Basia Bulat walks on the dark side

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No shortage of legwork went into finding the perfect recording space for Basia Bulat’s third album, Tall Tall Shadow, the singer more interested in old rooms in Toronto with character than studios with state-of-the-art equipment.

“I definitely visited every single legion in the city,” says the outgoing Ontarian, on the line from her Hogtown home. “I kind of fell in love with the idea of a stage informing the sound of the record. And I also wanted to do something that, at least for me, would be different. So I ended up finding this amazing legion room in the east end of the city that was pretty great.

“I’d seen a lot of places, but this one was special, with big, high ceilings,” Bulat continues. “There was a senior citizens’ jazz band playing and people dancing during a lunchtime concert. Because of the big, tall windows, it kind of felt a little bit like being stuck back in another time—it had a beautiful wood floor that had been preserved and powder-blue walls and yellow curtains. It was like stepping back into the ’70s.”

The singer moved in with a supporting cast of backing musicians and began recording basic versions of songs that would later be fleshed out with sweeping chamber-pop strings and horns in a more conventional studio setting.

“We spent a week there doing the skeletal version of the tracks—all the drums and a lot of the main vocals,” Bulat says. “Often we’d have four or five of us sitting in a circle, which I think gives the record a live feel.”

What stands out past the album’s warm spontaneity is that the 29-year-old singer has made a successful attempt to reinvent herself. Her first two records, Oh, My Darling (2007) and the Polaris Prize–nominated Heart of My Own (2008), established her as someone born to play the folk-festival circuit, with songs that offer a sunny and upbeat bridge to the sound that once made Lilith Fair famous.

Tall Tall Shadow—which was coproduced by Arcade Fire member Tim Kingsbury and Mark Lawson (Beirut, Akron/Family)—takes things in a decidedly more electric and wide-reaching direction. Bulat is equally at home dabbling in bright-eyed, guitar-powered gorgeousness (“Paris or Amsterdam”) and exploring the melancholy side of the street with downbeat piano and violin (“Someone”).

The more sombre songs are a hint the record was very much born out of darkness. Even though she’d rather not get into details, Bulat lost someone close to her just months before getting to work on the album. Her way of dealing with that loss was to channel her pain into something positive, namely her art. The challenge was to make something deep, but not necessarily depressing, which might explain why, for every melancholy offering such as the delicate “It Can’t Be You”, there’s an upbeat counterpart like the thumping rocker “Wires”.

“There are certain headspaces I can’t work in,” Bulat explains. “My perspective on where I was coming from was that I was trying to be honest about losing someone that I loved, and where I am. Also, when you remember someone, you remember the beautiful things, the funny things. That’s why the album is called Tall Tall Shadow—sometimes a shadow is seen as something dark, and sometimes it wouldn’t exist without light.”

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