Interview with Basia Bulat

Basia Bulat has just returned with her third album, Tall Tall Shadow, which was out at the beginning of October. In her short career, Basia has already found critical success with her eclectic folk sound, with her first album landing on the Polaris Prize short list and her sophomore album making the Polaris Prize long list.

Basia Bulat (photo credit: Colin Medley)

Tall Tall Reflection (Basia Bulat photo credit: Colin Medley)

Having just played across Europe, Basia is now about to headline three hometown shows in Toronto October 10-12 in support of her new album. Before these shows, I had a chance to catch up with Basia over email to talk about her amazing show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, her fascination with playing a large variety of instruments, and her favourite Polish beer.

PeteHatesMusic (PHM): I attended your Art Gallery of Ontario performance that married music with art. How did this AGO performance come about, and what did you think of the experience?

Basia Bulat (BB): The experience was amazing. I worked with Stephanie Comilang, one of my favorite artists, whom I’ve known for many years. It was really exciting to finally be able to collaborate with her, and actually some photographs of our collaboration ended up being used for album artwork. We also decided to work together again for the Tall Tall Shadow video.

PHM: Was there much discussion and pre-planning with Stephanie Comilang about the projections and interactions with your musical performance?

BB: There was some discussion. At the same time, I think Stephanie is brilliant and I wanted her to do her thing.

Basia Bulat – It Can’t Be You (Live at Art Gallery of Ontario)

PHM: Your gigging history seems chalk full of interesting venues and locations. How much input do you have with regards to venues and what thought process goes into deciding the venues?

BB: It’s nice to play in an interesting space whenever possible. I think a space can always inform, to some extent, the performance. Of course it’s not easy to get your way every time when there’s a limitation on size, availability and so on, but when I can, I do like to choose.

PHM: Heart of my Own was loosely based on the Yukon and your thoughts about what it would be like, and how your visit compared to your imagination. What are the inspirations and themes behind Tall Tall Shadow?

BB: Tall Tall Shadow is a more personal album for me, and it comes from a moment in my life when I was dealing with loss. I was always trying to think about being hopeful as well, and the songs deal with ideas of light and darkness; living in those two worlds and between them.

PHM: You play instruments such as the autoharp, the charango, and other somewhat uncommon yet fascinating instruments. Was the drive to learn these because you simply liked the sound, or was it an attempt for originality in your music?

BB: I came across most of these instruments by chance, and there’s something about them that draws me in, so it’s really probably the sound that does that. But it’s also funny because a lot of people ask me about these instruments being weird or funny but for me they’re not at all! Maybe they’re just different in terms of the western pop-music canon but in certain cultures they are pretty common. It’s kind of fun to bring them into a new world, but it’s definitely not something calculated I guess I could try learning the tuba!

PHM: How does the song writing and recording process change from album to album? Did you learn any new outrageous and unique instruments this time around?

BB: There’s no such thing as an outrageous instrument! I think the main thing I did with this album is went back to the first instrument I learned when I was 3 years old, the piano. Something in me just pulled me there and I think in terms of songwriting, I just try to get out of my own way.
(note: I could barely walk when I was 3, and Basia was playing the piano.)

Basia Bulat – Tall Tall Shadow

PHM: How much music learning goes on a regular basis? Do you work to improve your existing skill set and vocals or are you looking for more original sounds and instruments to try and master?

BB: I’m always practicing, but it isn’t a quest for perfection. I think with instruments I’m looking to be surprised, I’m not looking to be a master of anything!

PHM: I’ve been to Poland a couple of times and found the people friendly and the cities quite pretty. What personal experiences or discoveries from your visits to Poland have been reflected in your music (either in lyrics or sound)?

BB: I’m not sure. It’s hard to know exactly because the way I write is a bit less-conscious. I know for sure my singing is influenced by my grandmother’s singing and I love the folk music of Poland. I definitely love visiting and playing there. The shows there are some of my favourite I’ve ever played.

PHM: A simple question: Zywiec, Tyskie, or Zubr?

BB: Zubrowka!
(note: That’s a vodka! Always have to be different, don’t ya, Basia?)

PHM: How much attention do you pay to reviews and award nominations, such as the Polaris Prize (for which your albums have received either a long list or short list nomination)?

BB: I’m very flattered but I always try to focus on how I feel about my own music. I try not to let the outside change how I feel about myself and my music, as much as I can.

PHM: If you ran PeteHatesMusic for a day, what new songs or bands would you pick for our readers?

BB: Song: 28 Days by U.S. Girls; Band: Avec pas d’casque


Basia Bulat plays the Polish Combatants Hall in Toronto October 10-12, so be sure to check her out. If it’s after October 12, be sure to hop in the nearest time machine and catch the shows until the end of your days, or check out other upcoming tour dates that don’t require a time machine to attend (as of time of writing). Tall Tall Shadow is out in stores and available online right now.

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