ASK BASIA BULAT and she will explain that the autoharp, her longtime means of instrumental expression, is not the most complicated musical instrument to master. "Even the name itself implies there is a simplicity to it," the Canadian songwriter jokes before a show in Winnipeg. Yet the instrument and Bulat have lengthy history together, something its remedial nature won't be changing anytime soon. "My mom found it at a neighbor's garage sale," Bulat explains. "She knew I had a predisposition to falling in love with weird, older instruments; anything that looks like it has a bit of history." Coupled with the younger Bulat's love for both Johnny Cash and the Carter Family—especially Maybelle Carter—it was a match made in autoharp heaven.
Bulat's debut came courtesy of likeminded troubadour Hayden and his Hardwood Records imprint, which released her Oh, My Darling debut in 2007 (later, Rough Trade made the album available to all those outside the 10 provinces). An intricately assembled lot of majestic folk songs, Darling initially feels small in stature, but the album unfurls as a series of grand arrangements, all capped by Bulat's charismatic, warbling voice. The affable charm of Bulat—each song feels like it was penned in some wind-swept, rustic cabin atop the prairies of Ontario—is not lost on these early recordings and nicely sets the stage for her just-released Heart of My Own.
While Darling found Bulat dipping her toes in the gospel-folk waters, Heart is her complete submersion. Her once-quaint voice now booms alongside a more confident backing band and additional instrumentation, including the one she so literally holds dear—the autoharp. Of course, it's not the lone weapon in Bulat's musical arsenal—ukulele, hammered dulcimer, and the boring old guitar all make appearances in her rich catalog—but it's the autoharp that she cradles to her chest and weaves into her music with such grace.
The growth of Heart is also felt in the pen, as Bulat's songwriting shakes free from her quaint—albeit appealing—early material and offers a glimpse of a road-weary touring performer. "I was writing a lot on the road and the fact that I was touring—I had never toured before and had just put out my first record—and playing night after night really had an effect on my writing."
Bulat also excels in songs she does not compose, often relying on a bevy of varied covers—from traditional gospel spirituals to a version of "True Love Will Find You in the End" that could shatter Daniel Johnston's heart. "It's great to do covers because that's how they get their standard stripes, and people keep old songs alive in that way," says Bulat. "One of the things I get asked a lot, in terms of the folk tradition, is where do I see myself? I don't really know where, but one of the things I do like is this idea of letting songs have multiple lives and having lots of different people play them."
Bulat's touring income was recently supplemented by a surprisingly tasteful Subaru commercial (it's the lost sunglasses one) soundtracked by Darling's "Before I Knew." Possibly the finest musical licensing moment since a bunch of kids drove around in a VW listening to Nick Drake, it still was a choice that weighed on her. "It was a personal decision, but like everything else it's not something I took lightly," she explains before admitting, "To be honest, I don't even have TV."