BA­SIA BU­LAT gives her­self good ad­vice

Exclaim! - - FRONT PAGE - LI­ISA LADOUCEUR by

There are days you re­al­ize love is not enough, IS NOT FOR­EVER. THERE ARE DAYS YOU PACK UP YOUR THINGS AND CHANGE CITIES. THERE, YOU WRITE SONGS.

Those songs give good ad­vice. Soon you find your­self be­hind the wheel of a large au­to­mo­bile, Mon­treal and heart­break in your rearview mir­ror. And as Ohio opens into Ken­tucky, the fu­ture is all green. You crank the Ste­vie Nicks and re­al­ize you have no more need to won­der where you are go­ing, be­cause you are al­ready there.

In the sum­mer of 2014, Cana­dian singer-song­writer Ba­sia Bu­lat pulled up in her mother’s car out­side La La Land Stu­dio in Louisville, Ken­tucky. To the pub­lic, she was on a roll, still pro­mot­ing her third record, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed, Po­laris Mu­sic Prize- and Juno Award-nom­i­nated Tall Tall Shadow. She was a few weeks away from head­lin­ing Toronto’s his­toric Massey Hall. Life was good.

What the pub­lic didn’t know, couldn’t have known, is that Bu­lat had come to Louisville that day to record a breakup record, full of songs about lies and ghosts and long good­byes. They weren’t all sad songs — that was im­por­tant — but they were all very per­sonal, raw ex­pres­sions of a dif­fi­cult year in her life. And she was about to share them with a team of near-strangers, far from home.

“The one thing I knew about this al­bum is that I didn’t want to make some­thing with­out the feel­ing of risk,” Bu­lat says from her home in Mon­treal. “Go­ing some­where I’ve never recorded be­fore and singing in­tensely per­sonal songs to peo­ple I didn’t know very well, I was in a very vul­ner­a­ble place. I felt very pro­tec­tive. But I wanted to make this record. You can’t make any­thing good if you’re safe. You might em­bar­rass your­self, but the re­wards are huge.”

In the room that day: Jim James of My Morn­ing Jacket, the al­bum’s pro­ducer, who also played bass and gui­tar; David Gi­van on drums; and en­gi­neer Kevin Rat­ter­man. Bu­lat walked in and started singing a song called “Time,” a qui­etly pow­er­ful bal­lad about wait­ing for a phone call that may never come.

“We just went in and started play­ing. Once I started singing, I don’t know… There are cer­tain times when you’re singing [and] you don’t know you’re singing, you for­get. It’s like ath­letes not re­mem­ber­ing a great game. We just had a great take. Then we started work­ing on ‘In­fa­mous.’ I re­mem­ber I walked out from the vo­cal booth and ev­ery­body was in tears. I think ev­ery­one was sur­prised by the en­ergy. They seemed to re­ally feel what I was try­ing to say. It was dis­arm­ing. For me and for them.”

Those songs, and those first takes in fact, ap­pear on the fi­nal prod­uct, Good Ad­vice. Her fourth stu­dio al­bum, it’s the lat­est step in Bu­lat’s evo­lu­tion from in­die-folk singer to alt-pop chanteuse. When she first emerged in 2005 with a self-ti­tled in­die EP, it was easy to slot her as a new Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie. (This is Canada, af­ter all, where that search is a na­tional pas­time.) And in ad­di­tion to be­ing a singer-song­writer-gui­tarist, Bu­lat of­ten ap­peared play­ing au­to­harp, an in­stru­ment more com­monly heard in blue­grass and ’60s folk and pop. (Some head­lines de­clared that she’d made the au­to­harp “cool” again, which she finds hi­lar­i­ous. “In­stru­ments can be cool or not cool now?”)

But over her ten-year ca­reer, Bu­lat has ex­panded her emo­tional and mu­si­cal pal­ette. She’s bro­ken out of the folk fes­ti­val cir­cuit to tour with St. Vin­cent, Ar­cade Fire, the Na­tional and Nick Cave. Her sweet vi­brato now res­onates with more soul; her acous­tic songs ring out with more in­stru­men­tal com­plex­ity and colour. By 2013’s Tall Tall Shadow, a more son­i­cally di­verse, elec­tric record, Ba­sia Bu­lat was her own na­tional trea­sure, no longer “the next” any­one.

Tall Tall Shadow was also a record about loss — the death of a dear friend. Bu­lat doesn’t like dis­cussing the de­tails, but re­veals that fan re­ac­tions to the most heartwrench­ing songs on the last al­bum helped shape the ap­proach to Good Ad­vice.

“Th­ese two records are about very dif­fer­ent kinds of loss,” she says. “The rea­son I don’t like to say too much be­yond the lyrics is that it’s not all just my story, you know? The hard­est songs to sing are the ones that peo­ple come up to me af­ter shows, and I know they re­ally feel some­thing from it. So I don’t want to paint too strong a pic­ture.

“I think the com­mon thread is that I’m try­ing to find beauty in what was there,” she con­tin­ues, “hav­ing re­ally learned that a lot of peo­ple go through what I’m go­ing through, all the time, and that we have to keep go­ing. I don’t know. It’s hard to ex­plain… I think that’s why I write songs, and I’m not a very good in­ter­view sub­ject.”

The road to Good Ad­vice be­gan in early 2014, when Bu­lat de­camped from Toronto to Mon­treal to write. “It’s a good city to mend a bro­ken heart,” she says. The singer, now 31, grew up in Eto­bi­coke, a Toronto sub­urb, and lived in Lon­don, ON while at­tend­ing the Univer­sity of Western On­tario, but also has a long, in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with Mon­treal. It’s home to her cur­rent la­bel, Se­cret City, and it’s where she’s recorded most of­ten, start­ing with 2007’s full-length de­but Oh, My Dar­ling. She calls the move in­evitable, like be­ing the new kid in school, but sur­rounded by old friends.

But when it came time to put th­ese new songs to tape, she had some­where else to be.

Bu­lat has long been a fan of My Morn­ing Jacket, and first met Jim James sev­eral years ago back­stage at Austin City Lim­its, where she ap­proached him with a copy of her se­cond record, 2010’s Heart of My Own. She opened some shows for him, and in 2013, James in­vited her to play cha­rango (a small South Amer­i­can stringed in­stru­ment) on a ses­sion for Lost on the River, the Bob Dy­lan Base­ment Tapes pro­ject. (That par­tic­u­lar per­for­mance has yet to be re­leased.)

“I al­ways imag­ined he’d be a good per­son to work with, but that’s when I re­al­ized we could,” she re­calls. “We have a lot of mu­sic in com­mon. And we’re both the type of per­son who’d be will­ing to go up in a space­ship on last-minute no­tice.”

When she en­listed James as a pro­ducer, Bu­lat had just one in­struc­tion: Help her do some­thing new.

“I’ve al­ways seen my­self in a long tra­di­tion of the trou­ba­dour, play­ing gui­tar and singing, one of many through­out time,” ex­plains Bu­lat. “I love the folk tra­di­tion, and gospel and soul. And I liked ap­ply­ing the doc­u­men­tary ap­proach to record­ing. But I have such a strong urge to keep chang­ing, and not make the same record again and again. This time, I wanted to use the stu­dio as an in­stru­ment, to look at sound in a dif­fer­ent way. In the end, in or­der to move for­ward, I had to go back.”

She means re-ac­quaint­ing her­self with her first mu­si­cal love: the pi­ano. Long be­fore she be­came known for play­ing gui­tar, au­to­harp and cha­rango, Bu­lat was the daugh­ter of a pi­ano teacher, and took her first lessons at age three. Her first in­stru­ment was a Ca­sio key­board, which she would “play” on long road trips with her mother from Toronto down to Wind­sor, ON.

“Four hours of me mash­ing my hands into the keys, mak­ing stuff up. My poor mom — it was end­less!” she re­calls, laugh­ing.

At La La Land, they set up what Bu­lat calls “key­board world,” a horse­shoe-shaped bank of in­stru­ments in which she could in­dulge. On “Time” alone, she’s cred­ited with play­ing pi­ano, syn­the­sizer, a 1970s RMI elec­tra-pi­ano, Marx­o­phone (a type of zither), Mel­lotron and a vin­tage Ham­mond No­va­chord (recorded later in Cal­gary). Keys are the first thing you hear on lead track “La La Lie,” and take a star­ring role in var­i­ous forms through­out the record, like on the fu­ture pop of “Let Me In” and the ’50s girl-group-style sin­gle “Fool.” Asked about the vibe in the stu­dio, Bu­lat de­scribes it as weird, won­der­ful and fun.

“I’ve found my mu­sic gets brighter and brighter over time,” she says. “I think my ear­lier stuff, I was in­ter­ested in talk­ing in a cer­tain colour pal­ette. I think be­cause I’m more aware of all sides of ev­ery­thing ev­ery day, all colours are present, so I want to have them all in my mu­sic, all the time.”

The wall-of-sound pro­duc­tion style is some­thing we’ve not quite heard from Ba­sia be­fore, but fans of her ear­lier records will not be lost here. Good Ad­vice is first and fore­most a show­case for stand-out singing, both from Bu­lat and her sup­port­ing cast. Here, her vo­cals are both co­cooned and buoyed by backup singers en­listed in Louisville: Lacey Guthrie, Katie Toupin, MaryLiz Ben­der, Sarah Teeple and Cher Von.

“It was very im­por­tant to pre­serve the fem­i­nine vo­cals on the al­bum,” ex­plains Bu­lat. “I’ve al­ways had that as an an­chor, the fe­male har­monies, and I didn’t want to lose it.”

In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing their tal­ents, the lo­cal singers be­came fast friends, bond­ing dur­ing din­ner breaks over mu­sic and their own life sto­ries. It was just the lat­est in a line of women whose sup­port made Good Ad­vice a re­al­ity.

“I re­lied on a lot of women dur­ing the breakup,” Bu­lat of­fers. “It’s part of what the ti­tle Good Ad­vice is about. I’m not fond of mak­ing grand state­ments, but I think the realm of the fem­i­nine — things like writ­ing let­ters, and gos­sip, can be just as pow­er­ful, and have as much depth as, say, an epic poem, or his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that can be as­so­ci­ated more with mas­culin­ity. Gos­sip is a pe­jo­ra­tive word, but the cul­ture of ad­vice, it should be cel­e­brated.”

More than a year af­ter com­plet­ing the record­ing and mix­ing, Ba­sia Bu­lat is pre­pared to share her lat­est work with the pub­lic. She’s keep­ing busy teach­ing her­self Pro­Tools and re­hears­ing for a big ben­e­fit con­cert for Ti­bet House at Carnegie Hall along­side Philip Glass. Oth­er­wise, she’s not think­ing too much about how the pub­lic will re­late to her cur­rent sound.

“When I made my first record, I didn’t even imag­ine I’d re­lease it,” she says, “never mind make a life out of mu­sic. There are so many things you can’t con­trol, so I’ve never thought about the out­come. The goal is the mu­sic. You just do the work.”

And the sto­ries? And her heart? Did putting pen to pa­per and hands on strings help get over the breakup? Is Good Ad­vice its own good ad­vice?

“Do you know that book, The Prophet?,” she asks. “[Kahlil Gi­bran] says your joy is your sor­row un­masked. I be­lieve that both sides are al­ways with you. I was try­ing to write to my­self, to get through to that other side. I needed to go un­til I found a way to ex­press that, the full spec­trum, that I be­lieved my­self. It’s hard to do in a three-minute com­po­si­tion. I hope I got it all in there!”

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