Published on October 4th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant1
Interview: Basia Bulat
Basia Bulat is touring through Canada to support her new album, Good Advice, graciously taking the time to sit down with Craig Silliphant to chat.
The first thing I ask Basia Bulat is whether I’m pronouncing her name correctly. She assures me that I am, and then feigns surprise that I might not know how to pronounce this Polish name, since there are so many Polish people on the prairie.
She’s touring through, having recently released her latest album, Good Advice (produced by Jim Jones of My Morning Jacket), a record that sees the once folk-leaning artist showing us her recent heartbreak scars and leaning into more keyboards and synthesizers. Bulat strikes me as a thoughtful and reasonably soft-spoken woman, though far from being a pushover. If she disagrees with any of the notions put forth in my questions, she is quick to let me know, though quite politely, making for an engaging conversation. We talk about working with Jones, sharing one’s heartbreak publically, awards like the Polaris Music Prize, and meeting Nick Cave.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: So, a really simple question to start, I guess, and rather clichéd, but how did you get into playing music in the first place?
BASIA BULAT: It was just surrounded me everywhere in my life. My mom was a music teacher, so I started playing piano when I was three.
TFS: Did they make you play piano or were you interested in playing the piano?
BB: No, I wanted to play piano. I didn’t want to do anything else. I begged my parents, apparently. I have one memory, which is my first piano lesson. Pretty much that’s one of my earliest memories. They were testing whether I had the attention span to do basic Suzuki lessons.
TFS: I only ask that because my son is three years old and my wife was talking about doing some Suzuki cello lessons, but it seems like anytime you put him near a synth or a piano he likes to get on there and plunk at it. He’s not just mashing the keys either. He’s kind of plunking at it more thoughtfully.
BB: Yes, I think all of us have a lot of artistic talent. I think all of us as humans have that. It makes me sad that we spend so much time thinking it has to be done a certain way or that only certain people have talent or aptitude. Certainly, there are people who have talent or aptitude towards one thing more than another, etc, etc. But I think we all have that in us. It’s great to encourage it rather than force it, obviously. That doesn’t feel good to force it upon you, but to follow that instinct comes in when we’re really young, for sure.
TFS: I’m sure this has an obvious answer but in your own words, what changed musically on this record since the last?
BB: Not a lot. It’s funny. It’s hard when you’re in it, in your own life, you just think you’re doing your own thing. Then when you have a minute to look back and when I’m revisiting the older songs for this new record, it did strike me how different I play now, how different I sing now. And that’s just something that happens when you’re growing and changing all the time. But in a way I went back to the very beginning. I went back to the keyboard. I sing two records doing a lot of string instruments and I’ve slowly been making my way back to square one. Back to where I was when I’m three, playing a lot of synthesizers and keyboards now, and that’s something I hadn’t done for a very long time.
TFS: Right, that would have probably been the most prominent thing, I would say. There’s definitely a lot more synths and keys on this record.
BB: Yes. But it’s funny because it’s my first instrument and I stayed away from it for a long time.
TFS: Obviously, this is an album of breakup songs and I think I read somewhere that you don’t like the word cathartic. But the neat thing about it is that they’re breakup songs, but you don’t really feel spite when you hear the music itself. It’s sort of a juxtaposition of lyrics and the feelings that those things bring, but the tone the songs themselves differs. Am I on glue, or is there a difference between the tone of the lyrics and some of the music?
BB: Where I was in my life and where I am in my life, where I’ve always been, I guess, philosophically. I’m trying to spend as much time as I can with love. I’m trying to do something that just feels real to me. I feel if I was only sadness, one aspect of my experience, and focusing on the negative all the time — that side is definitely there on the record. But it’s almost more dishonest if I don’t reflect the whole side, the whole aspect of the experience.
TFS: Right, in my notes about the music, it says how the sound and the lyrics sometimes have that dissonance between them captures more than just sadness.
BB: Yes. Thank you. Definitely, it just felt like that. When I was making it I was in Louisville and they had a big Fourth of July party, and there was just all these fireworks, they were so beautiful and so terrifying at the some time, when you’re up close and somebody’s setting them off in the driveway. It’s just one of those things where it’s really explosive, it’s really beautiful. It’s a spectacle, but it also really scares you.
BB: I kept having that image in my head when I was making it. That bled into the way that we already were playing, the way we were already feeling. There’s a lot of loss there, but there’s a bit of a dance party for it too.
TFS: Right. There’s loss, but there’s new beginnings and stuff that’s more positive, I guess.
BB: The thing is, it just feels like that was the only way to do it. I think if I’d played it just by myself — We certainly tried it: “Oh, let’s play this song, just Basia and the piano,” and really quiet or something. It just felt really insincere. It just felt totally wrong.
TFS: So, the idea of heartbreak — I think there’s a lot of people that are full of ‘good advice.’ I think about my kid, when he’s 16 or something, his first girlfriend breaks up with him. I can tell him all this things, like, “Look, this is just one point in your life.” But you can’t really listen to that stuff, take that advice, until that day when you suddenly can, until the shadow of whatever spectre of sadness is lifted. I guess the question I’m heading at is would you consider yourself a heart on sleeve kind of person?
BB: I try to be as much as I can. I think my life’s work is to try and make sure I don’t get too hard or something. I don’t want to get too hard. I definitely want to allow myself to be vulnerable. And I’ve noticed that the more I do that the more it disarms other people around me. At my shows, the more people respond to it, the more I allow myself to do that. At the same time, what you were saying with your son, with good advice, that’s what that all song and album’s about — that you can really listen to anything but whatever’s going on inside — it’s that process of learning to listen to yourself. That’s really hard, there’s so much noise, there’s so much going on. There’s so many distractions, but that is what the song — I was writing that almost to myself to tell myself, just listen to yourself. I didn’t realize till after I wrote it, I was trying to give myself a message.
TFS: Right. Now, is it weird, obviously as an artist you live through those experiences and you write them, and I’m sure even in a live show you’re trying to recapture some of that emotion. There’s a place for it, but is it weird to have to sit down on the phone with a knucklehead like me afterwards, that’s asking you all kinds of personal questions about a really personal time in your life? Being on display just because you happen to be a songwriter that has to write that stuff down for your job. Is it weird to sort of have to discuss that later on in a more removed situation with a stranger?
BB: I think life is really weird in general. I think I would always find myself in some sort of weird situation. Your job’s really weird. You’re asking a total stranger really personal questions. I would flip it the other way. I don’t really tend to think about it. I try not to overthink things. My biggest problem was that I overthink things. I’m trying really hard not to overthink it. I say my biggest problem was. I’m not sure. Maybe I’m wrong about that too. I end up focusing a lot more on the songs itself. I’m very, very lucky and very grateful that I get to do what I get to do. This is crazy that I get to do this for a living. I try not to question it too much and I trying to listen to my own instinct and judgment about things, same as anyone else would, I hope, about their life.
TFS: I’m a musician and a writer, and I forget where I picked this up or where I read this, but when writing, I feel like if I’m not making myself uncomfortable with what I’m writing, then I’m not really being honest. Like, kind of embarrassed for someone to read the story, but if I sugar-coat it or something, I’m just putting bullshit out there. Did that factor in, whether it was with something like ‘Tall Tall Shadow’ or ‘Good Advice?’ Do you try to pull back that curtain on yourself as much as possible?
BB: Yes, I don’t think you do anybody any favors if you’re censoring yourself. There’s already so much in the world that’s trying to censor you, and there’s so many ways in which we’re already withholding our own feelings from ourselves. The world around us teaches us so much to how to present something, this side of yourself, how you present yourself or something. I think that causes more anxiety than just being true to yourself. That’s been something that’s taken me a long time to get to, to not censor myself. My favorite songs are the ones that you can tell the person’s got out of their own way.
TFS: Yes. Speaking of working with one of the godfathers of sad bastard music, how did you connect with Jim Jones? Like, that’s amazing.
BB: [laughs] I’ve always been a huge fan, and I have to disagree, I don’t think that he’s a sad bastard at all, and that’s why we get along so well, is that I think philosophically we’re very similar. I’ve always felt that he’s got, especially lyrically, as the record’s gone, extremely positive lyrics. They’ve really lifted me up. We met backstage at a festival years ago now, maybe five years ago. I’d often see limits. I just told him I was a fan, I gave him my second record, and over time our paths kept crossing, so I sent him some songs I was working on and he wanted to make a record together. He said, “When can you come down?” So, it ended up working out perfectly and it was amazing shit. I think that we didn’t really make a sad bastard record at all. [laughs]
TFS: [laughs] No, not at all. No, I didn’t mean to imply that at all. And in fact, you’re right. He’s not Elliot Smith or something, but what I meant was, when he writes a sad song, he writes a really beautiful sad song.
BB: He’s got a beautiful angelic voice.
TFS: Yes, for sure. What did he bring to the production? I mean, what did he bring to what you do?
BB: That’s the thing, Jim was really involved in a lot of it. That’s one of the great parts about working with your friend. We just got into the studio with a bunch of people; we’re a family within a matter of a day. The first day Jim’s playing bass in the studio. It’s just a three piece. It’s myself and Jim, and our friend Dave playing drums. So, he did a lot on the record. He was really involved. There are a lot of different kinds of producers, but he really pushed me. He knew I needed to be, and I wanted to be pushed to do something that I hadn’t done before, and that’s why I asked him to do this record. He’s also been the biggest advocate for me. I’ve been really interested over time in trying to learn how to engineer stuff for myself and how to record and produce myself. He really helped me get on that train also. He’s one of those people that’s just a really good friend. It’s hard to describe the spirit of your friends. You play differently when your favourite singer is on the other side of the glass at the recording suite. You sing differently.
TFS: I’m a juror on the Polaris Music Award, which obviously you’ve made the shortlist three times. How do you think just even being on the shortlist has affected your career or just people’s knowledge of who you are in Canada? Do you feel like it’s a good thing? Does it matter at all?
BB: I don’t know. I try not to think about that stuff too much, because I think the minute you start letting — not to say that in an ungrateful way or something. It’s incredible company to be in with people, but in general, I got into music because I don’t like competition. The concept itself is something that’s a little bit alien to me. There’s just so many great records and I don’t really know that competition is the best way to present it, or that’s just how people– how you can get to the general public’s interest, I’m not sure.
It’s incredible company to be in, and I feel very, very lucky to have people that are listening to my record and listening to my music. That’s something that you can’t control. I can control if people are going to hear and like it. The minute I let that play into or think too much what effect that has on my life or anything, I kind of drift the focus away from what’s really important to me.
I think it’s amazing that there are so many people involved and so many people listening to records and really passionate about music. If I weren’t doing that, I’m sure I would also be writing about music. I still love to write about music that I love. It’s just a different thing for me. I’m naturally uncomfortable with competition. I’ve never been. I never played on sports teams. Other people love it, and that’s totally fine. It’s something that doesn’t resonate with me in the same way.
TFS: No, that’s interesting. I think we, even as jurors sometimes and in panels I’ve been a part of, we have discussions like that, and even people’s criticisms of the process and everything itself, to me, [the process] actually becomes less interesting the further towards the actual prize for that year you get. All the jurors are on a Newsgroup kind of thing. You’re just suggesting albums all year long and getting these great suggestions from across Canada about these great albums, and then eventually that, like you said, in the spirit of competition, gets whittled down to a final ten and then one, but to me that becomes much less interesting than just this giant pool of the great albums from that year.
BB: Yes, maybe there’s a way to share that with the public.
TFS: I think they’re doing that more now. I know they release a list of 200 albums or something like that. That was everything mentioned on the boards that year, but they should actually do something a little more prominent for that, which is another, maybe similar question.
TFS: One last quick question here. Did you tour with Nick Cave?
BB: I did a show with Nick Cave. I’m a huge fan of Nick Cave.
TFS: He’s the best. Did you get to meet him or hang out with him at all?
BB: Yes I got to meet him. He was lovely. He’s wonderful. His whole band was amazing. They were all really, really, really great. Especially since I’m a huge fan of gospel music and his voice. It was crazy to meet him. It was very cool to meet him.
TFS: You opened for him, you said?
BB: Yes. He’s incredible.
TFS: Cool. Anyway, that’s about it. I really appreciate you taking the time. I love the new album and hopefully I’ll be able to make it to the show when you come through town.
BB: Yes, in like a couple — like next week, pretty much. If you’re around, it’ll be great. Just come and say, hi. We’ll be around.
TFS: Cool. All right. That will be awesome. Thank you so much.
BB: Yes, thank you! Thanks for your time.