06/26/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Basia Bulat: Remembering to Us Our Songs

When Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat takes the stage each night in support of the headlining folk rock band Bowerbirds, she does so without a setlist. This seems rather akin to a trapeze artist performing without the aid of a net. It also reveals an unselfish attitude toward the songs themselves, a conceit that the songs are what ultimately compel the artist's performance to do what it does, and that the artist can choose to embrace or reject the inherent danger in that vulnerable, "netless" feat.

At a recent Thursday evening concert at The Tralf in Buffalo, N.Y., there was an earnest patience, an indefatigable generosity running throughout her performance. Owning a voice that sounds as if it's been burnished by the glowing sunrise, she combines youthful exuberance with a knowing gravitas. The multi-instrumentalist's songs often dwell on memory, specifically the recollection that we're ultimately beholden to the people and things that hold our hearts captive. "Snakes and Ladders," the heart-rending but uptempo ballad that arrived early in the set, reinforced this lyrical theme with Bulat's stirring yet simply stated admission: "I love the way we come undone." At the heart of the set was "Gold Rush," a melancholy and restlessly eager song in which the narrator conveys the loss of a loved one who leaves in an ultimately vain search for an unspecified treasure.

In speaking with Bulat prior to the evening's concert, it seemed that telling tragic stories through song was inexorable, and that there was something inherently beautiful about that reality. She recalled a story she was once told about the First Nations of Canada:

When the Klondike Gold Rush began, one of the tribal leaders at the time went across the river down however many kilometers away to a related tribe -- not the same tribe, neighbors pretty much -- and said, 'Here are our songs and dances. Remember them, pass them down to your people because we're gonna forget our songs. And when we're ready, teach them back to us' ... [the song] 'Gold Rush' is more about not forgetting a story even though it's not the nicest story, even though maybe it's about greed, and it's about your own greed, possibly.

Throughout her music, Bulat maintains an awareness about the existence of selfishness embedded in one's love for another. Her songs unfurl all the complications of love and then repackage them in a three or four-minute span. For all its mystery, an explanation is simple and forthcoming. "There are certain things that I can only express in a song," she says. "I can't really say it any other way."

Bulat doesn't shy away from the things that only others can express in song either. In her cover of the indie cult classic "True Love Will Find You in the End," the plaintive simplicity of songwriter Daniel Johnston's original remains intact. But whereas Johnston sounds detached -- as if reinforcing someone else's hope while implicitly abandoning his own -- Bulat imbues the song with warmth it was previously lacking. In talking about her attraction to a particular song or artist, she invokes a fittingly musical analogy.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm just this string, and when two strings are in tune, they kind of vibrate in a different way than when they're out of tune," she explains. "Sometimes I feel like I pick whatever I'm most attuned to."

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