Basia Bulat keeping autoharp alive

ALLAN WIGNEY - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 5:58 AM ET

Basia Bulat is used to fielding questions about the autoharp, a stringed instrument favoured by the songwriter with the other-worldly voice.

But, she confesses, the Toronto-based performer only recently realized just how far out of the mainstream the once-popular instrument has fallen.

"I went to Nashville and people didn't know what my autoharp was," a bewildered Bulat says with a laugh. "I had so many people ask me, 'What is that instrument you're playing?' And I would think, 'I'm in Nashville -- the place where this instrument had its heyday! You don't know what an autoharp is?'"

Not that Bulat can have been shocked to discover there is no place in today's Nashville for The Carter Family's homebaked harmonies, much less Sara Carter's autoharp. Perhaps the coming Next Great Depression, however, can help to set the stage for the return of smarter music from a simpler time.

If so, Bulat and her autoharp are set to lead the way.

"Let's bring it back," she asserts, not, let it be noted, in reference to the Great Depression. "It's been a long time since the autoharp was at the forefront. Maybe it never was a forefront instrument, but I say let's go for it.

"It's an instrument that's fairly easy to play and it's meant for regular people to learn on and sing with. What I love about the autoharp is it levels the playing field for everyone."

The extraordinary voice of Bulat, whose disarming vibrato is one part Dido and one part (Sandy) Denny, does however raise the stakes considerably. Original songs that range from the exquisite ballad Little Waltz to upbeat, percussion-driven beauties like In the Night, pretty much put things out of reach for us common folk. Autoharp or no.

More remarkable still is the fact the autoharpist/guitarist claims her greatest instrument failed her at the outset of sessions for her debut album Oh, My Darling.

"I lost my voice on I think the third day that we were recording," Bulat says. "It turns out that I hadn't been breathing properly for my singing; I had all sorts of bad habits that I had learned copying all sorts of different records.

"But I wanted the spirit to be there more than technical perfection. And when I tried to redo the vocals later they just sounded boring. Once I had got my voice back they just didn't sound the same. So I'm glad that I kept them as they were. Maybe the next record will sound like I've made these giant leaps."

Bulat laughs as she makes the suggestion, further joking people might prefer her sans voice. But the singer who grew up learning those bad habits via hits on the radio and folk staples like Bob Dylan, Odetta and the Harry Smith anthologies on record, is nonetheless happy with the gem that is Oh, My Darling.

"I'm very proud of this record because it wasn't meant as this huge commercial venture," she says. "It really was supposed to be a document of what myself and my friends sounded like. All these songs that I just didn't want to forget how we would play them. It's a pretty honest recording. There's a lot of energy in it because we were just so excited to be able to do it."

Bulat and her band -- which includes her brother Bobby on percussion as well as Holly Coish on ukulele, Alison Stewart on viola and Mike Javorski on keyboards -- maintain that excitement in concert. Even if the instrumentation raises eyebrows, and questions.

"People tend to forget that these are folk instruments," Bulat stresses. "These are instruments that were made for people who couldn't afford a piano.

"The autoharp was meant for people who couldn't bring a piano into the church or couldn't have their own guitar. It's not an instrument of the elite, by any means. It's just rare because it has maybe fallen out of use. Like the banjo, it's a pure country-folk instrument, it's really meant for people to sit around and play with other people."

And, thanks to Basia Bulat, it's back.


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