In a van outside of Carborro, North Carolina, Basia Bulat hears her words coming out fast and loud, an effect of over-caffienation and wavering cellphone reception.
If the Toronto-based singer-songwriter seems edgy at all, it would make sense. Along with fielding questions related to her musical offerings, she has become somewhat of an unofficial commentator on her hometown’s now notorious political landscape across borders.
“People are asking all sorts of crazy things. They’re curious,” she says, punctuated by a string of laughter. “But I just don’t know. I’m not there.”
Since the beginning of October, Polaris Prize nominated Bulat has been taking her latest musical offering, Tall, Tall Shadow, a deeply personal and more electronically-informed, disc on the road. The third record to date for the 29-year-old is a departure from her first two indie-folk albums, which were recorded in the fully analog Hotel 2 Tango studio in Montreal. Tall, Tall Shadow was produced by Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury, along with Mark Lawson and captures Bulat’s newfound fascination with a more plugged-in sound, of synths alongside her electric autoharp.
“I’ve never really been attracted to synths and electronic music in the way that I am now, so that’s been really exciting, learning this whole other language.”
And then there’s the Andean charango.
“I’m not very good at playing it the traditional way, but the people who are, the traditional players have given me their blessing,” said Bulat of the instrument she first came across while in residency at the Banff Centre in 2009.
Bulat, classically trained in piano and known for her use of the autoharp, took time away from piano before returning to write at the keyboard as an adult.
“I never felt confident in my piano playing and now I’m playing two keyboards at once, live, which is really exciting and scary. I feel like now, I’m really back in it. That’s what’s neat about all these synthesizers. In a way it’s new, but it also feels very familiar.”
Charango, a stringed instrument in the lute family, is not as loaded with history for Bulat – yet scary in a different way, for the lack of classical education with the instrument and desire to create something new in her own way.
“I hope I’m not offending professionals and traditional charango players because there is a real traditional method and there is a real traditional and canon of music. … It is a bit difficult in Toronto to find a charango teacher – and I’ve looked. My YouTube history is full of charango videos.”
From a colourful palette, Tall, Tall Shadow paints the image of a difficult time in Bulat’s life following the passing of friend just two months prior to when she was slated to enter the studio. She scrapped the original songs and rewrote the record.
“When I look back at it now, it was about trying to reach out in a certain way and trying to lift myself up. It’s about me. I can only write from my own experience, but I was hoping that the people I was thinking about when I wrote it would like it. I was really making it with the hope that certain people would hear it. That’s already been done for me. Everything else on top of that is wonderful.”
Tall, Tall Shadow is about joy and heartbreak and ultimately, looking forward towards the light.
“I try to limit saying what the songs are about, because I want to give people the space of feeling what they feel for the songs,” she says. “I hope people will see themselves in the songs.”
Bulat plays Sugar Nightclub (858 Yates) at 8pm Dec. 4, along with the surreal woodsman tunes of Jonas Bonnetta in Evening Hymns. Tickets, $18 advance, ticketweb.ca.