For many, the pandemic has been a time of reflection and reinvention. That goes double for singer-songwriter Basia Bulat, who not only gave birth to her first daughter last spring, but also spent time revisiting her five studio albums to make The Garden, an orchestral reimagining of some of her best songs from over the past 15 years.
A fixture of the Canadian music scene for her gorgeous folk-tinged pop and virtuoso ability to move effortlessly between instruments, the Toronto-bred, Montreal-based Bulat deserves to be better known in the U.S.—and The Garden might just make an ideal introduction to her songcraft for listeners new to her musical charms.
After briefly touring her last full-length, Are You In Love?, with a string quartet before pandemic lockdowns hit around the time of its release, Bulat decided to draw on the new energy that collaboration brought to her now-lengthy body of work. She commissioned classical string arrangements of key songs from all of her albums, by friends and collaborators Owen Pallett, Paul Frith, and Zou Zou Robidoux.
Co-produced by Bulat and Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire), The Garden gives new life to 16 of Bulat’s songs, taking her increasingly pop-forward sound of recent years back to its timeless melodic roots. Rather than the formality that an orchestral approach might suggest, the record radiates an easy warmth—surrounded by longtime friends and bandmates (including Robidoux on cello, acclaimed Montreal harpist Sarah Pagé, bassist Ben Whiteley and Bulat’s husband and guitarist Andrew Woods), Bulat sounds right at home.
Pallett, known for his solo work as Final Fantasy and with Arcade Fire, handles the bulk of the arrangements here, bringing his signature complex, often dissonant style to re-arranging tracks like “Heart Of My Own,” taking one of Bulat’s best-known early songs in a direction akin to the Béla Bartók compositions she used to play in high school on the upright bass.
Stripped of its rollicking percussion, Frith’s take on “Infamous,” from 2016’s Good Advice, turns the volume and tempo down in favor of the sweep of a stately chamber-ensemble approach. The results blunt the sting of the original’s break-up brush-off, while Robidoux’s baroque transformation of “Are You In Love?” underscores the waltz-like melody at the heart of that song.
While some of Bulat’s best-loved songs, including autoharp-driven “The Shore” and the hummable “Tall Tall Shadow” lend themselves naturally to the new arrangements, it’s more recent work that benefits most from this reinvention. “Love Is At The End Of The World” offers up layered, intricate strings that pulse like a heartbeat behind Bulat’s soaring vocal, turning the original’s expansive retro-rock vibe into something more knowing. And “In The Name Of” delivers perhaps the most ambitious remodeling, the quicksilver arrangement unfurling beautifully detailed passages throughout.
Rather than uprooting Bulat’s songs, The Garden offers them new ground in which to thrive—the orchestral arrangements provide fertile soil to highlight her strengths as a songwriter, allowing her bright, elegant melodies to bloom even wider than before. In nurturing her old songs into something new at a time when her own life and the world around her were changing, Bulat gives listeners old and new a seed of hope—a reminder that even during tough times, things still continue to grow.