Basia Bulat is a multi-instrumentalist from Toronto, Canada, but its her voice — a lilting, expressive alto — that she weilds most powerfully. It has that rare combination of being trained yet simultaneously uncaged, not unlike the pipes of Natalie Merchant or Tracy Chapman.
“It’s funny, because I’ve got those two a lot recently, but I’ve never listened to either of them,” she said, when I met her at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, where she was in town for one of her few West Coast stops en route to South by Southwest. “I wonder if it’s because we’re all altos? I’m trying to figure out if it’s a vibrato? Growing up, I didn’t know their music at all, and I didn’t know anything contemporary. Being 26, I think they were a little bit before me. At the same time, the only people I was listening to were people like Odetta; she’s probably had more influence on my singing than anybody.”
People like Odetta, and the Carter family — Maybelle Carter, specifically, who cradled an autoharp, just as Bulat does. Those musical interests were largely a function of her upbringing. “My mom was a music teacher. I started piano lessons at 3 years old, and from there I was playing in orchestras and stage bands, choirs. I was playing upright bass, saxophone, the flute. Then I got guitar, and my mom knew I was a big fan of the Carter Family and the second generation of the Carter family, and a neighbor was selling the autoharp,” she said. “She picked it up for me, and that’s how it all began. I’m really attached to it.”
Bulat played SXSW once before, in 2007, with her autoharp and a small band — including her brother Bobby on drums — in tow. “I went with a couple friends and my brother; they were backing me up, and it was really fun to do a roadtrip together like that,” she said. “We were there for a total of 48 hours. We drove down, stayed one night, played two shows, then drove away the next day. We saw our other friends’ bands, but it was actually very compact, so this time I’m actually going to be there the whole week.”
With more time on her hands this SXSW, Bulat has already made a list of bands she wants to see. “I want to see Shearwater play, we’re playing a showcase together,” she said. “I’m really excited to play with Quasi; that’s going to be crazy. They’re playing the same showcase. Plants and Animals — they’re friends of mine and they’re a phenomenal band. Johnny Flynn, from England; I want to see him. A singer that I toured with, her name is Katie Stelmanis, I’m really excited to see her with a band. There’s so many bands, it’s going to be tough. Ivan and Alyosha, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, [and] The Royal Alberta Advantage.”
Bulat plays March 17 at noon at the Paste Party at the Galaxy Room (507 E 6th St.) and again that evening at 10, for the Rough Trade Showcase at Emo’s Jr. (603 Red River). Her final two performances are March 18 at 2:30 p.m. for Pop Montreal’s showcase at Lovejoy’s (604 Neches St.) and March 19 at 10 p.m. for the Billions Showcase at Antone’s (213 W 5th St.).