On the recently released "Tall Tall Shadow," Canadian songstress Basia Bulat branches out slightly from the stripped-down, folk roots of her first two albums. Bulat enchanted a packed Majestic Theatre opening for My Morning Jacket's Jim James earlier this fall, with just her voice and a few instruments. She returns to the Madison area this week as a headliner at the Stoughton Opera House.
Bulat spoke with 77 Square about how she used music to lift herself up during a tragic loss, how this album is a creative stepping stone and how she picked up all those unconventional instruments (Bulat plays the autoharp, pianoette, charango, guitar and piano, if you're keeping score at home).
It seems like you've been on the road non-stop. How's that going?
I’m in Brussels right now. I’m really happy, though. It’s been a long time since I've done a lot of crazy non-stop touring. I wish I had more time to see the cities that I tour.
I think in the U.S. we have much shorter drives, which is very strange because it’s usually the other way around. I’m excited for that — especially coming back to Madison. I played a show there a few months ago, opening for Jim James.
Had you played in Madison before that show?
I did one show at the High Noon Saloon. I think the energy of people is just different, maybe there’s like a similar feeling of people who survive cold winters. It was a snowstorm, and I thought for sure people weren't going to show up. But the place was full, and the energy was great, and then I remembered, we're all people of the winter.
When you opened for Jim James it seemed like the audience was really connecting and interacting with you a lot. Is it like that every time?
Well, it's not like that every time. That show was pretty special, and it was pretty fun. I’ve done a lot of supporting spots in the past couple of years. When you walk onstage by yourself, people don’t know what to expect. And I don’t make any expectations or judgments. You don’t want to ruin the element of surprise.
What's different about touring as the headliner rather than as a supporting artist?
With the band, it’s a lot louder. It feels like I’m fronting a rock show or something. It’s really nice to have other voices backing me up. Three feels like a lot compared to one. And they’re keeping me on my toes because they’re better players than I am.
This time around, there’s so many different sounds, and there’s so much happening in the sonic world of the sounds. It's not exactly what's happening on the record, but to be able to live in the same world on stage is pretty fun.
What inspired this album?
It’s coming from a time in my life where I was trying to find a way to — I kind of wrote all these songs after a very dear friend of mine passed away, and I was trying to find a way to be honest about the way I was feeling, but also be hopeful. I was listening to a lot of old R&B and soul recordings. I really love a lot of that music and find it really inspiring. The people singing are singing about dark things, but it’s really uplifting. Even if the lyrics are dark, if the song is sad or painful — it’s still something that's looking toward the light and trying to make something beautiful — trying to lift everybody up in the process of singing it.
What is the song "Tall Tall Shadow" about?
Everything is kind of coming from my life. Hopefully it can kind of open up into many different levels, and other people can see themselves within.
"Tall Tall Shadow" — how do I explain this without limiting it for someone? It’s realizing that we all have these things that we live with, these shadows, different parts of us that make us who we are. It’s hard, and it’s also, it can be beautiful if you can accept yourself.
It’s about a lot of things. I’m so horrible at explaining myself, that I end up writing songs. The only way that I can express myself is by writing songs.
When did you start doing that — processing things by writing?
I’ve been writing stuff since I was little. I've been playing piano since I was three, and I guess I really started writing when I was a teenager.
When you put so much of yourself into your music and play it for people every night, is it a cathartic experience? Is is ever emotionally draining?
It’s interesting, because you don’t know how people are going to react. Different people react to different types of songs. I think I was trying to write something that would lift me up — so in a way, even though it is personal, if I think about it too much it gets hard. I think I wrote the songs to lift me up. It becomes different things on different nights.
Do you play any new instruments on this album?
I play a bunch — the keyboards, the guitars, the charango, the autoharp. I was lucky that my friends that I worked with on the album are multitaskers. I’m always switching stuff just to see what might happen.
How'd you pick up some of those more unconventional instruments?
It’s funny, because certain instruments may seem obscure, but depending on what part of the world you're in, they won’t be at all. In South America, the charango is a fairly well-known instrument in Bolivia and Peru. I don’t really see them as weird.
The autoharp, a neighbor was selling one at a garage sale. The charango … I fell in love with the instrument, it was just so beautiful — really capable of a lot of range and depth. I think it’s important to learn the history behind it and the cultural context, to find things that inspire me.
How has your music evolved over your three albums?
I think I had an unconventional upbringing, the way I started making records. I loved, and still love, archival recordings and folk recordings. I wanted to record my first and second record in that style, on analog tape, on a bunch of microphones. I still did that on this record, but it’s kind of a mix of analog and digital. I tried to use the studio as an instrument and see what might happen if I gave myself permission to play around with that idea. I think the kind of stories that are on this record needed a more modern arrangement.
Right now, I feel like a bunch of doors have been opened for me, in my mind. I feel like now, it feels like a stepping stone, in a way. I’m hoping I can get into the studio in January and start recording more.