Possibly 4th Street 19: Canadian Songstress Basia Bulat
Rob Trucks's "Possibly 4th Street" expositions, in which he invites musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run intermittently here at Sound of the City.
Basia Bulat performs next Friday, September 19 at the Highline Ballroom. Tickets are $13 and available here.
all photos by Rob Trucks
Possibly 4th Street
Number 19 (Part One)
by Rob Trucks
Spend any time at all with Canadian songstress Basia Bulat and you can probably imagine what she was like in kindergarten.
Maybe it's the slight lisp in her speaking voice, or the blush of her cheek after it's brushed by a surprisingly stiff midtown wind. Maybe it's her ability to step over conversational cuss words without participating herself, or the affable laughter that arrives with apparent regularity in every minute of her conversation.
Maybe it's the memory of Bulat's voice, accompanied by little more than a ukulele and handclaps, on the opening track of her Oh, My Darling album, the voice that could conceivably cover Melanie's “Brand New Key” without so much as a touch of guile.
Or maybe it's something as simple as an inherent innocence.
We meet in midtown. 49th Street to be exact. Bulat is on tour with Devotchka, this evening's musical guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, but before that show—or ours—can be taped, Basia and her bandmates must be fed, so we comb the area for a safe (no post-3 p.m. food bars) and moderately-priced late meal, ending up in Scott's Food Court, just a block off the beaten tourist path.
Ostensibly we're downing quick sandwiches while simultaneously settling on a setting, but the fluorescent lighting overhead, the lottery ticket vending machine that twinkles like some forgotten Christmas tree in Vegas, charms, tempts, invites. As do two families of Midwesterners—complete as a baseball team in the field—trying their best to pretend that a woman, seemingly surrounded by photographers and videographers, singing and strumming an autoharp in the back of a New York City sandwich shop is nothing unusual.
Basia Bulat Plays "Before I Knew" at Scott's Food Court
Possibly 4th Street
Number 19 (Part Two)
Basia Bulat and company
Monday, May 19, 2008
Underground, aboveground, in and around the Avenue of the Americas in midtown.
Our two specific settings:
Scott's Food Court on 48th between Fifth and Sixth and Grecian Gardens flower shop underneath Rock Center, inside the turnstiles leading to the B-D-F and V trains.
Where we went in between:
In search of a replacement for a broken autoharp string (we hit nearly every stop on Music Row and surprisingly one could not be found)
One thing Basia Bulat has never done:
I have never played the violin.
Something she's done once and one time only:
Played autoharp in a flower shop [laughs].
The name of a book she's read at least twice:
Oh, gosh. There's a lot of them. One book that I've read at least twice . . . Oh God, I've read so many books a million times. I've read a lot of biographies lately, but the book I've read the most has probably been Jane Eyre.”
And a movie she's seen at least three times:
Ooh, there's a lot of those too. Maybe Annie Hall. Or Crimes and Misdemeanors.
So you've got a Woody Allen thing.
I like Woody Allen [laughs].
Holly, your ukelele player, keeps a blog (http://hollyrancher.blogspot.com/) on weird food she buys at gas stations while on tour. Have you ingested any of the weird food?
Definitely not. No.
Why not? Are you a chickenshit?
[Laughs] I think Holly . . . that's Holly's way of amusing the rest of us. I have a pretty weak stomach actually, so I guess I am a little bit of a chicken maybe in that respect. Most of the food, I just don't find it appealing.
Holly probably doesn't find it appealing either, does she?
I think a small part of her really does. I think there's a part of her that's attracted to the gruesome and strange and that's why she keeps this blog [laughs].
Tell me a little something about each of the songs you performed.
Well, “A Secret” I wrote on the train to Montreal just before I was about to finish mixing my record, and I walked into the studio and I said to Howard [Bilerman, Oh, My Darling's producer], ‘Okay, I have this new song that I really need us to do.' And it was just sort of random. It was like the fastest song perhaps I ever wrote. Just a little short little ditty. It's not really an exciting story, but that's what I always think about. I always think about the train when I'm playing that song. Which is actually kind of fitting that we were in the subway.
Basia Bulat Plays "A Secret" at Grecian Gardens flower shop
And “Before I Knew" is a song that I had the words for for ages and ages and ages, and it was only at a particular point that the music just seemed to find it. We've done a million versions of that song so it's kind of funny to play it on the autoharp or on the ukelele, because we've done it really big and blown up, Phil Spector-style. There's a version of it, on a 7-inch with like two drum kits and two basses and, you know, everything. Pull out all the stops. And then sometimes it's fun to also just play it with just one person, or a couple of people and an autoharp.
What was your major in college?
It was a weird name for a degree. It was basically a ‘choose your own adventure' type degree in languages, Comparative Literature and Languages. And then I started doing a master's in English but never finished. I haven't finished yet.
Is there any use for Comparative Literature and Languages in your chosen profession?
I think in the sense that I'm always reading. I can't stop reading. So maybe I don't necessarily hang out in the back of the van and start writing theses for, you know, future papers or anything like that. That's kind of far from my mind. But I do, I can't put down books. It's like trying to give up playing the guitar or singing.
But you can read while you're on the road? You don't get van sick?
I actually do get van sick, but I've discovered a technique [laughs] where if you read like this [she demonstrates the subsequent positioning], if you read looking a little bit up it gets a little bit easier. If you sit at the front it gets a little bit easier.
So you sit in the front seat with your arms raised while looking up.
Lift your arms up for as long as you can stand it. You can get through a chapter at a time.
You've got to want to read pretty badly to be doing that.
[laughs] The first couple of tours were really hard for me because I wasn't reading and I felt like a big part of me was missing somehow. I was just so— I don't know. Maybe I get a little lonely without books or something, but it really helps to have books on this trip around.
You play piano, guitar, autoharp, banjo, ukelele, sax, flute and upright bass. And those are just the ones I know of.
[laughs] Not all of those as well as others.
I would imagine that the fluency would vary. Are you learning so many instruments because you're bored with the instruments you do know? Because you have this curiosity itch that has to be scratched? Or because you're looking for the perfect sound to best communicate the songs that you're writing?
I think right now I'm more attracted to finding weird, misfit kind of instruments. Like the autoharp and its kind of weird cousins that you can find around the States like the ukelin or the tremoloa. Just weird little things. I like changing it up just because I think sometimes you'll write a song on piano and it's really meant for guitar, or I'll write a song on guitar and it was meant for the autoharp. And I like that it doesn't necessarily, you know, dictate what the song has to be, but it helps me find ideas. And I love to play so . . . [laughs]
You recorded Oh, My Darling between January and September of 2006, so a lot of this material is over two years old. Which means there's a good chance that you'll never spend as much time with one of your own records as you have this one.
That's true. Yeah, it's quite possible.
What have you learned about your album since the recording was finished?
Oh gosh, quite a few things. I think sometimes I worry that I won't have the same spirit or excitement. I think I'll be maybe a little more nervous this time around, so I think when I look at this first record I'm always thinking about how I can not necessarily redo it, because I definitely don't want to do that, but not think too much about record two. I think the one thing that I really realized about the first record is I wasn't thinking about it. I was just really so thrilled to be able to sing and play and make a record with my friends that the other parts that come into making a record didn't really matter as much. I just really wanted to feel like it was me, and that it was honest. So I think that's something that I will be thinking about for the next record, is how not to think too much. Thinking about how not to think too much.”
When you're a new artist and you're doing the dog and pony show around the world in order to introduce yourself and your music to audiences, how do you feel about playing new songs? Because if you recorded two years ago, then more than likely you have some new material you're excited about. Have you made rules like, ‘I can play new songs' or ‘I can't play new songs' or ‘I can play a new song every other Thursday as long as I'm south of the Mason-Dixon Line'?
[laughs] It's funny. We've been talking about this because we do play new songs each set. Every show we're playing at least one or two songs. But another thing about the first record is that the songs, when we play them live, we've changed them a little bit, and just playing them I think we become better players. And I think that playing some new songs in each set makes it more fun for us and makes it more fun for people who might not know us or might not be there to see us, just to kind of gauge their reaction to it and see if anyone likes it all. But also see what it feels like to be playing that song. And it always gives me new ideas. Like I think on this tour I've had more ideas for new songs than I ever have just from playing and getting an idea like ‘This won't work on this song, but I can see it happening somewhere else.'
Well can you write on the road? Or does that make you van sick too?
[laughs] I can. I can. Sometimes there's nowhere I can be that I can write and it's just like a total block, and then sometimes I think you just have periods where it's just non-stop. It just feels like a snowball tumbling, so I think maybe that's where I am right now. Luckily we'll be going into the studio soon, but if I haven't had a chance to sit with those songs long enough it might be disastrous [laughs]. The snowball might bowl me over.
The name of the album is Oh, My Darling. You've got a song on the album called ‘Oh My Darling.' Do you pick that album title because that song has special meaning or because the title was just so damn good you wanted to use it twice?
[laughs] A little bit of both, I guess. Like the record was never . . . I never anticipated a dog and pony show would happen for me, that I would get in the ring at all. I think I was just really making it for the people that were, you know, endeared to me, and a term like that, that song was kind of encapsulating a lot of why I was making the record. So the next record, I don't know what it's going to be titled. Who knows? Maybe Dog and Pony Show.
Of the songs on Oh, My Darling, which took the least amount of time to write?
“Snakes and Ladders.”
And what's your particular feeling about that song? Does it feel more like art or a gift because it came so quickly? Or does it maybe seem like it belongs to somebody else because you didn't have to work as hard?
I think it feels a little like a gift. It's funny that you use that word. I've been thinking a lot about that, the idea of gift with music. And it goes in so many ways. Sometimes you feel like something has given you this song and I just feel happy that I can put my name on it. And then I also feel like performing, too, to be able to perform for people is a gift, and that they're giving me something back as well. That song in particular, when I play it, it's kind of nice the reaction that we get from people. It usually feels like a gift. It just feels kind of special after we play that song.
And if you take the performance aspect out, if you look at the song only in terms of writing, which song are you most proud of? Which song off of Oh My Darling is like, ‘That's about as good as I could do there?'
Probably “I Was A Daughter.”
And how long did that one take to write?
Not very long [laughs]. Some songs, it's strange. The really short songs tend to take a long time. None of my songs are very long, I suppose. They're all about three minutes or less.
Do you read your reviews?
[laughs] I try not to.
So that's a ‘Yes?'
I do when someone forwards them to me, yeah. I mean, sometimes the label will forward me nice reviews. Sometimes my friends forward me really mean reviews. Or just reviews that seem a little bit, or even incredibly, off the mark.
Your friends are doing this?
They are. I think I just get a little bit too scared to . . . I've been warned by so many of my other friends in music, like don't look yourself up. Don't do that. Because if you're thinking about what other people think about you so much then . . . It can't be a good thing. It's like being back in high school again [laughs]. Unless the review, whether it's negative or positive, if it's a well-written review, then I appreciate it. If it seems like somebody knows, you know, has a real reason for what they're writing, then usually someone will forward it along to me and it's actually kind of enlightening. I mean, I went to school and studied a lot of criticism too, so I definitely think there's a huge place for it. But I think, unfortunately being on the other side of the table, sometimes there's just a lot people who like to write about music but don't know how, and some people who do and that's when it's great. I think it's always good to have filter, but if you start looking for it then that's a sign that there's something else going on when you really want to seek it out, you know.
And it probably doesn't help with the not thinking part.
Yeah, exactly [laughs].
And what's the most flattering thing about your work that you've read?
Ooh. I think it means a lot when people say I have a lot of feeling. Like I think that's something . . . I think when I'm singing I'm really . . . I do try and . . . I try to not think, I guess [laughs]. I try to really feel what I'm singing about when I can and just sort of be there. And so that means a lot. I think the nicest thing someone has said that I can remember . . . The first thing I thought of was when someone said, ‘Her voice feels like it's burning through the tape.' That really meant a lot to me when I first read that and it still does.