Many musicians dream of a grand world tour, but the scale and challenges that come with the endeavour often make it near impossible. For now, folk singer-songwriter Basia Bulat is content to perform live streams from her studio apartment in Montreal, each one dedicated to a different cause and charity. The comments section full of greetings from Colombia, Australia, Hong Kong, Argentina, and elsewhere, makes it feel like she’s conducting a world tour of multiple locations simultaneously. “It’s been really beautiful to see these people from all around the world coming to my show at the same time. We can all hang out in the same room,” she says. “I can let people into my world a little bit here.” Tonight that room is her kitchen. Basia’s husband is from the Maritimes, and the concept of an East Coast kitchen party live stream of her new album Are You in Love? brings joy to her voice.
The album, her fifth, is a profoundly personal narrative that she wrote while coming to terms with two complex conflicting emotions: love and grief. Bulat was falling in love as she was writing, and at the same time she was grieving the loss of her father. “I knew I wanted to explore these ideas of compassion, and love, and forgiveness,” but the lyrics didn’t come that easily, she shares.
It was the vast expanse of the desert in Joshua Tree National Park that gave her the vocabulary she needed to create the album. There, “I was able to give myself that space to go inside and listen really deeply,” she reveals. “I would use the landscape around me, and we would end up recording the wind, windstorms, and steps walking in the sand,” playing with it and mixing it through electronics to give it a whole new life.
Joshua Tree is a co-author of this album, according to Bulat—sonically the park is in the melodies, singing to her. “In a way, once I was singing along with the wind I could finally finish my lyrics. I kind of helped create this inner landscape that got me there.”
Over the years, Bulat has made a name for herself incorporating unusual instruments into her music, though she would never call an instrument odd. Bulat comes from a very musical family: her mother was a piano teacher and her brother played drums on her first three albums. She plays the autoharp, hammered dulcimer, and charango, as well as guitar and piano. “I just have the audacity to think I can learn how to play them,” she says.
The addition of a small 1920s guitar with Nashville-style tuning influences the tone throughout the album. The brighter sound, coupled with the lyrical storytelling that takes its cues from country songwriting, creates an overall upbeat folk album, with depth waiting for those willing to take the time to hear it.
Bulat is consistently surprised by how much people hear in her albums,—they always hear more than she expects. “That’s actually the most fun part about putting out a record, is hearing everyone else’s interpretation of it and all these different worlds.” She describes it as resembling a prism: she can only see the side where the light enters, but everyone else can see the other side where the light exits in different colours.
It’s a strange time to be creating and releasing projects out into the world. Bulat’s tour for this album has had to be postponed, and there was very little ceremony heralding its release on Friday. But an unexpected new form of connection has arisen between Bulat and her listeners under the circumstances. “The main thing I was trying to do with this record was to sing about love and not be afraid of the clichés that come with that,” Bulat admits. “That is what is going to see us through the moment that we’re in. That’s the most important thing to hold on to.” And it seems to her that everyone listening to her music right now feels the same way. “I hope it can keep them company in an unsteady time. I hope that it can bring a little bit of light if they need it, and I hope that they can sing along.”
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