After spending three days at Montreal's Hotel2Tango studio recording her debut album, Oh, My Darling, Basia Bulat temporarily lost her voice, thanks to nodes on her vocal cords. “I read in Q that the same thing happened to Mariah Carey,” Bulat says from her home in Toronto. (She's multitasking, making pad Thai while talking on the phone.) On the advice of a voice specialist, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter went on full vocal rest for two weeks, ceasing work on the record and communicating with those around her via pen and paper. When she felt good enough to sing a few months later, Bulat returned to the studio to resume tracking Oh, My Darling. But the results weren't to her liking.
“It sounded so forced,” she says of the take-two material. Bulat arranged the original sessions as a way to document the music she'd been making with a group of pals at university in London, Ontario; she paid for the studio time using student loans. They worked quickly, and more than a few notes were sacrificed to the gods of expediency. But in their quest to save some dough, they ended up capturing an energy and a spontaneity that the new stuff seemed to lack. So Bulat decided to keep the bulk of the earlier recordings as they were, scratchy guide vocals and all.
Good call: Though it's polished, with tidy string arrangements that provide an air of chamber-music refinement, Oh, My Darling tumbles out of the speakers with the unchecked enthusiasm of the best young-person rock; it's a quality that links Bulat to other celebrated Canadian acts like Arcade Fire and the Hidden Cameras, who seem to view the playing of music (especially in a live setting) as one of those skills you can master simply through force of will.
“It was meant more as a fun project than any focused, concentrated kind of work,” Bulat says of making Darling, and you can hear that in cuts like “In the Night,” an appealingly shambolic orchestral-folk rave-up in which Bulat zestily strums an Autoharp, the zitherlike instrument she learned to play only because her music-teacher mom brought one home from a neighbor's yard sale. “She got it for almost nothing!” Bulat says proudly. (Watch her play the thing in the song's charming video, which also features dancing skeletons and drumming wolves.)
Rough Trade first released Oh, My Darling in England and Japan last year; shortly thereafter, Hayden, the veteran Ontario folkie, licensed the album for release in Canada through his Hardwood label. “She's a natural,” says William “Skinny” Tenn, Hayden's manager and business partner at Hardwood. “And like a lot of Canadian musicians, she's got that work ethic that goes back to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, where more than anything, it's about being an honest songwriter.”
Bulat has since toured with Hayden, as well as with Final Fantasy, the string-based solo project of Arcade Fire's Owen Pallett. “I'm just starting out and learning from all these amazing people how bad I am in comparison,” she says with a laugh.
Rough Trade's American branch released the album here last week and sent Bulat and her four-piece band (which includes her brother on percussion) on a three-week U.S. tour to support it. Bulat says she hates feeling like a boss, so she encourages her side people to deviate from the arrangements on Oh, My Darling onstage. “I like it when people take liberties and take some ownership of the songs,” she says. “The main thing I love about music is playing with other people. I've done some solo shows for the first time this month, and they were good opportunities to learn, but they can't compare to the communal experience.”
Basia Bulat performs at the Hotel Cafe on Tues., Feb. 19.