Basia Bulat Wants Pop Music to Be a Vessel for Individual Interpretation

How did a career deciphering pop music take Basia from Montreal to Louisville?

Jan 28 2016, 3:14pm

Photo by Matt Williams

Basia Bulat's latest record Good Advice contains multitudes. You could say it contradicts itself consistently, pairing joyous, celebratory pop sonics with lyrics that explore the complexity of human relationships, bridging nearly the full spectrum of emotion within the span of a few minutes. But when dealing with matters of the heart—and Good Advice has a big, beautiful heart beating at its core—things are rarely simple. Bulat knows this, and voices her desire to work consistently inside that big spectrum. It's the same one, she explains, that drives emotions at the funeral of a loved one—overjoyed to have so many memories of them, and simultaneously heartbroken they're gone. It's made her think a lot lately about a passage from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.

"There's a phrase that the lute you play music with is carved and hollowed out by knives," she says over coffee at Caffino Ristorante in Toronto's Liberty Village. "It's all the same. It all happens together at the same time. Happiness and sorrow is always there at the same time, and you're experiencing it all the time, all at once."

Good Advice was recorded in the wake of a break-up when Bulat hit the road to record in Louisville, Kentucky, nine hours away from her hometown of Montreal. While it deals with romantic issues, she's wary of it being compartmentalized and pigeon-holed. Instead, Bulat says she wanted to use pop music as a universal vessel for individual interpretation, bringing the listener to places of "extreme questioning" that we can all relate to. It might not provide solutions to those questions, but that's kind of the point.

"There's gonna be a lot you'll never get to answer or resolve," she says. "I think that's what's been interesting to me these days, and everybody goes through it. And I think any kind of challenge we go through, anytime we have these moments where we're afraid or we feel alone or we're missing somebody, these times of loss, I think at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to keep going."

To keep going is usually easier said than done, but another quality of Good Advice is that by confronting the listener with these big, frightening questions in a way that hammers home their universality, the songs can feel like someone holding you and telling you everything's gonna be okay, we all go through this, and "there is no right or wrong," as Bulat puts it. "I think it's striving toward or reaching toward a philosophy that's a little more zen maybe, in that way lyrically. Maybe not musically," she laughs.

My Morning Jacket's Jim James was behind the boards as producer and plays on Good Advice as well. Bulat had become friends with him over the years, regularly speaking about not wanting to repeat yourself from record to record. It worked: Good Advice is still Basia Bulat, but not in any way we've heard her before. She's proven a deft hand at pop, capturing the spirit of Fourth of July fireworks she saw light up the black sky above a basketball court: the songs are explosive, stunning, and fade quickly, emphasizing that nothing—especially life's most beautiful moments—can last forever.

It'd be tough to achieve that without a pretty deep level of focus, and she explains just how much focus it took when she laughs off my question about her Kentucky bourbon preference. "The irony is that we were extremely well-behaved. We really did wake up in the morning, go to the studio, have a salad for dinner—we ate so many salads—and then watch an episode of The Midnight Special, and then we all went to bed. It was kinda like a summer camp."

It worked out about the same way as a successful time at summer camp, too. "I really didn't know anybody there, and then by day three I felt like I had a whole group of friends. The musical community is incredibly open, inviting, and a big family."

"I think it sounds like Louisville," she says.

Louisville is only a quick jaunt south—"not even that long of a drive for a Canadian touring musician," Bulat laughs—but she has come a long, long way since finding her place at CHRW 94.9 at the University of Western Ontario. It was through the campus community radio station that Bulat found her voice while pursuing a master's in English and entertaining the idea of teaching. When a promoter friend more or less forced her into her first show, opening for a couple big names in Canadian music—Julie Doiron and Herman Dune—it pushed her to keep writing, and eventually make her first record.

"It was really a surprise when I got emails from people wanting to put out the record. Not that it was a complete accident, but I think I spent a lot of time trying to do anything but music because I was afraid of what that might mean, and then the more and more I tried to do something else, the more and more—it's cheesy to say—music chose me."

Since putting out her first record with Rough Trade after being signed on the strength of her 2005 EP, Bulat has toured the world, been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize twice, nominated for two Juno Awards, and even sang the Canadian national anthem on Hockey Night in Canada. And by the sound of Good Advice, things will likely be getting even bigger and better when it drops in February. So with a decade-long career already to look back on, and a future unwritten, Bulat keeps one piece of good advice close.

"The best advice I've gotten—and it usually always comes in the same form—is just to listen. I think most of the time—and I'm guilty of this also—we can ask a lot of questions and try to get somebody's opinion or you can look for it in a book. And that's kind of what ["Good Advice"] is about: looking for an answer. But only you know. It's usually because you're trying to avoid the answer you already have. And that's not necessarily true. Sometimes you need more information or things like that. But I think that over time, life is teaching me—which is a really good thing as a musician—how to listen more and more, and the importance of that. I think there's a lot of strength in that: being able to just be quiet and listen."

Matt Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.