This week’s “back by popular demand” program features Canadian singer-songwriter Patrick Watson, who grew up in Montreal; people often compare his art-music sensibilities with those of Rufus Wainwright or Gregory Alan Isakov. Also joining us is another Canadian singer-songwriter (and returning eTown visitor) Basia Bulat. Basia shares songs from a recent album produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Then, we’ll have an inspiring conversation with this week’s eChievement Award winner Brandon Dennison, a young man from West Virginia who helps coal miners who’ve lost their jobs because of automation or mine closings find meaningful work and solid income to support their families.
A singer/songwriter, film composer, and pianist based in Montreal, Canada, Patrick Watson makes explorative chamber pop with his band — also called Patrick Watson — often blending spare indie pop, synthesizer experiments, cinematic orchestral song, and a melancholy tone. The group’s second album, 2006’s Close to Paradise, won the Polaris Prize. After composing music for several short films, Watson made his feature-length debut with It’s Not Me, I Swear! in 2008. Released in 2015, Love Songs for Robots became his band’s fourth straight album to reach Canada’s Top Ten, and he found success again in 2019 with the arrival of his sixth long-player, Wave. After Watson went viral with the decade-old single “Je Te Laisserai des Mots” to the tune of hundreds of millions of streams, he released 2022’s Better in the Shade, which drew on literary inspirations.
Though he was born in California, Patrick Watson was raised outside of Montreal in Hudson, Quebec. After singing in local church choirs as a boy, he sang and played keyboards in the ska band Gangster Politics while in high school. They released an eponymous LP via Stomp Records in 1998. After graduating, he left the band and began to explore other types of music, including electronica and ambient, and went on to study jazz and classical piano performance, composition, and arranging at Vanier College in Montreal. In 2001, he released the album Waterproof9, which consisted of experimental music accompaniment to a photo book by Brigitte Henry titled Waterproof. In 2002, he decided to start a four-piece chamber pop group, bringing in bassist Mishka Stein, drummer Robbie Kuster (both of whom he had met at university), and former Gangster Politics guitarist Simon Angell. The group, which was technically still a solo project with a backing band, released Just Another Ordinary Day and began performing around Canada. They were booked at the 2005 Pop Montreal Festival, a show that led to the formation of Secret City Records, the label that issued Watson’s sophomore album, Close to Paradise (which featured the same band), in 2006. Also charting in France and the Netherlands, it reached number four on Canada’s album chart, and was awarded the Polaris Prize in 2007.
Around that time, Watson began scoring short films, including 2006’s Gravity Boy and 2007’s Neuf. He scored his first features, It’s Not Me, I Swear! and Hidden Diary in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Patrick Watson’s third full-length album, Wooden Arms, also arrived in 2009 and made the shortlist for that year’s Polaris Music Prize. It peaked at number six in Canada. The pared-down Adventures in Your Own Backyard followed in 2012 and climbed to number two on the album chart, and the ambient-leaning Love Songs for Robots reached number three upon its release in 2015. The latter featured prior collaborator Joe Grass on guitar in place of Angell.
In the meantime, Watson continued to compose music for shorts, documentaries, and theatrical features. His score for the 2016 thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax saw release by Varèse Sarabande that September. In 2017, he returned with the stand-alone single “Broken,” which found its way onto several TV series, including Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor. He also contributed to Tower of Songs, a tribute concert to Leonard Cohen in Montreal that also included Elvis Costello, Philip Glass, and Lana Del Rey, among others. In mid-2018, he issued another single, “Melody Noir,” before following up with the French song “Mélancholie” featuring Quebecois singer Safia Nolin. It was issued by Secret City Records in conjunction with the start of a European tour. A year later, Watson issued his sixth full-length, the inward-looking Wave.
In the early 2020s, Patrick Watson’s elegant 2010 chamber ballad “Je Te Laisserai des Mots” went viral on social media, driving hundreds of millions of streams. In the meantime, he prepared a studio album with a focus on lyrics inspired by works of writers like Virginia Woolf, Denis Johnson, and Samanta Schweblin. The resulting Better in the Shade arrived on Secret City in 2022.
Canadian singer/songwriter Basia Bulat created significant buzz in the indie world with the release of her first full-length album, 2007’s Oh, My Darling. It introduced a rich, expressive voice that proved to be the ideal vehicle for folk-influenced songs that dealt with love and life with a combination of sadness and wonder. Meanwhile, her melodies were bolstered by a band that incorporated strings and keyboards along with the traditional drums and guitar. Oh, My Darling was short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and launched a successful series of tours in addition to further albums in the decade to follow. Along the way, she made fans of other musicians, including My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who produced her fourth and fifth long-players, 2016’s Good Advice and 2020’s Are You in Love? In 2022, The Garden reinterpreted select songs from her first five albums for a pared-down band and string quartet.
Born Barbara Josephine Bulat in Toronto in 1985, Bulat was raised in suburban Etobicoke with a mother who taught piano and guitar (Etobicoke was amalgamated into Toronto proper in 1998). She later resettled in London, Ontario, where she recorded and self-released the EP Basia Bulat in 2005. The following year, producer Howard Bilerman — best known for his work with Arcade Fire — took Bulat and her band into the studio to record her first full-length record. The result, Oh, My Darling, caught the ear of esteemed U.K. label Rough Trade, which released the album in April 2007, before she had a deal in Canada or the United States.
British reviews for Oh, My Darling were enthusiastic, and a tour of England and Europe impressed critics and fans alike. The Canadian independent label Hardwood Records signed Bulat in mid-2007 and released Oh, My Darling later in the year. The album fared well in the songwriter’s homeland, where it was short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize (an honor it lost to Caribou) and encouraged Bulat to continue touring. She remained on the road for several years, playing a slew of international dates while compiling material for her next album. Heart of My Own arrived in early 2010.
Bulat’s home country began to recognize her as a national treasure, inviting her to participate in two sacred Canadian events: an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada in December 2011, and in mid-2012, singing the national anthem at an Ottawa Senators baseball game. In October 2013, she issued her third album, Tall Tall Shadow, her first offering for Secret City Records. It reached number 25 on the Billboard album chart in Canada. After writing a batch of songs inspired by a romance gone sour, Bulat recorded her next full-length, Good Advice, in Kentucky with Jim James producing the sessions. It saw release in February 2016 and climbed two spots higher in Canada, peaking at number 23.
It would be some four years before Bulat returned with her fifth album. Recording sessions started with James at the Joshua Tree and were initially informed by Bulat finding love again. The sessions were then put on hold for nine months while she returned to Montreal after the death of her father and to make sense of the emotional roller coaster her life had been on. The resulting Are You in Love? was finished in 2019 and issued on Secret City in March of 2020.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the news that Bulat was expecting her first child both helped to inspire the songwriter to find new meanings in some of her existing songs. Also taking inspiration from artists like Kitty Wells and Willie Nelson, who would revisit the same song in the studio as their voices and outlooks changed, Bulat selected 16 tracks to re-record with her band’s guitarist and bassist alongside string quartet arrangements by Owen Pallett, Paul Frith, and Zou Zou Robidoux. Produced by Bulat and Tall Tall Shadow’s Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire, Beirut), The Garden arrived on Secret City in February of 2022.