London, Ontario singer/songwriter Basia Bulat went on at Jammin’ Java unannounced and alone Wednesday night, beginning her first local appearance with an acapella ballad. Stamping her feet and clapping her hands to accompany her husky warble, she conjured an otherworldly atmosphere right out of the box. The audience, which numbered only in the dozens, seemed not to notice, going on with their conversations and drink orders as if they weren’t meeting a gifted and maybe even important new singer-songerwriter then and there.
The cool reception didn’t faze her. On her first U.S. tour, Bulat seemed grateful just to sing, eventually winning the crowd with an hour of haunted waltzes and oblique love songs (plus one hit-in-waiting, the snare-driven “In the Night”) from “Oh, My Darling,” her full-length debut. The album, which Bulat spent her student loans to record in 2006, got a stateside release Super Tuesday, she pointed out, getting a few laughs at her bemusement over the phrase.
Bulat’s supple voce recalls that of 90s divas like Natalie Merchant or Paula Cole, but her already-mature songcraft could gain traction with Joni Mitchell fans or the cult of Regina Spektor. Her multi-generational appeal and onstage poise seem beyond her years. (She was born in 1983, the year the last Police album came out.) Like recent Oscar-winner Marketa Irglova, Bulat was prone to the giggles when introducing songs, but the anxiety vanished when she sang.
Fronting a five-piece ensemble, Bulat alternated between the autoharp and an acoustic guitar that looked huge in her diminutive arms. Songs like “December” and “Snakes and Ladders” had a baroque, Tom Waits-y quality that helped them transcend the danger of sounding twee. And her choice of artists to cover — Daniel Johnston and Sam Cooke — reinforced her broad genre interest and sense of soul.
Talent and charm aren’t always enough. But it’s a fair bet all those folks who barely looked up from their cell phones when Bulat took the stage might soon be bragging that they saw her way back when.
A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today's Paper of Record.