BASIA BULAT with WAYNE PETTI at the Music Gallery (197 John), Saturday (September 22), at 5:30 and 8:30 pm. $10.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNN
Diminutive singer Basia Bulat is thrusting her alabaster-white hands at me, demanding they be observed.
"Look at them! My hands are so tiny they would never be able to shred," says the straw blond in between fits of laughter. "I would be a terrible metal guitarist. You need to be able to shred!"
She's right - her elfin paws could never handle metal axe duties, and no one will ever call her a shredder on guitar. Fortunately, the 24-year-old's career appears to be moving in a different, more promising direction.
Sitting in a trendy café on Ossington, Bulat is comically speculating on her future while reacting incredulously to any insinuation that her star might be on the rise or that her well-crafted homegrown debut disc, Oh, My Darling (Hardwood), is strong enough to catapult her to a higher level of recognition.
Impressive record deals and promising support tours, though, should be enough to convince the noticeably talented songstress.
"The fact that I'm sitting here right now is really crazy to me," says the Polish-born Bulat, shaking her head. "I never expected it to get this far."
One reason for Bulat's disbelief is because her debut, a project hatched in her store-top apartment barely two years ago, came to a frightening halt only three days after she started recording. Bulat's voice seized, threatening to clip a career just taking shape. Nodes on her vocal cords silenced her, to the point where she couldn't speak, much less sing.
"I was really scared," remembers Bulat. "I called every ear, nose and throat specialist in the phone book. The last one turned out to be the best. He got me medication and told me not to talk or sing for a while.
"I was going around London [Ontario, her hometown] with a pen and paper write/talking to people. You get a different perspective on life when you can't speak. People yelled at me or talked very slowly [because] they thought I was deaf or a mute - definitely an eye-opening experience."
Her social isolation was a small price to pay, considering that the impediment actually worked in her favour on Oh, My Darling. When Bulat returned to the studio, her voice healed and strong, she struggled to replicate the intangible edge of those first nervous sessions. Their rawness and imperfection gave the songs a heightened emotional power that might otherwise have been absent had she recorded over them.
"When I came back to do them again, they just sounded really boring," says Bulat of the retakes. "They didn't have that energy, and that was hard to accept, because you can hear all the flaws. But it has a spirit that I couldn't duplicate. Maybe it's not supposed to be perfect."
Raised by a skilled pianist mother in a tuneful family (her drummer is her brother), the Etobicokian easily bonded with the music faculty geeks at her London university, where she corralled fellow musicians by offering an open-door-policy jam space with extended hours of operation.
"The store would close at 5 pm, so we could be as noisy as we wanted. Everybody was coming over to my house all the time, just knocking on my door and wanting to play, and that's how I have a band."
That geeky squad of viola, brass and piano players teamed with her and cut a roughly produced demo of dreamy rustic folk to hand out at a show that kind of snuck up on Bulat when a local promoter, unbeknownst to her, put her name under Julie Doiron's on a gig flyer.
"I told my friend putting on the show, 'I actually have no songs,'" she recalls. "He said, 'Well, your name's on the poster, which is out on the street, so you'd better come up with something. You've got two weeks.'
"So I wrote a bunch of songs, made a little demo, and that was the first real show. Half of those songs are on the record now."
The next summer, the independent EP would butterfly into Oh, My Darling. While furthering her bilingualism in Montreal, Bulat met famed indie rock sound engineer Howard Bilerman, a former drummer for Arcade Fire and co-owner of the artistically lauded Hotel2Tango, the studio where Bulat, draining her student loan (her parents already know), recorded Darling.
That's when the scary voice injury occurred. But once her voice came back, Bulat called her London crew, and everyone packed into her Mercury Sable for the commute. It was a tight fit, a cello laid across their legs in the back seat, guitars on their laps in the front. But those nine-hour journeys are indicative of Bulat's tightness with her band, a bond she can't see loosening just because the spotlight is shining brighter on her as an individual artist.
"These aren't hired hands - they're very dear friends," says Bulat, her demeanour turning deadly serious. "It is my record and my project, but at the same time, these aren't people I didn't know.
"If nobody had cared about [Oh, My Darling], if I were giving it away to my family for free, begging them to take it, I would be very proud of it. It's the heart and soul of my friends and me, a musical document of what we're like and who we are. It wasn't a grand, premeditated artistic statement of any kind."
Nevertheless Bilerman spotted its potential and dialled up his British bud Geoff Travis, founder of UK indie heavyweight Rough Trade, a label with a Canadian fetish (Arcade Fire, Sunset Rubdown, Destroyer). When Travis e-mailed Bulat to express his interest, she assumed she was being punked and called Bilerman to find out for sure.
Oh, My Darling was released on Rough Trade last April in Europe, putting Bulat alongside names like Belle and Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens and the Strokes. Not long after an ensuing Euro tour, Bulat inked with Hayden's Hardwood imprint for a domestic release.
As outside expectations grow, Bulat insists she's not making any drastic reformations to please others, sell units or become a metal god. And don't expect to see Basia (the one-name moniker could really work here if there weren't already a Polish pop star laying claim to it) the glamorous solo artist any time soon.
"I hate it," says Bulat tersely of the idea that she might eventually go solo. "I love playing with people.
"It's not all about me, me, me. It's my record, but it's not all about me. I would never play just by myself ever again. That's a huge statement to make, but I love playing with other people. That's the reason I fell in love with music in the first place."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On her musical and family background
On playing music with brother
On working with producer Howard Bilerman
On making music a career
On the perils of having a delicate voice
Oh, My Darling (Hardwood) Rating: NNN
Oh, My Darling opens with a short ditty called Before I Knew, a ukulele and hand-clap sample of her breathy Joni vocals, which take full flight on the galloping and propulsive next track, I Was A Daughter. And when the swaying, empty-ballroom drama of Little Waltz and misty, violin-drenched December follow, you begin to realize how many moods and genres Bulat has successfully led her band through. The strongest song is a surefire soundtrack pickup titled Snakes And Ladders. While a few of the back-end songs sound a touch underdeveloped, most notably an incongruous jazzy number called Why Can't It Be Mine, such tiny faults hardly detract from this most impressive introduction. JK