just can’t explain where that drive is coming from; it just happens and you just do it.
You mentioned your band. Is your brother still a part of it?
Yeah, he plays from time to time. He also works in the film and television industry.
What’s his name?
His name is Bobby. Bobby Bulat. And he is my only brother, my younger brother.
What is the age difference?
Three years. He works on a show called Orphan Black, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it? It’s an amazing show. It’s filmed in Toronto and I’m really excited for him, so we haven’t been touring together for this record. He did the Toronto shows and I think we’re going to try to do some [more work] together when his show is finished filming. We will do some gigs together next year but it’s been interesting to play: I mean I’ve made all my recordings with him and I’ll probably always record with him because he ‘gets’ the songs before I get it.
Do you ever argue?
Of course! Oh my God, our whole lives we’ve spent loving the same music and arguing about it. That’s the best part about it – any sibling relationship, I mean any relationship, doesn’t make sense if you never fight. I’m pretty lucky though that he’s a good drummer. He did the Toronto shows and that was really fun, but I’m also really excited for him – he has this whole other creative outlet that he loves and gets to pursue right now.
Tell me a little bit more about your other band members. I heard they keep changing?
Oh yeah, it’s changing all the time and sometimes it depends on what city we’re playing in. They’re all really good, I’m really lucky.
Is it mostly friends or family members? People you know?
It’s always friends, yeah. I think with most people, if they start playing with each other, they couldn’t travel around for months on end without becoming friends. If you don’t become friends, then you can’t play together anymore.
What about your opening acts?
For the Toronto shows, I definitely choose all the acts. It really depends on where I’m playing and on the situation. So when I get to pick, it’s really exciting. And, likewise, for when I get to open for friends. I mean, my first tour was opening across Canada for Owen Pallett – he’s a dear friend and an amazing inspiration to me. I was so lucky to be able to do that for him. You know, I learned a lot. I didn’t know anything when I started.
You are considered to be a folk singer but you also really connect with your Polish roots. How does that play a role in your work? Do you consider yourself to be Canadian, or a mix?
I’m definitely Canadian. I was born in Toronto, but my parents were born in Poland. I’m first generation, and that’s why I say I’m Canadian because I think my experience is so typical of the first generation Canadian person. I didn’t go to Poland until I was 18, but I still felt it was very much a part of me. At the same time, I didn’t grow up with it in the same way. I love that I get to go there more often now.
Do you speak Polish?
I do, but my Polish is bad, I need to practice. Polish is one of the hardest languages; it’s so unfair that my Polish is so bad, it’s not right!
Is that the only language you speak apart from English?
No, I [also] speak Spanish and French. It’s bad that I think my Spanish and French are better than my Polish. Yeah, my Spanish is probably the best.
Why did you learn them?
I took them in school; I’ve always been very interested in languages.
I studied English, Spanish and French literature at Western University. I think that’s why I’m interested in song-writing because it’s another way to communicate.
Would you ever consider writing and preforming songs in a different language?
Oh, definitely. I’ve been working on a Polish album for years now and it is coming along so slowly, but I realize that I need to co-write it with someone. There is someone I have in mind, he knows who he is, and we’re going to finish this record. I have the album art for it already.
Is he here in Toronto?
No, he’s a rock n’ roller in Poland. I have the album title in my head, the album cover and everything. I know exactly what the record is going to be. But we will see what happens.
So speaking of languages, you finished your U.S. tour and Canadian tour, and you have a European tour lined up for the first few months in 2014.
Yeah, I’m really excited to do a full tour of Spain [too].
How receptive are people to your music in other countries?
It’s pretty good. I mean, I’m not playing to 20,000 people or anything, but it’s been really inspiring. I hope that what I’m doing gets across.
I’m [especially] excited about Spain – there is just something about being there. I always really connect to their people and culture, and I’ve made some really good friends there. My Spanish always gets better when I’m there too. And I have recorded a song in Spanish that will come out in 2014.
Among other things, you recently participated in Hockey Night in Canada.
It all happened really quickly. I didn’t know until like the week of. ‘Oh can we use your song?’ ‘Um, sure.’
How did you feel about it?
I didn’t get to see it! I was in L.A., on tour, and I didn’t get to see it until afterwards. But it was fun. It feels like a Canadian milestone. I’ve done the national anthem at a hockey game and now they have my song, all what’s left is they have to let me play the game. (laughs)
When did you sing the national anthem?
I did the National Anthem in 2011. It was in Ottawa, at the Ottawa Sens game versus the Vancouver Canucks. It was very Canadian.
I guess all that’s left is I would love to sing at a baseball game, or throw the first pitch or something. But I’m really not sporty at all. I want to say I’m sporty but I’m not – that would be a total lie.
So were you excited when the Hockey Night in Canada moment happened? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it?
I didn’t. I’m pretty shy about that stuff, I mean I love being on stage but, generally, I won’t be like, ‘Guess what I’m doing.’ I don’t know, maybe I should be more…
Yeah, but I had more text messages and e-mails [about] Hockey Night in Canada than I have had in a long time.
Have you been counting the number of shows and concerts you have done to-date?
I think we did something close to around 90 in 2013. I think in 2014 it will be closer to 200, we’ve already got the first six months all planned.
Do you have a routine or prep you do before the show?
I think the biggest thing I’ve gotten into recently is finding time to just breathe and be peaceful.
What do you do for breathing?
A little bit of meditation or something like that, you know? I have a bunch of meditations that I like to listen to or do yoga. A lot of musicians I know will do yoga in-between their sound checks, it kind of gets you grounded. Just finding a way to quiet my mind before I go on stage is really helpful. Even for five minutes – it will really make the difference.
What do you think would be an ideal show?
Oh my Gosh, I mean, I don’t know. Obviously, the dream show for me is to be able to play Massey Hall. Everyone here wants to play Massey Hall for a reason: it’s a beautiful hall and that’s somewhere I’ve always dreamed of playing. I don’t know if it would be ideal, ideal is such a loaded word. But if I could, one day, make it to Massey, I’d be a happy girl.
What about your hobbies? You said your brother does film, so do you do music full-time? Or do you do other things?
Yeah, this is what I do. I also write short fiction, it’s not very good. One day, I’ll get there. But I can’t help it – I love writing.
What’s the latest thing you’ve written?
It’s hard to describe. I’ve never published anything, almost nobody reads these stories. I’m letting you in on a secret, I should have never said that.
That’s okay, I like secrets! Last question: tell me about your style. What is your general fashion esthetic?
It’s definitely changed over the years.
I’ve noticed from a show I saw a couple of years ago that your hair is very different.
Yeah, definitely. You hope that you will always be growing and changing. I definitely still really love vintage silhouettes and throwback make-up, but my actual obsession right now is monochrome. I think I just end up looking for things I know I’ll feel good in, whether onstage or offstage. I think, at this point as well, I’m playing a lot of instruments, so it has to be something I could move around in and not feel confined by.
My friend is a designer and stylist who made the top I’m wearing today. Her name is Caroline McAllister. She does a lot of costume design for stage and theater. She’s in Los Angeles. She’s done music videos and she does really beautiful work. I really love being able to visit her, hang out and brainstorm [together].
Is there anything else you want to add?
Um, Gosh, I’m new to twitter, people can come find me on Twitter!
A special thank you to The Beaver for offering the venue for this photoshoot. The Beaver offers quality comfort food in a laid-back café atmosphere inspired by late-night dining in New York City. It also happens to be what The Toronto Star has deemed “an alt-culture oasis” for the city’s arts and music communities at night and it was recently named the best gay bar in Toronto by blogTO. Formerly an art gallery, Lynn McNeill and his then business partner Will Munro took over the space in 2006. They were ahead of the wave that has transformed Parkdale into a hub of dining and nightlife.