New approach pays 'Tall' dividends for singer-songwriter Bulat
Basia Bulat didn't go into making her third record knowing what it would be called or that she would write one of the most compelling songs of her career.
Instead, it's something that just came to Toronto's Bulat during the making of “Tall Tall Shadow.” When putting together the new 10-track album, she let things come to her more naturally in the songwriting process, concentrated writing more on piano and charango (a lute-style stringed instrument) instead of guitar and her signature instrument, the autoharp. That let her folk-based sound go into new areas, including electronics and straight-up rock.
But everything keeps coming back to the rousing title track that opens the record, one of the finest cuts of her career. The song starts softly and builds and builds until it's a full-on spiritual revival, with her warning, “You can't run away once you know the tall, tall shadow is yours.” It's one of the best songs of the year, and Bulat admits it wasn't even on the books when she went in to work on her new album.
“That song sort of came toward the end of the record,” she says. “It was when I was thinking about some of the things that had gone on in my life and realized you can't run away from your darkness. You can't get away from your demons, whatever they may be. I realized I was at a point where I needed to be whipped up a little bit and needed some uplifting.”
Bulat admits there is plenty of light and dark on “Tall Tall Shadow,” and much of the record is influenced by Bulat losing someone close to her and the healing process around that. Because of that, she says there are many ways to look at the songs on her new record, and even if something feels dark to a listener, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
“Everything has more than one function,” Bulat says. “I don't like to see darkness as something that's always negative or bad. Nor do I think light is always something positive. Everyone is different, and everyone is going to feel those things differently.”
There are some cuts that are more like Bulat's older work, including “Five, Four” and “Paris or Amsterdam,” that highlight her quieter side but also her honey-rich, soaring voice. But the real eye-opening moment are when she moves away from her comfort zone, such as on “The City With No Rivers,” “Someone,” and “Wires,” one of the most jarring of her career. It are these moments she cites as major reasons “Tall Tall Shadow” is so different and full bodied from previous albums “Oh, My Darling” and “Heart of My Own.”
For the record, Bulat worked with Tim Kingsbury (Arcade Fire) and Mark Lawson (who engineered Arcade Fire's Grammy-winning “The Suburbs”), and she says the approach was to really explore the songs, figure out what they were trying to say, and build individual compositions that, while they work well with the whole, can stand on their own.
“There are things on the record and sounds that I used that I always wanted to try,” she says. “I realized how apprehensive I may have been in the past when writing, and this experience working with my friends Tim and Mark really opened my eyes to what I could do with my music. It was liberating. I realized I can do whatever I want, and the songs will still be me.”
One thing that hasn't changed is the personal nature of Bulat's songs. She's always written from a place where the listener could feel they're getting a glimpse into her psyche and life, but she didn't force herself to spill her guts.
“I've always written about things happening to me, and songs have always followed a certain narrative of my life,” she says. “But I was a little less conscious of that this time around. Again, I followed the songs where they took me and tried to figure out the best way to tell my stories.”
Bulat sounds not only satisfied with the end result of these songs, as well as it how they open up her live show, but with her new take on being an artist. She's full of life and enthusiasm not only about the tour that brings her back to America, but for what her future holds as far as making music and stretching herself beyond boundaries.
That's an exciting prospect not only for Bulat, but for the fans who have followed her excellent career.
“I like to think I've changed,” Bulat said. “I mean, I hope I've changed.”
Brian Krazman is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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