Basia Bulat is a Canadian singer-songwriter whose songs have an unusual instrumental foundation with the autoharp. Diversions Editor Allison Hussey talked to Bulat about her history with the her instrument and her growth as an artist.
Diversions: How did you get into playing the autoharp?
Basia Bulat: Actually, a neighbor of mine was selling it at a garage sale, and that’s what happened. It was a very prosaic beginning, I guess. Then I kind of started getting into it, and I just thought it was really cool. I really love it.
Dive: Did you teach yourself how to play it?
BB: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Just watching videos — the idea of the instrument is that it’s easy to play, so it’s a pretty fun, I think it’s a really cool instrument. I think the idea behind it of being an instrument for everybody is really interesting to me.
And I kind of came to it devoid of any historical context. Then, as I started looking it up, I thought, “Oh, there’s actually kind of a cultural tradition of really awesome ladies who play autoharp.” I thought that was pretty cool.
Dive: Who were some of your favorites that you found?
BB: Definitely Mother Maybelle Carter. I never saw her live in person, but I thought she was amazing. Actually, the first time I saw an autoharp was played by a man, it was played by Will Oldham. I saw him on tour — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Will Oldham or Bonnie “Prince” Billy — but he’s the first person I saw ever playing an autoharp. And I thought it was really cool.
Then when I saw it again for sale by my neighbor I thought, “Oh yeah, that looks familiar to me.” In terms of bluegrass, it’s pretty well known, like with Dolly Parton — I’ve seen her play it. It’s cool.
Dive: What kind of growth did you notice in yourself between your new album and your earlier material?
BB: I would say my first two records are more directly inspired by folk music. I would say this record is a lot more personal. The lyrics and the music are coming directly from my own experience as opposed to trying to wrap something up in narrative.
I’d say the production feels a lot more modern. There’s more electronic, more electric elements to what’s on the recordings. So yeah, it’s definitely something that feels like I stepped into the present as opposed to the past.
Dive: What would you say has surprised you most about your musical career so far?
BB: There’s a surprise every day. It’s kind of hard to pick one. There’s always something. I don’t know, I always find myself very grateful and very happy to be where I am. And I don’t ever have any expectations. I don’t know if “surprised” is the word, but I think I want to focus on what I’m writing and what I’m working on and not necessarily have any attachment to outcome. And then I allow myself to be open to whatever surprises might come.
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