Singer-songwriter Basia Bulat is back with chamber folk new album ‘The Garden’

There are some strings attached to the new Basia Bulat album that dropped on Friday.

The Toronto-born, Montreal-based, one-time Polaris Music Prize finalist has hired three arrangers — Owen Pallett, Paul Frith and cellist Zou Zou Robidoux — to wrap the 16 songs on her upcoming retrospective “The Garden” with string quartets, and is quite smitten with the results.

“It’s really fun and I love these arrangements,” Bulat said on the phone from Montreal on a cold, snowy January day. “Some of them have dated all the way back to 2008 when I did a show with Symphony Nova Scotia.”

Bulat said the source material for the chamber folk-flavoured “The Garden” is from her first five studio albums, including the songs “I Was a Daughter” and “The Pilgriming Vine” from the album that gave the autoharp-playing singer and songwriter her start, 2007’s “Oh, My Darling.”

“A few of those are from the first record that Owen arranged many years ago and I just loved them so much,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to have a way to get them out to people and record them. But the time never felt right or it just didn’t seem possible.”

However, just before the pandemic, Bulat had finished touring 2020’s Jim James-produced “Are You In Love?” with dates in Australia and England, and had employed a string section for her performances.

So when COVID-19 finally forced everyone off the road, Bulat figured it was time to string these arrangements together.

“After a while, in the fall, it just felt like such a fun opportunity to get into a studio,” she said. “There were lots of options for isolation. Each person can be isolated and safe, and I thought maybe we’d try a few of the songs, just to see how they would turn out. There wasn’t a plan for it to be a full-fledged album until we realized that all 16 of these songs sound so fun, we should just put this all out. It was a really magical experience.”

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Bulat chose to reinterpret songs in which “it felt like the meaning of them had shifted since the moment I wrote them.”

“That’s even true for the newest record, ‘Are You In Love?’ just the fact that it came out in 2020, a lot of these songs, their meaning shifted just in the context of the world that we were — and are — still living in,” Bulat said. “So it felt good to be able to just kind of lose all sense of time and just create a new perspective. I kind of feel like I’m tending and nurturing them in a different way, which is why I picked ‘The Garden’ as the title track: I’ve always loved gardening. I’ve always loved putting my hands in the dirt and I feel like that impulse is how I push songwriting, too.”

Bulat is blessed with a powerful voice that sometimes travels into Natalie Merchant territory. It’s front and centre on “The Garden,” which offers standout renditions of “Infamous” and “In the Name Of” from “Good Advice,” but anyone who is a fan of her archival work will find plenty to be charmed by.

“The Garden” serves as a strong stopgap as she contemplates her next creative move.

“Everything has its season and every season is interesting for a different reason; even wintertime, when you see what’s left standing in the garden, all these different shapes and forms, underneath the snow. When I look outside in my backyard, there’s these little skeletons that have their own forms and their own meanings.

“That’s what it feels like right now, that under this blanket of snow there are these shapes that came out of everything previously and it kind of gives me a chance to think about what I’m gonna put down in the dirt in the spring.”

Bulat acknowledges that her inspiration stems from another magical life moment she experienced in April 2021: the birth of her daughter, the first child for her and husband Andy Woods.

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“My little girl, every single day, her brain is changing her into a new person. Her brain is acquiring so much knowledge at this breakneck speed. And it’s really inspiring. I’m just trying to write songs that kind of make her bounce around,” she said.

Bulat admits that one downside of COVID was the isolation it brought from other family members, especially for the period when Quebec temporarily shut its borders last year.

“Being pregnant was very, very challenging because I am in Montreal and, for many reasons, I couldn’t travel,” she said. “My mother couldn’t come and my grandmother couldn’t come. So I couldn’t see any of my family while I was pregnant.

“My grandmother also had a stroke in the spring of 2020. She’s doing much better now but, at the beginning of that, I was helping my mother with the caregiving because there was nobody to come in. And there’s a language barrier there, and no one could come and visit her. Once she was able to get out, we did this mother/daughter stroke rehab for my grandmother at home for the summer.

“It’s a very strange thing to remember the narrative and the timeline of how this all happened, but it was very lonely and definitely not what I had envisioned,” Bulat added. “By the time my daughter was born, my grandmother and my mother were well enough to travel and come to visit me here. And that was extremely emotional, you know, for her to meet my daughter, and for us to have four generations of women in the same room was really crazy. So now I have so much time and I’m so grateful for it. But it definitely came at a cost.”

Bulat was to leave on a tour of Europe next week, but COVID-19 ended that reality and now she’ll commence her “Garden” tour with a pair of dates at Toronto’s History on April 3 and 4.

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She has shared the stage with everyone from Arcade Fire and Nick Cave to composer Philip Glass and St. Vincent.

“I was always very grateful that I had a career as a musician and a touring career, especially because I love performing and I feel the most free onstage,” Bulat said. “So I never took it for granted, but I didn’t assume that we would be in this kind of situation for this long. Maybe nobody did, but whenever touring happens I’m just so excited for it. I’ve never wanted to play more in my life.”

Speaking of touring, Bulat said “The Garden” — co-produced by her and Mark Lawson, who also co-produced 2013’s “Tall Tall Shadow” — became a “full circle moment” with the involvement of Pallett.

“The first person I ever toured with across Canada was Owen Pallett. And that’s what makes this record a really cool full circle moment for me, is that I learned so much from him on that first tour, especially on how to treat an opener.”

While she’s been living in Montreal since 2014, Bulat said she still has a soft spot for Toronto, especially since she was born and raised in Etobicoke.

“I have to say I really miss Toronto,” she said. “I love Montreal, but I’m always coming to Toronto because that’s where my family is. So much of my heart is always gonna be in Toronto.”


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