Just another diamond day
Just a blade of grass
Just another bale of hay
And the horses pass.
– Vashti Bunyan
You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you.
You have to go to them sometimes.
– Winnie The Pooh
The story of Vashti Bunyan is an unusual one.
She entered swinging London as a young, blue-eyed singer-songwriter in the late ’60s, briefly glimpsing into a world of stardom, until she went out on the road for a couple of years in search for paradise – and released one sole album that existed totally off the radar for 30 odd years.
Bunyan didn’t know anything about the growing cult around her music until she googled herself one day in the early 2000s, inspiring her to step back into to the spotlight with another set of gorgeous songs in 2005. Now, almost ten years later, she is back with her third album in 35 years. It is as if times stands still around Vashti Bunyan and her tender, graceful music.
We talked with this unique artist about her unique career, walking with her from the early days all the way until today and her new album.
– My father was a great lover of recorded classical music, which was always playing in our home, says Vashti when being asked about her family background.
– I was the youngest of three – and was referred to as ‘the arty one‘ – because unlike my sister I did badly at school, drew and painted a lot and sang to myself each night before sleeping. My older brother especially was very supportive of my wanting to write songs and sing – and he recorded my songs himself in the mid-sixties. He thought no one else could ever capture my sound the way he could.
Bunyan, born in 1945, grew up in London, and studying at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford where she eventually got kicked out for failing to attend classes, having been “wasting” her time writing songs and playing the guitar. In the summer of ’63, 18 years old Vashti visited her sister in New York, where she discovered the sheer brilliance of Bob Dylan and his then brand new Freewheelin’ album. In it she found a sound that would change her life forever:
– Having had a somewhat sheltered post-war upbringing but knowing that there was a whole world out there that I ached to find out about – the songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan opened my eyes to a world so different to mine, one that I wanted to be part of and understand. It sowed the seeds for my romantic notion of becoming a wandering musician.
Bunyan returned to London, determined to become a pop singer. Andrew Loog Oldham, manager for the Rolling Stones, took notice of her and handed her the Jagger/Richards-penned song “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind.” The release went unnoticed by the larger public, and Bunyan herself returned to her original, quieter ideals of making music. She did a couple more recordings, but gradually lost her dream of becoming a pop star, pursuing divergent path instead – this time by horse and buggy.
– It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to – I didn’t succeed in bringing quiet acoustic songs into the mainstream. When I met art student Robert Lewis, our likeminded thoughts and dreams led to a plan to escape the city and head for what we hoped would be a more meaningful life. We intended to make our actual days the picture, the painting, the song, says Vashti on what would become an almost two year long journey across Britain, on their way to Skye.
In Search of Eden
Around that time Donovan, wealthy from the success of his hit songs like “Sunshine Superman” and “Catch The Wind,” had bought three remote Scottish islands in the Inner Hebrides, near the Isle of Skye, in order to build up an artistic commune. The couple finally reached their destination, only to find that Donovan had lone ago fled his visionary project.
– I learned more on that journey than I could have any other way. I refer to it every day even now in my thinking – in some way or other. The differences in people and the humanity we found as well as the hostility we realized that traveling people experience. Also the fact that we were able to live on so little – and that we came to recognize our responsibility for other creatures. So much so that they became just as important to us as our human companions.
The late 1960s was a period when many artists fled the cities, returning ‘back to nature’ in search of of inner peace and the discovery of a more truthful life. The concept of a more pure, down-to-earth music form went hand-in-hand with this idealism.
– Looking back I can only speak for myself as I was not involved with any other musicians at the time. For me the promise of remote places that had been abandoned and were waiting to be lived in by anyone willing to go without electricity or mains water – that was the appeal. Having not been able to make a living from music my only other choice seemed to be a ‘day-job’ – but I was too restless for that. And so perhaps living in places that others undervalued became a movement of its own – for artists especially.
Do you feel now, or did you feel then, that something has been lost in the interplay between modern life and something basic in us as humans?
– No I don’t feel it has been lost. It has been added to by other layers of possibilities and exchange of ideas and information. We are still human and still have the same choices between greed and generosity.
In his book Electric Eden, author Rob Young writes of Bunyan’s music “reveals many of the contradictory impulses that shape the British artistic imagination: craving the freedom and peace of a countryside that is already shaped and manicured.”
How do you see yourself and your music fit into such a description?
– On that journey I learned the realities of the ‘country living’ that I – as an urban child – had so romanticised. I came to understand that the little sheepies were going to be slaughtered, that the low moaning of the cows at night was because their calves had been taken from them, that the fields were being poisoned and that the fish were dying. I still wrote songs as if this were not happening – in order to comfort myself more than anything. The shepherd and shepherdess in “Rose Hip November” were more a picture from an old blue-and-white china plate than from real people.
The folk scene in those transitional days were torn between a new, progressive direction and a more traditional, purist form. Did you associate with either of those mentalities in those days, or were you more of an outsider?
– I was never a part of the folk scene and so now when I am referred to as a folksinger I bristle and complain bitterly ’till everyone around me sighs and looks at the ceiling.
Bunyan smiles, and continues,
– Before I left London with a horse, a dog and a boyfriend I had been recording with Andrew Loog Oldham and making my songs into what I’d hoped would enter the pop charts of the day. It didn’t happen and I left in a sulk – and vowed never to set foot in a recording studio again. Joe Boyd changed all that.
She encountered Joe Boyd through a friend while on the road.
Boyd was a keystone figure in British music at the time, especially in the bourgeoning folk scene. He worked with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band and countless others, including the debut album of Vashti Bunyan, a collection of her traveling songs, released as Just Another Diamond Day in 1970.
– Joe was unusual as a producer in that he really cared about the musicians he worked with. Coming from the States I think he had quite a rosy view of traditional British folk music, but recognized that there were young people making more of it than had been made before – unique musicians like Fairport Convention, and The Incredible String Band. That was difficult for me as it wasn’t really what I was up to – I was not traditional in any way.
Have you talked to Boyd about this later?
– Yes, when I saw Joe recently he said he understood now that he had been wrong to bring in folk musicians for Just Another Diamond Day and that it is his fault that I am still referred to as a folk singer. But in his defense, he said, he did visit me when I was living a life that was more ‘folky’ than any folk singer he knew, in that I was living in a field with a horse and a dog. And a boyfriend.
And through Joe Boyd, you also met Nick Drake?
– That’s true. Joe wanted me to meet up with Nick Drake at his house and try to write something together. I’d had a baby by then who cried every time I picked up my guitar. Nick’s shoulders went higher and higher as he sat at an old upright piano – and we exchanged not a word. I had not heard Nick’s songs at that time – I had no record-player – and I am sure he hadn’t heard mine – and we were both too shy and individual to be able to work together. I have never been able to work well with others on writing ever since.
Just Another Diamond Day received good reviews, but went largely unnoticed to the public. And Vashti Bunyan went away, again. This time for good, spending the next decades peacefully and privately, raising her children and living a quiet life.
30 years down the road she suddenly discovered that her album had turned into a cult item among connoisseurs and collectors, and her style being cherished among a new generation of artists.
Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and other praised Just Another Diamond Day as a forgotten masterpiece. Once again she came back from the shadows, now heralded as a consequential figure from the ’60s.
What was it like to learn your music was so vital in inspiring a new generation of artists?
– Unreal and strange after so many years in a musical wilderness of my own choosing. My overwhelming thought was ‘if only they had been around back then’.. they would have understood what I was trying to do.
You’ve been called the ‘Godmother of Freak Folk’ for your influence. How do you feel about this title?
– Oh dear. A fairy dress and wings – I think not! And I don’t think I was such an influence – I think those young musicians made a place for me – for which I adore them.
Out of that revival, you returned to the music world to release a new record, Lookaftering, with some help from the musicians you inspired, such as Banhart and Newsom. What was that experience like?
– As if in a dream – mostly going over my head. I had written the songs, made the demos and had arranged a lot of the instrumentation – but Max Richter who produced the album knew what to do where I really did not. However he taught me as we went along, included me in decision making every step of the way and I am forever grateful to him, for Lookaftering could not have been made without him. Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Adem, Adam Pierce and Robert Kirby all contributed so good-heartedly and looked after me so well.
Your music has been covered by many artists – Devendra, Fever Ray, Feist and Ben Gibbard, to name a few. Do you have any favourite reinterpretation of your songs?
– I love Fever Ray’s version of “Here Before.” It made me fall off my chair when I first heard it. In a quite different way I also like Norwegian singer Moddi’s version of “Train Song,” and Beautify Junkyards’ “Rose Hip November.”
Heartleap is your third album, and your first in nine years. What can you tell us about the album and the process that went into making it?
– Where I had been so sheltered by all the people who helped me make Lookaftering – this time I wanted to take what I had learned and try to understand the process for myself. I had always been fascinated by recorded music but not until I got my hands on music software in 2000 did I get the chance to get the music in my head out into the real world. I don’t read or write music and so it has been a great gift.
You’ve said this is your last album?
– I just feel that it is unlikely that I will make another collection of songs in album form – partly because I am so slow – but also because I am not sure there will be such a format as ‘album’ in however long it would take me to come up with ten more songs. That does not mean I would turn my back on music again – I find the whole process of recording too fascinating now.
– I will, I’m sure, keep making music. No more turning backs.