Feb. 24, 2010 - Issue #749: Basia Bulat
On the road again
Basia Bulat's Heart of My Own inspired by her travels
"A lot of people can't stand touring, but to me it's like breathing. I do it because I'm driven to do it." – Bob Dylan
The first part of that Dylan quote speaks to the general malaise that seems to overtake bands while criss-crossing the countrysides of the world. Even if most touring acts don't outright despise the road (wrong line of work, if that's the case), the bumps along the way almost always seem to accumulate into a sense of world-weariness. Sure, you get to stamp your passport endlessly while performing your music across the globe, but the downsides—playing empty clubs, long hours spent crammed into vans or waiting in airports, relationships slowly expiring back at home—far more commonly colour the songwriting process than the good days. Compare the number of songs written about a great tour a band had versus the volume of baleful, lonesome songs about time spent on the road. The former are rare; the latter seem pretty much inevitable if a band lasts long enough.
Basia Bulat, however, seems to subscribe moreso to the latter half of the Dylan quote where the folksinger makes clear his own road-ready school of thought. Maybe touring isn't as necessary as oxygenating her blood, but the spry 26-year-old, who a few years ago was quietly working through an Master's in English in London, Ontario, seems to have few qualms about being on the road after a few years of extensive touring. Except, perhaps, that incomplete MA hanging over her head.
"I need to finish that one day, because I do really love books," she says with a lamenting laugh. "I'm kicking myself every time it's brought up, because it's sort of, 'Oh gosh, I really need to ... ' But I need to take a lot of time and do a really good job on that."
And if there's one thing Bulat is short on these days, it's extra downtime to pursue her more literary inklings. (Though that's not to say she's put books aside for music completely; Bulat happily admits to frequenting used-book stores while out on the road, the acquired literature "filling up my little section of the touring vehicle.") On the phone from Toronto, she's enjoying a few days of downtime before embarking on a North America-spanning tour, but even her dwindling free days are being filled with tour preparation by her own volition—"I'm just relaxing. Well, a little bit relaxing. I'm actually practising a lot," she laughs when asked about how she's spending her downtime. Bulat seems genuinely excited to be heading out on the road again, bringing along the album she more or less wrote on her last few treks out.
Heart of My Own is Bulat's second album, and its 12 songs convey an undeniable worldliness, taking the endless landscape as her muse and interpreting all that distance as she passes along it. The string-led builds and collapses of "Gold Rush," were inspired by a trip to the Yukon to play a northern music festival; Bulat and her band ended up staying an extra week (where the cover for Heart, Bulat against a long, pastoral backdrop, was captured). Elsewhere, bigger, whirling orchestration draws from new influences picked up on the road, and a general sense of motion is captured in flurries of instrumentation and her own lively, siren-like voice. Even quiter numbers—like the voice and ukulele-only "Sparrow," which seems to speak to the difficulty of maintaining contact on the road—take on a different tone than what she's done in the past.
"I worry that saying I find that it's really easy to write on the road will mean that as soon as I go out on tour next week I'll never have a song again while I'm travelling," she sighs. "But I think maybe just the very fact that you spend a lot of time watching the rest of the world go by, it kind of gets your mind going to places you may not let it get to when you're at home, necessarily. Maybe you have a lot of distractions that you don't necessarily encounter when you're travelling."
Creating Heart marked a far different process from how Bulat crafted Oh My Darling, the debut that found her massive critical success and earned a 2008 Polaris Prize shortlisting. That album she'd written and recorded with friends, financed largely by a few student loans, and didn't ever quite intend to tour behind, at least not as extensively as she did—it took her all over North America, Europe and down to Australia, and also saw her signed to Rough Trade Records. The touring changed how she'd pen a song, if only by giving her fresh sets of ears to experiment for each night.
"I ended up trying out a lot of the songs that made it on to Heart of My Own in concert first," she says. "I was maybe a little bit more predisposed to including songs on the record that I'd played live before.
"I ended up recording about 20 or 21 songs, and then I ended up pairing it down. I spent a lot more time in the studio trying out all sorts of different arrangements, doing different things," she continues. "I think performing is the other aspect of being on the road that influences [my] writing. I'm excited about being able to try stuff out at a show, so I end up writing a song right before the show.
"I try not to do it as much now, to spare [the band]," she laughs. "Because I know the song really well in my own head, but everyone else is still kind of learning it."
Still, there were parts of the recording process for Oh My Darling that she liked and maintained for Heart: friends still played on the new album (her brother returns to the drumkit), she kept her band playing together in the studio as much as possible to capture a lively performative feel in each take.
"I like to record a few people playing together, my brother and myself playing together, and the vocals, and have that all together so you can feel like you have that performance," she explains. "It's a document, as opposed to something I'm constantly Pro Tools editing, or photoshopping, or whatever."
But that doesn't mean the versions of found on Heart remain their finalized ones.
"There's actually a very famous quote, a literary theorist, who says, 'The writer never knows when the work is finished.' I think the rest of the quote goes on to say something like, 'The publisher's deadline or death are the only things that can,'" Bulat says. "This theorist was talking more specifically about novels, I think, but I think it can be applied to anything. I think songs, they can grow and change all the time, and I always think of a record or an album as a document of where it is at that moment, but not necessarily the definitive version. Maybe I grew up in a time where I feel like I'm a fan of an artist or a band, and that I like to see that person live, and the recording is one version of how it was done.
"But that's one way of looking at it," she adds. "And you can look at in all sorts of different ways." V
Given the inspiration Bulat’s travels provided Heart of My Own, here’s a few other songs, plus one of her own, that look at life on the road:
Basia Bulat, "Go On"
(On Heart of My Own)
The opening strums of Basia Bulat’s second album seem to personify a storm on the horizon, but one that is charged headlong towards, not shied away from. A voice like sweeping wind, she calls out to "let them know the burden of your blues," but it sounds more like a challenge than an admittance.
Cuff The Duke, "Long Road"
(On Sidelines of the City)
"It was somewhere in Saskatchewan / A storm rolled in but we carried on/ driving through the night / ‘til we noticed the gas light." Detailing the drive between shows that just spirals down and down (and on, and on), "Long Road" captures the alt-country Cuff the Duke recounting the weary days with energetic guitar riffing and harmony. A roadside lament to hum along with, if one ever was.
Black Crowes, "Wiser Time"
An eight-minute trudge into melancholy-tinged rock, "Wiser Time" rings out long and clear about the travelogged blues—"No time left for shame / Horizon behind me, no more pain / Windswept stars blink and smile / Another song, another mile"—balancing out the weary sentiments with a solid bass groove and searching electric guitar that anchors the extended jam outro.
AC/DC "Ride On"
(On Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap)
A slow-burner from a band known more for classic riffs, the rawkus is present but subdued, the solos more reserved than usual, the song’s blues-y structure unusually obvious, lending the whole song a lived-in feel, as Bon Scott laments: "It's another lonely evening / And another lonely town / But I ain't too young to worry / And I ain't too old to cry."
Blue Rodeo, "What Am I Doing Here"
Supposedly written after the band’s worst gig ever, headlining a high school Battle of the Bands at some fairgrounds in America, the song’s bristling with bittersweet melody and questions about the path the band was on: "All the drunks just stumble by / And mumble their abuse / Tell me what is the use." It’s now a fan-favourite.
Willie Nelson "On the Road Again"
(On the Honeysuckle Rose Soundtrack)
"On The Road Again" earned Nelson a number one single (his ninth) as part of a soundtrack to a movie he also starred in. A honky-tonk bounce carries the tune through his excitement to return to the road, "going places that I’ve never been / seein’ things that I may never see again." The original’s a country classic, but in a different way, so is the Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies take on it, spiked it with pop-punk vitirol when they covered it for the album Love Their Country. V
Wed, Mar 3 (8 pm)
With Katie Stelmanis
Starlite Room, $15
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