TORONTO – Basia Bulat still has a hard time talking about her recent loss of a loved one, which is perhaps part of why she chose to sing about it.
So it was that the Juno-nominated singer/songwriter found herself grief-stricken and reeling just two months before she was set to record the follow-up to her standout sophomore record “Heart of My Own.” She’d already crafted an album’s worth of new material, but given the sad recent developments she was enduring, she tossed aside what she’d written and started again.
And she found the music just poured out of her.
“I wanted to restart and … really not hold myself back in the singing and the writing, and just see what might come out,” the Toronto-based singer said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t really, ‘now I’m going to write about this and now I’m going to write about that’ — it was more of a freeform approach to writing.
“One of the songs on the record, ‘It Can’t Be You,’ I was just playing the triangle and singing, whatever came out was the song. It happened really quickly. It wasn’t like, ‘hey, let’s explore this.’ It was literally what was in my heart at the time of writing.”
And the resultant record — “Tall Tall Shadow,” in stores this week — is appropriately intimate and devastating as one would expect, but also fairly hopeful.
Perhaps that reflects what Bulat says was a liberating recording experience working with producers Tim Kingsbury and Mark Lawson, the former a member of Arcade Fire and the latter a Grammy-winning engineer on that Montreal band’s 2010 smash “The Suburbs.” Past collaborator Howard Bilerman, another Arcade Fire associate, also contributed.
But even as her network of co-conspirators broadened, Bulat seemed to put ever more of herself into her music. Aside from her pliable, honey-coated voice, she’s long set herself apart with her mastery of a variety of instruments, and on “Tall Tall Shadow” she capably employs an especially broad array: guitar, piano, synthesizer, pianoette, organ, autoharp, charango and wurlitzer.
“I played more of the instruments this time around on this record, and that was in part a conscious decision,” she says. “Just to see, can I push myself? How much of this can I do?
“The thing with instruments,” she continues, “is just we tried so many different arrangements, but it always came back to the same thing: what is the best way to tell the story in song?”
Those stories, meanwhile, are her most personal yet. She acknowledges that the songs are informed by the aforementioned loss — about which, she chooses to say only: “I lost somebody very close to me” — but rarely does she succumb to simple anguish, sounding at times determined to overcome the pain.
She is, however, unguarded in a way she hasn’t been before, opening herself up to a new vulnerability.
“I’ve always taken from my own life and my own stories, but I think never as directly as this time around,” she said. “I think I didn’t really try to hide what was going on in the way that I might have in the past. And I think that’s another element of taking a risk, I guess.”
Many of the tracks feature some degree of unobtrusive electronics in the mix — another change — but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the nature of Bulat’s delicate folk-pop.
And for a record with such sombre roots — not to mention gorgeously doleful artwork that references Nico’s “Chelsea Girls” — much of the music is surprisingly sprightly. “Wires,” an “extremely poppy” song about starting over, is kept aloft by a pounding drum beat (provided by Bulat’s brother, Bobby), “Promise Not to Think About Love” is a cheeky, handclappy anthem of self-empowerment inspired in part by Bulat’s fondness for girl groups and the album-opening title track is a winding drive lit by luminous keys.
That song, “Tall Tall Shadow,” was the last Bulat wrote for the album and its lyrics are ambitiously intended to incorporate elements of the rest of the album’s songs.
And given its friction between positive and negative forces, it also tidily encapsulates the complex mood Bulat sought to capture with her third album.
“The words ‘Tall Tall Shadow’ — a shadow only exists with light, right?” Bulat says. “So you need both. And they’re both there in every song on the record.”