Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.
Basia Bulat. Now there’s a name to conjure with. It sounds Turkish (?) but she is actually Polish-Canadian, originally from London, Ontario then brought up in Etobicoke, the industrial suburb to the west of downtown Toronto that you pass through on the way to and from the airport, if you know the area. She’s long since decamped to Canada’s de facto music capital Montréal.
Basia is a multi Polaris Music Prize finalist and has been nominated for many JUNO Awards. She’s also a multi-instrumentalist, able to play piano, autoharp, charango (like a lute), hammered dulcimer, ukulele, guitar and other instruments.
I’ve written about her several times and have been fortunate to catch her live once, being astounded at her dynamism and the vocal power she can generate from such a small frame.
I once compared her to Marianne Faithfull and I’ve noticed that what she is particularly good at is soul searching and putting that soul on display for all to see.
She has five albums to her credit, the second to last one, ‘Good Advice’ (2016) was produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Bulat and James share a love for gospel, soul and country music. James is based in Louisville, Kentucky, which isn’t a million miles from Nashville, which is where I’ve often thought Basia Bulat really belongs.
Now there’s a sixth album on the way, ‘The Garden’, which will be released digitally on 18th February and which is one “of songs re-imagined across the five previous albums – vocal and string-quartet versions arranged by Owen Pallett, Paul Frith and Zou Zou Robidoux”. ‘The Garden’ as a track featured on ‘Good Advice’.
This track, ‘Fables’, the second to be released from the album after ‘The Garden’, was written, she says, “as both an ode to childhood and to the more difficult truths of adulthood.” She writes songs with deep meanings and explains its significance by referring to storytelling and fables passed on from one generation to the next and how they can be ‘misinterpreted’, and how “we can carry on legacies that didn’t intend or understand.”
She concludes, “Sometimes the stories we learned in childhood about ourselves and our homes are remnants from a past that cannot answer the questions we have in the present.”
There are several possible ways to interpret that statement and one of them might well be as a subliminal comment on the ongoing debate in Canada right now about the indigenous First Nation inhabitants and their mistreatment in previous eras.
Actually, the lyrics don’t suggest that and seem more concerned with personal affairs; the album offering an opportunity to re-record selected songs whose meanings have shifted from when she originally composed them. But it’s testament to her song writing skill that the idea should even enter your head.
Musically, there is a wide gulf between this track and the previous song of hers I reviewed, ‘Love is at the End of the World’, which was released as a single and which was the last track on her previous album, 2020’s ‘Are you in love’? That song has strong pop vibes and explodes halfway through into pure rock with synthesisers and guitars underpinned by a repeating piano riff.
In contrast ‘Fables’ is all about a cultured acoustic guitar supported by the ever-so-gentle strings that Owen Pallett in particular excels at.
It takes some skill to write two songs at opposite ends of the spectrum like that.
The video here combines some old camera footage from her childhood with recently shot footage of herself and her daughter, and it did influence the song as “it felt very emotional watching the footage back to back, across years and seasons, recreating what felt like a childhood fable I had forgotten about in a new era of my life.”
The 16 songs on the forthcoming album were produced by Basia Bulat and Mark Lawson. It is out digitally on February 18th and physically March 25th, via Secret City Records.
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