Skip to main content

On her new album, Tall Tall Shadow, Basia Bulat plays her usual autoharp, but she also plays a small Andean stringed instrument called a charango.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"I'm trying to let myself go a little more, which is a bit of an oxymoron." On her third album, Tall Tall Shadow, the Ontario folk siren Basia Bulat softly busts open with a record more personal and with more production than her previous acclaimed efforts. The Juno-nominated artist recently spoke to The Globe about lightness, darkness and her tango with the charango.

What's in a title?

Though Bulat, 29, was inspired by Fairport Convention, Nico and Fleetwood Mac for Tall Tall Shadow, she was also listening to traditional gospel music from the Numero Group label. What appealed to her was the repetition of the music – "It has a certain power" – that is reflected in the mantra chorus of It Can't Be You and even the doubling of "tall" in the title song. That song's premise is the premise of the record – that shadows exist only with light – and it reflects where Bulat was at the time of the writing and recording.

"At the risk of sounding pretentious, I really was in the space of light and shadow," she says about material influenced by the death of someone close to her. "I was trying to work through very sad things, while trying to be hopeful. It's taking ownership of that darkness, and that kind of theme makes its way, one way or another, into every song." Given that, it's only natural that the gracefully persistent song Tall Tall Shadow would open the record. "I'm really fond of albums that start with the title track, so that works out to my own benefit."

Related fact: Albums that begin with the title songs include John Lennon's Imagine, Michael Jackson's Bad, Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story and, sort of, Simon & Garfunkels' Sounds of Silence (which begins with The Sound of Silence).

She went on a quest for sound

Some of the album, co-produced with Arcade Fire engineer Mark Lawson and that band's Tim Kingsbury, was recorded at Toronto's Beaches Legion, which she found while seeking out untraditional venues. "I wanted to find somewhere that might have a bit of character, hoping it would inform the performance in some way."

She came across the east-end hall while it was being used by a seniors' jazz band, and was intrigued with the scary possibilities. "It had an element of Ghost Story," Bulat says, referring to the 1981 John Houseman-starring thriller.

"It also had high ceilings, great windows, a stage and a wooden floor that was great for dancing. Everybody is in a studio mentality right now, but I was jealous of records that have a real-location sound."

Related fact: Great Lakes Swimmers' eponymous 2003 debut was recorded in an abandoned grain silo in Wainfleet, Ont.; Feist recorded 2011's Metals in a painting studio on a heritage farm overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif.; and John Mellencamp wrote one song specifically to be captured in Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Tex., the exact room in which blues icon Robert Johnson recorded in 1936.

She's on autoharp, not auto-pilot

The native of London, Ont., is uniquely associated with the autoharp, but Bulat is open to using many other instruments, including, on this record, pianoette, synthesizer, omnichord and the charango, a small Andean stringed instrument. "I encountered the charango during my residency at the Banff Centre, and I fell in love with it," she says, speaking of a plucky thing that looks like an over-achieving ukulele. "At first glance, you think it's going to sound one way, but it can sound like a million things."

The use of new musical tools and the employment of them in untraditional ways is essential to Bulat, who puts herself outside her song-writing comfort zone by changing things up. "I like feeling like I'm learning a new language. I'm looking for ways to subvert things a little bit." Exotic for the sake of being exotic? No. The sombre, resolving and resolute album closer, From Now On, is played solo on a rickety old piano that produced a Neil Young vibe. "It's not for kicks," she says. "It's still about the songs."

Related fact: Train's smash 2009 single Hey, Soul Sister is ukulele-based, Arcade Fire's Régine Chassagne uses a hurdy-gurdy, and the 1976 disco hit Boogie Nights features a harp.

Basia Bulat plays Toronto's Polish Combatants Hall, Oct. 12; Calgary's Festival Hall, Nov. 29, Edmonton's Avenue Theatre, Nov. 30; Victoria's Sugar Nightclub, Dec. 4; and Vancouver's Rio Theatre, Dec. 5.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe