Basia Bulat is a three-time Polaris Music Prize finalist and has been nominated for three JUNO Awards. She is known for her extensive touring and vibrant live shows that feature her powerful voice and multi-instrument skills – switching from piano, to autoharp, to charango, to guitar. She has performed at such festivals as Montreux Jazz Festival, Austin City Limits and Newport Folk Festival and has performed for audiences at venues like Carnegie Hall, Royal Theater Carré and headlined at Massey Hall. In addition to releasing her own album in 2020—the Jim James-produced Are You In Love?—Bulat co-produced and co-wrote songs with Meg Remy for the new U.S. Girls album, Heavy Light, and co-produced the soon to be released debut album from Kass Richards, The Language Shadow.
Jens Lekman and Basia Bulat hadn’t met before this conversation, but they were fans of each other’s music — with something really interesting in common: Each of these singer-songwriters recently released vastly different versions of songs they had previously released. For Bulat, it was orchestral arrangements of songs from her entire catalog, released as The Garden. For Lekman, the change was even bigger: The Swedish singer deleted two of his early records from streaming services and put out brand new versions that include some new material and some old. The two chatted about changing their old sounds here — and about eventually meeting up.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse
Basia Bulat: I’m a huge fan of yours. Nice to meet you.
Jens Lekman: Nice to meet you. I’ve been listening to your record all day.
Basia: Oh, my god. You’re gonna make me cry. I’m gonna just get it all out right at the start. I have been playing your music for so long. I played it on the radio when I was a DJ in a little town called London, Ontario in Canada. I love this project. I love these reissues so much. I think it’s so beautiful. And I have so many questions, but I also don’t wanna be like a crazy person. I was trying not to do too much in terms of reading interviews and press around the re-recordings, but I really was in love with this quote about this idea of music not living in a museum. I called my record The Garden and I was thinking a lot about this idea of evolution and growth and grafting, and I was just so struck that you called the records The Linden Trees Are Still In Blossom and The Cherry Trees Are Still In Blossom. I was curious what your relationship is to nature and this idea of seasons and cycles. And if that was in your mind at all… I know legalities and things were kind of some of the impetus for the reissues.
Jens: I took up a lot of gardening and growing vegetables and flowers during the pandemic, which was very much a way of of staying sane. Do you have a garden yourself?
Basia: I do. Besides music and now my daughter, that’s my passion.
Jens: It’s a very obvious metaphor, I guess, but gardening and nature and flowers has really been in the back of my mind during the last couple of years. It pops up in a lot of the songs. I released a song about three years ago called “I Want To Be Invaded,” which is purely gardening metaphors.
Basia: It really struck me that you had so many different samples and all these different little pieces, but it’s so similar to a big garden, where you’re grafting or propagating from other pieces. You take a piece of a plant and you can just grow a whole new plant out of that plant.
Jens: Ooh. I like that metaphor. I haven’t thought of that before. I don’t know what it’s called in English, but when you take an existing tree and you put branches from other into the stem of the tree, and all of a sudden, it’s a tree that grows five different kinds of fruits. I think we have a lot to learn from nature when we make music.
Basia: Do you know the poetry book Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman? He has a lot of famous poems, but this compilation is his most famous one, but he redid it many times over his lifetime. He kind of changed the sections. He moved things around and right before he passed away, he released a new edition. It made me think a little bit about the memorial that you did for your records. How did that go?
Jens: The memorial was short and sweet. It took a while to find a place where the ground wasn’t frozen. I couldn’t get further than a few inches down, because this was March in Sweden. And then when I eventually found a place where I could dig down deep enough, my fingers were just numb. I don’t ever celebrate the release of my records. In my family, we’re not good at celebrating. But I needed to have that little moment alone with this work that I created now that it’s slipping into obscurity.
That’s fascinating what you said about Walt Whitman publishing new versions. I hadn’t heard of anyone doing that much. I kept remaking these songs over and over until I finally got to put out a record. “Maple Leaves” exists in like 20 different versions, and it was a weird feeling when it came out, like now I’m not allowed to change this because it’s come out in a physical format. I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea that things have become definitive when you release them.
Basia: My first record I made as a sort of document for myself and my friends and I wasn’t anticipating that it was gonna be released commercially. It was almost a shock, in a positive and negative way, to realize that people would see it as a definitive thing. There was a song that I play with a ukulele called “Before I Knew,” and I wanted to rerecord it with a full band almost immediately. I really was not happy with feeling bound into, OK, this is the one kind of jacket that you’re allowed to wear and you can’t wear any other outfit. I feel like this rerecording and making my strings album was this beautiful…I recorded it during the pandemic also, and I was expecting my daughter. It felt like I was changed so much and I was in this time warp and I wanted to go back and make something for her that felt like that moment, like I was getting trapped in amber or something. And I thought, well, I might as well let this crystallize, let this be the moment that it is and everything that led up to this point before I meet her. There were certain songs I just didn’t feel like I could sing anymore, but the ones that I used for the strings record, I thought, okay, this is the kind of thing that I would wanna show her.
Jens: Was that a natural time for you to reflect on what you had been working on for all these years?
Basia: It was so crazy because I had this record that came out the week that the whole world shut down, and that was very sad for many, many reasons — not really because of the album. Where I live in Montreal, we had a curfew and the city was locked down, so a lot of things were closed and it was actually illegal to be outside at night unless you were walking your dog or something. So it was not necessarily very good conditions for being pregnant. So I thought, my little garden’s here. I was digging very deep into it and just trying to make things grow and trying to really focus on this feeling of being frozen in time. Maybe like when you’re digging to try and bury your record, you’re trying to just cut through a little bit into the dirt, and it will feel really good just have some sort of agency in my own work and my own life. It was very beautiful to get to go back in time, pick the things that still had meaning at least in this moment.
Jens: For me, the songs just change with me changing. So you picked songs for The Garden that you felt like are interesting to you right now? You didn’t have to confront the embarrassing songs like I did? [Laughs.]
Basia: Maybe I thought here’s my opportunity to fix some vocals that I would be embarrassed of in the fact that I think I could improve now. [Laughs.] Were there certain ones that you didn’t want to re-release?
Jens: There were certain songs that I wasn’t as happy to dig into again, nothing that was too bad. I mean, most of these songs were written when I was between 21 and 25, when I was still trying to find out who I was musically.
Basia: It’s like an old photograph where you’re like, “Oh, that haircut.” But you can kind of forgive yourself at the same time. There’s the little cringe maybe, although I don’t feel any cringe when I’m listening to you, so you can rest assured that it’s just internal, it’s your own inner critic.
Jens: As much as I cringed at my 21-year-old’s poetry and the love songs that I wrote back then, I also was inspired by how creative I was at the time — and how experimental. I barely knew what chords were, I just tried different things on the guitar or piano. And especially working with the samples, it gave it a sense of randomness, and that whole thing really inspired me now when I’m writing new songs, to just allow myself to be a bit more playful, you know? It was a very playful time. It was just me having fun and not thinking about the fact that anyone was gonna listen to the songs.
Basia: I was listening to an interview you had done, and you were saying that some of your friends said, you can’t just use samples. And you’re like, well, why not? And it’s almost the same with the reissue. Like you can’t just rerecord. Well, why not?
Jens: “Oh, you’re saying I can’t do this? Oh, OK. I’ll go that direction then.”
Basia: When it becomes your living, you feel less allowed to be playful, but that’s actually what people are drawn to in the first place. And so, like, I shouldn’t play electric guitar. [Laughs.] Why not? That’s a stupid thing to say to myself.
Jens: I really wish that I could apply that philosophy to a lot of other areas in my life. I’m quite conservative when it comes to what I wear, for example. I’ll go into a secondhand store and see a hat that I really like, and I just think, no, I can’t do that. People would not approve of that hat. And I just wish I was more of that kind of person who was just like, ah, fuck it, I’m gonna buy the bad hat.
Basia: Since I had my kid, I don’t want her to see me holding myself back. I want her to see me just believing in myself, which is hard. Everyone has the struggle of their own inner critic and that critic grows in power or diminishes in power depending on the day. I feel like I let that inner critic really take me over for quite a number of years, but she’s given me permission to say fuck it a lot more.
Jens: Oh, that’s awesome. I like that.
Basia: Do you have any early memories from when you’re little, like, around music?
Jens: On Night Falls Over Kortedala — or The Linden Trees — there’s a song called “Strange Time in My Life,” and that song starts with a sample from a really old recording of me, I was probably 3 or 4, singing. There’s a melody and it just loops. That’s me singing the theme to an East German TV show that they showed in Sweden. It’s kind of sad and serene in a way.
Basia: One thing that was kind of the impetus for making my strings record was that I had found all these old jazz and country records. I had a lot of time in the pandemic to listen to records. And it’s so common in country music to cover songs, like a lot of times someone like Willie Nelson was playing lots of covers. He’s kind of famous for recording and rerecording and the idea of a standard, you know, a standard becomes a standard.
Jens: It feels a little bit like the world is maybe ready to get into that conversation again, but it’s just sad how it pits songwriters and musicians against each other. Maybe now it’s not so much of an issue because no one really works with samples that way anymore. I didn’t mean any harm by using samples. I really wish that I had been able to ask for permission and clear everything and have the money go to these writers.
Basia: It’s like you’re collaborating with people that you never would have had a chance to meet or collaborating with people from the past. Do you have any dream collaborators?
Jens: I’m terrible at collaborating, to be honest. [Laughs.] But I’ve had a couple of collaborations that I’m really happy with. I got to work with Van Dyke Parks, for example.
He’s someone that I loved ever since I was a teenager. I got this show in Shanghai, and they had a huge budget for me to have someone arrange strings, just for that show. And he wrote these beautiful arrangements for a bunch of my songs, but the thing was that they could only be used for that occasion. That was part of the contract, so they were only performed once. And I tried to record them and then the recording failed. But I did get to work with him and he was such a funny and nice person. You, you worked with Owen on this record, right?
Basia: I did. My first ever tour was opening for Owen Pallett, across Canada. And I learned a lot from him because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I learned about just showing up in time for soundcheck. I didn’t have that background. He was very gracious and generous as a headliner and I didn’t realize that wouldn’t always be the case. And over the years, he has very graciously done string arrangements. When this project kind of came about, I thought, oh my God, wouldn’t it be amazing to record some of these arrangements for quartet? I feel really grateful that I I’ve had this opportunity to do that. And especially with the quartet, I love like how it’s like the answer to the rock band, right? Everyone has their part, everyone has their role. So have you worked with Owen before, or do you know each other?
Jens: I haven’t talked to him in years, but we played a bunch of shows together maybe 15 years ago. He’s such a nice guy. If you see him say hi for me. I keep hearing his scores in various documentaries and movies and stuff, and I’m really happy things are going well for him.
Basia: I think we’re out of time, but I just really appreciate your time. This was so much fun.
Jens: It was so nice to talk to you. We, we should hang out.
Basia: I would love that. I’m hoping to come to Sweden next year. So if you’ll be around, I would love to meet up. I had a tour that we had to cancel very sadly in January, I was supposed to go to Europe and I had to cancel it. I was looking forward to coming back to Sweden so much. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Jens: And I have some old friends in Montreal that I need to go visit, so we’ll see who gets to the other country first.
Basia: OK, perfect. I hope you have a great day and thank you for reissuing these records and for the energy and love that went into that.
Jens: Well thank you for releasing The Garden. I really love that record and I’m getting into your older records right now.
Basia: Oh, amazing. Thank you. Yeah. As you go deeper back, you’ll find all my cringe moments.
Jens: I’m looking forward to that. [Laughs.]
(Photo Credit: left, Ellika Henrikson; right, Richmond Lam)