Basia Bulat: Making The Autoharp Cool For many, the autoharp is remembered as the slightly geeky, easy-to-play instrument from grade-school music class, or as simple accompaniment for folk and country singers. But Basia Bulat, who sings and plays the autoharp on Oh, My Darling, hopes the time has come for people to discover the beauty and potential in the instrument.

Basia Bulat: Making The Autoharp Cool

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Now, a music lesson. Think back to elementary school music class, and you might recall this.

(Soundbite of autoharp)

SEABROOK: Remember the autoharp? Bet you never pictured it leading a rock and roll band.

(Soundbite of song "In the Night")

Ms. BASIA BULAT (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) All the hopes that you've been holding on to for so long...

SEABROOK: This is Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat. The song's called "In the Night," and it's on her debut album "Oh My Darling." Hi there.

Ms. BULAT: Hi. Thanks for having me, Andrea.

SEABROOK: It's a pleasure. Before we launch into any other questions, first tell our listeners what the autoharp is for those who haven't seen one or at least in a long time.

Ms. BULAT: It's actually a fretless zither with chord buttons that have little felt pads that mute the notes that don't belong in a particular chord.

SEABROOK: So if you're having trouble picturing it, it's a...

Ms. BULAT: It's a bit of a washboard, big long piece of wood, a bunch of strings across it, and a bunch of buttons on top.

SEABROOK: Press in a button, and you get a chord.

Ms. BULAT: So for example, we could press B flat major, and we'll get B flat major.

SEABROOK: Excellent.

Ms. BULAT: It's a very difficult instrument.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I think this is why they teach it to children. But you love this, this sort of nerdy, folky instrument?

Ms. BULAT: I do. And what I love about the autoharp is that when it was invented, it really is meant for anyone to be able to play. It's kind of the leveler of all instruments for everyone to be able to play. And I think the sound is quite magical for something that's so simple.

(Soundbite of song "Secret")

Ms. BULAT: (Singing) A heart is so easy to keep. When I think of the curious look in your eyes and impossible. Oh, only you could really know. I'll never let our little secret go...

SEABROOK: You know, it's so interesting because you play the piano, the saxophone, instruments that are hard to play. And then you pick the autoharp to be the lead instrument.

Ms. BULAT: Yeah. I think the thing about any instrument for me is that, if it speaks to you for a particular melody or for a particular lyric, then that's where you should go with it. Whether or not it's difficult or not shouldn't dictate how you write your songs or what you're singing about. So I do definitely appreciate that you can rock it out, you can go crazy with it. And I think, you know, the autoharp, it's about time the autoharp got its due.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It's about time.

Ms. BULAT: It's like the dorky girl in the teen movie who had the glasses and the braces, and then suddenly, she's at the prom all dolled up. I think, eventually, it's going to come around to the autoharp's turn to be that girl. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Basia Bulat. She sings and plays the autoharp on her debut album, "Oh My Darling." Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. BULAT: Thanks very much for having me.

(Soundbite of song "In the Night")

Ms. BULAT: (Singing) All the hopes that you've been holding onto for so long. And the fires you've been chasing down now are all gone. I can tell you are a long way from the one you love. Oh, the night it takes so long to fall. Oh, in the night, oh in the night, oh in the night. I will hide away my fortunate son. He's soon to fall if I let him go. But I'll always know my life is not the only one, no no...


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