Interview: Basia Bulat – ”If you only let yourself be sad, then you’re denying the full range of what you’re going through”
Unedited transcription of interview previously published(in Swedish) at Kulturbloggen.com.
How come Jim James helped you out with the album?
– Because he’s awesome! I opened for him for a week of shows. I’d been a huge admirer of his work for a long time and years before this I had nervously given him a vinyl of my second album just telling him he’s a favourite and hoping he would listen to my record. So it’s a dream come true working with him.
If you compare your last album Tall Tall Shadow to this one, what would you say has been the biggest change?
– I think there’s a lot. I mean, I’m always writing from a personal place, I’m still a singer/songwriter and that will always be what I do. The last record, I was in the middle of recording an album and one of my dearest friends passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly. I had to stop everything and didn’t play music for a while. It really affected me and I wanted to make something that would honour and really be for her, so that record is really like a kind of mixtape for her, whereas this record is all about me (laughs). The last one is also me, but you never know where the songs are coming from, you just catch them.
The new album is also a sad affair. Having said that, it sounds like you’re looking for an older and wiser self, as well.
– Yeah, it’s very much a break-up record, it’s a little dark. I think I’m more and more comfortable with the two sides of my personality which are very bright and silly but then kind of honest. Everybody’s going through tough things, you know, so it’s about how you embrace those two sides of yourself, how you honour them.
Are you trying to get the music also to mirror this image of how you look at yourself, or is it more in the words?
– It’s not something I consciously sought out to do, it just happens. I love songs that are a little more complex, there are lots of songs that I love that are straight up one thing, but definitely I feel compelled a lot of the time by one of the oldest tricks in the books like Motown and all these classic tracks. ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ is like this triumphant song singing about very broken hearted souls, so it’s a very good trick and it never really loses its power over me. With the new record I wrote a lot of the songs on the guitar or on the keyboard with this organ sound. Then I sent them to Jim and went down to Kentucky where we sped them up and brought them to a new world, which was really cool.
The organ is featured more prominently on Good Advice, but the Rhodes electric piano as well as the charango and the autoharp are scaled down.
– Yes, there are less strings. I just don’t want to do the same thing over and over. My first records were just documentary style, very acoustic an folky. It’s nice to know that even though I wrote the songs one way they can translate into different forms. I wrote a lot on organ at home and actually used this little Swedish organ that I found on tour in Sweden after my second album Heart Of My Own. It’s called Bergman, a very small one but it’s tall, the coolest little organ which runs on tubes. Kind of sixties psychedelic. Actually, I was working on some songs on Gotland where I had a show and during a few days off I got to stay at a Place where they had an organ and I was really feeling it.
I guess it’s a natural development for you as an artist to expand your sound and how you do things?
– Yeah. It’s funny ’cause I grew up playing piano and I spent many years avoiding it in my own music. There’s some of course, but on these last two it’s been fun for me to get back to that. I think I really missed it and I don’t know why I stopped for so long. Probably because I was tired of taking the lessons, the classical discipline can be really bad!
Are you doing all the vocals on the album?
– A lot of the backing vocals are done by me, then there are Lacey Guthrie and Maryliz Bender from the Louisville based band Twin Limb, Katie Toupin from Houndmouth as well as an incredible singer called Cher Von. So I was really lucky to have these amazing women singing on it.
Tell me about the song ”Fool”.
– That one I wrote on the guitar when I was really sad, it was very slow. I was feeling very down and then I sent that to Jim who said we should try it the opposite way just to see and we all fell in love with that direction. It was really cool putting the power behind it. It gives it another dimension, for sure.
Is that charango you play on it?
– You mean at the end? It’s actually a Gibson guitar tuned up high. There’s definitely both charango and autoharp on the record, like on ‘Someday Soon’ and ‘Time’. Infamous has the charango and the guitar as well. We just decided to push myself into something I hadn’t done before, to just not repeat myself.
Overall on the album there aren’t many downtempo songs.
– No, I think it’s pretty loud for me. When you’re writing a ‘breakup album’ it’s a full range of emotions there, and it’s like you feel really sad but realize a change is necessary in your life and it gives you a sense of freedom, you know, there’s a powerful side to your sadness and a power to honour what you had and feel happy about it. There’s a little bit of anger on the record, but there’s no regret. I think that’s the thing. Maybe there’s a little bit, but mostly we wanted to push in the direction of that complexity of… I don’t know, we were talking a lot about the Fourth of July and Canada Day with all the fireworks where there’s this darkness and then suddenly these big bright lights. They’re beautiful but terrifying too. That’s kind of what we were going for. Otherwise, if you only let yourself only be sad, then you’re denying the full range of what you’re going through.
You’ve made two consecutive albums that sprung out of tough periods in life. Misery is often a catalyst for writing music, but then again it’s often out of happiness as well. What’s your take on this?
– I don’t really see it as happy and sad. With those albums it was both at the same time. There’s this really good quote I love from a book by Kahlil Gibran called The Prophet, it goes something like ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears’. Like, you need and can’t live without both. During these years with the two records I’ve had both and I hope that comes through on them as well. I wanted to have love and understanding and something positive too. I hope I’m sending those moments of light out to the world also.
At the same time people feel better by listening to music and taking comfort in that their not the only ones feeling in a certain way.
– That’s definitely one of the ways I feel connected to the world. Just knowing I have a place and that I’m not alone, music has a real power that I can’t explain. Also I feel like part of me is responsible for the songs and part of me has no control over what comes out.
But do you have a sort of quality filter to sift through your songs and choose what should be released or not?
– It becomes evident what belongs together on an album and it’s definitely important to me to put out something that feels real to me, I guess. Like I have to believe myself when I’m singing it and believe my own words, especially singing songs I wrote when I was younger. If I find a way and a place to sing them that still feels true, then that’s the filter, basically. A song like Let Me In is a bit silly, but at the same time being dark. It’s supposed to be a little bit playful, I hope it comes across. Life is never just one thing, you can’t just reduce it even in a pop song as that simple.
Like ”La La Lie” that opens your new album. ‘La la’ is mostly connected to something happy and then you’ve added ‘lie’ which makes it a real contradiction.
– Speaking of truth! Yeah, it’s a little twist.
I remember you playing the Scandic Grand Central Hotel last year and I was a bit annoyed by afterworkers chatting loudly during your show. Seeing as some of your songs are a bit quiet, isn’t that annoying to you as well?
– There are so many reasons why people go to shows and it depends on the venue and so many things, but at the end of the day I try hard not to take it that way. Everybody has their good days and bad days. People go there to see their friends, they get excited.
Probably it’s not personal, anyway?
– I hope not. And if it is, then I need to be better!
If you were to recommend one song from Good Advice to somebody who had never heard you, which one would you suggest?
– Maybe in a weird way I would pick ‘The Garden’, that’s the one that’s so different from the rest of them. That song is so free. I’d pick that one, even though it’s so different from the rest of the record.
Where does the title Good Advice come from?
– I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the song itself and the record is about reason vs emotion. It’s like a multi-faceted thing, it sums up the record, and the cover reflects that too. ‘No apologies’, kind of.
Do you tend to seek advice when you’re going through tough times?
– I love the culture of advice. Advice columns, people being able to talk about things, I think they’re really interesting. Because I think people are afraid to say what they really feel, they’re always conflicted when they really know the answer. When people are looking for advice they already know what they need.
Like they need confirmation?
– Yeah, either confirmation or a sounding board. Most of the time you don’t need advice from anyone else, you already know. That song means if you don’t ask for it, it’s not going to be good. It’s a little bit coy in that way! It’s something you can’t logically explain. You have in your heart what it is. There’s no right or wrong and I think that’s the whole thing. I do think I’ve been given great advice and I’ve been given terrible advice, but usually the great advice has already resoluted with what I already knew!
Have you ever written to an advice column?
– No! Ha ha! I’ve always wanted to, but I do love the culture of them. I find that people are very vulnerable. They’re often anonymous, they’re often silly, they’re always an element of fun to it but they’re very serious topics all the time. Everything is like that right now, the Internet is like a giant advice column, people writing in the Youtube comments looking for connection in some way and I just find it very interesting culturally. But I haven’t done it myself! I should! Do you remember a few years ago when there was a leak of AOL searches from different users? People use search engines because they are really looking for answers and I love it!