Basia Bulat, the autoharp queen

Basia Bulat

“A lot of instruments just come to me by happenstance,” Canadian folk artist Basia Bulat said to me on the phone yesterday. “Things kind of fall into your lap and cross your path at different times.”

That's one thing I learned from our conversation: the mult-instrumentalist takes a very zen approach to her stable of musical toys, which she's acquired through gifts and garage sales and other various means. Basia Bulat (that's Bah-sha Boo-lot if you'd like to sound it out; yes, I asked) totes around an autoharp, charango (an Andean stringed instrument), hammer dulcimer, and very occasionally, a pianoette along on tour to bring her folk songs to life. Her very good folk songs, I should clarify. Bulat's albums are critically acclaimed in (and outside) her home country, where she was recently recognized as a Polaris Music Prize nominee for her third album Tall Tall Shadow. That release is a stunning collection of 10 songs, tracing the (as yet unnamed) loss of someone very close to Bulat.

She'll play at the Hi-Fi with Bahamas on Thursday.

NUVO: What draws you to the autoharp?

Basia Bulat: It's kind of funny. I play a lot of different instruments and started on piano when I was a kid. The autoharp was just something that my neighbor was selling at a garage sale. I picked it up, and it was a lot of fun. I came to it super late.

Then, I did a bit of research. What I like about it, is that [although] it's not an instrument with a ton of history, but the history that is there is quite a lot of badass ladies who play, like Maybelle Carter and June Carter Cash. It's an instrument where all the possibilities for it haven't been explored yet. I tend to play some of it in a bluegrass picking style, but I try to play it electric if I can. I've been messing around, with a lot of the new songs that I'm working on right now, with the atmospheric quality of the instrument and what you can do with it if you play with more modern technology, plug it into all that stuff. Every instrument I play, if I'm using it on a song, I write something on one instrument and use it on another. But they are all just different kind of paintbrushes, right? It's a multi-tool, for sure.

NUVO: And how about the charango?

Bulat: I'd never really realized that I'd heard it before, in film soundtracks and things like that. But I met somebody from Peru who is an amazing charanguista. From there, I was given the instrument as a gift from a friend. … It's the kind of thing that I wanted to challenge myself. The chord progressions that I can play on it, at least for the moment, and the fingerpicking, it was something that I had to learn – how to approach songwriting a little differently with that instrument. It's a little bit of a surprise. It's really small, but then you plug it in and it's capable of really beautiful, big atmospheric sounds. I guess I'm always looking for the little guy that surprises me.

NUVO: And one more. I watched the Tiny Desk Concert on NPR, where you start off on the pianoette. Are you bringing that with you on tour?

Bulat: The pianoette, I'm not going to bring it on tour. It's really fragile, the one I have. It's actually 99 years old. … I try to travel with it as little as possible. I'm kind of working on a backup one. I bought a bunch of parts to construct a new whole that maybe I can use. The one I have is really sentimental to me, so I don't want to travel with it and it's the only one I've got. But I've got another one that will be the backup one when I finish building it.

NUVO: I read frequently about the Canadian government's support of artists through various grants. As a Canadian artist, has the structural support of your country influenced your music career?

Bulat: I've definitely been the recipient of grants and loans and things like that, and it's been extremely helpful. So in a direct way, yes [they've mattered]. Also, in general, I think there's an interest in Canada in Canadian culture, which is really magical and special, that we want to hear. I think we're only now starting to really understand what that means, because Canada is a country of immigrants. I think, hopefully, in coming years, we'll be able to tell a lot of different kinds of stories, and address things like settler colonialism. I think there's been support for certain kinds of work. We just recently had this thing called the Polaris Prize and Tanya Tagaq [an Inuit throat singer] won. It was really, really nice to be nominated. It was really nice to be a part of this night, because all of these acts, everyone up there is making great music. There are a lot of acts that, maybe they didn't make the short list or even the long list, but they could have been. The fact that you have to narrow it down is really amazing, because we're a small country with a relatively small population, and yet we're really dedicated to talking about our collective culture. It's really inspiring to see that.