Vashti Bunyan would have made a frustrating friend. In the late ’60s she possessed an undeniable gift: an inner eye that pierced the very essence of her surroundings. Like a sage, her words were weighty and her melodies transcendent. But her temperament was far less sublime.
A look at her career (or lack thereof) reveals an obviously angsty naïveté, a brazen and moody disposition, and, behind it all, a criminally insecure sense of self.
Some would call her a quitter. And indeed she was: in the ’60s the British Bunyan was booted from Oxford for not going to class. She spent time recording under the wing of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham only to run off into the woods with a horse and cart (literally) after her first few singles failed. She was wrested back into the studio in the early ’70s by legendary folk producer Joe Boyd to record the songs she wrote during that journey, but swore off the album almost as soon as the tracks were laid.
If I had been her buddy back then, I can imagine tearing my hair out, stunned as she made these sweeping decisions. “Vashti,” I would have said, “You’re just to damn good to quit.”
And she was. Despite her disappearance — after recording her album she moved into the countryside to pursue a simple, agrarian life — her sole record, Just Another Diamond Day, possessed a strength that the singer herself lacked. She may have sworn off it, but its power would not be banished. Rescued from obscurity by a handful of record collectors and a motley crew of musicians, the album became a cult classic in the years that followed.
Like that first album, the woman that emerged 25 years later is a different person entirely. The words on her new record, Lookaftering, are not the ruminations of a kid brimming with juvenile insight, but the depthy contemplations of a wisened woman.
Her wisdom may be newly risen but one gets the sense that, at times, she’s still that same shy little girl. As she spoke to me — her kind voice light and delightfully delicate — I couldn’t help but notice that a certain insecurity still plagues her days. At each turn in her stunning reemergence, there was always someone else there, delicately prodding the greatness out of her — a greatness that seems obvious to everyone but the singer herself. Of course that’s nothing new…
In your very early days, you went to art school. Did you ever play or perform music then? My roommate had a guitar and she taught me. We did do the odd bit of playing around the university — not very much, but enough to get me hooked on music. Of course, I actually got told to leave the art school because I wasn’t going.
Why’d you get kicked out? I was sent to art school because nobody knew much what else to do with me. I was a bit of a rebellious child and I could draw. But I wasn’t that interested in it. It was a very stuffy, traditional art school — part of Oxford University — and it was very old-fashioned. I was stuck in front of one drawing for three weeks. There was no experimentation going on like at other schools. And so I just got profoundly bored and I just stopped going.
But things turned out ok. Soon after that your music started to get some attention. How were you “discovered”? I went to New York just after I left — my sister lived there. I found The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in a record shop. That was pretty much the beginning of everything. It really, really appealed to me: being a troubadour, being a traveler. I went back home to London and started knocking on doors trying to find somebody to be my manager.
How long did it take? At that time a scruffy looking girl with a guitar slung over her back was not the kind of thing being looked for. I was nowhere near glamorous enough. In the end I met [Rolling Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldham who must have recognized something in me — I don’t know what. He offered me a Rolling Stones song to record as my first single.
How did you two first connect? I was singing at a party that my mother’s friend gave. She was an actress, and one of the guests there was an agent that knew Andrew. She knew that Marianne Faithfull had just left his management, and I guess she thought maybe he was looking for someone else. He wasn’t, but he very nicely came to see me. I had absolutely no thought that he’d find anything interesting in what I was doing, but to my surprise he did offer me a record deal. I was nineteen; I was just totally in love with every single Rolling Stone.
What was it like working with that material, those early singles? I know that you had to take a long break before recording your first album. Why? It was just that it took so long. My first single didn’t do anything. I decided that I shouldn’t have gone with Andrew Oldham and his huge orchestra and that I should go back to doing what I did before that — just a girl and guitar. I made a few more singles, none of which made any impression on anybody. I got very disheartened. I would make the singles and they wouldn’t be released. That happened to me to many times and I lost heart. So I decided to leave music all together, to leave London, to leave my family and to go and look for a different way of life. I went to extremes in that I went off with a horse and a wagon.
Why weren’t you touring in support of those singles? You know, drumming up attention for them. With the first single it was decided not to let me go on the road. I suppose they didn’t want to introduce me to the ways of the road and to drugs. It was probably nice on their part that they wanted to protect me, but it meant that I didn’t get any grounding in stage work. I wanted to do the whole lot. I was kind of kept away from that and it never did happen for me.
And so you gave up music for a bit and took your own tour of sorts. What brought you back to record Just Another Diamond Day? I met Joe Boyd halfway through the journey. Although I’d given up on music, I hadn’t stopped writing songs. I sung him some of them and he said, “At the end of your journey, it would be good to make a document of it.” And he kept his promise. At the end of the journey, he brought me back down to London and we went into the studio, and recorded. And then I went back to Scotland and I didn’t see him or hear the songs for another year.
But the record did eventually come out… This album came out that I really had nothing more to do with after I sang the songs in the studio. It didn’t sound to me like something that I would have done for myself. It was mixed in a way that I wouldn’t have mixed it. Some of the instrumentation that was used, I wouldn’t have used. For the second time in my life I just decided that music was not for me — that I wasn’t going to stay to promote this album — and I took off for the country again. And I never thought about music again until 1998.
I understand it was hard, but why give music up entirely? I was completely revolted. I think I found the experience so difficult, so bruising. I was way too young to come up against all the, well, not exactly manipulation. It just wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it was going to be in my dreams.
Could you have exerted more control? Why didn’t you try? It was because I was a girl; it was because I was very shy; it was because I was very young. I was really interested in the whole technical side of recording music, but I never really put my ideas forward because I was just too shy and restless. I found it so difficult to put myself forward, yet what came out in my name was just so not what I wanted.
How do you feel about the record now? It sounds like you hated it at the time. I was happy with a lot of it. I was happy with the more simple songs. I wasn’t happy with the folkiness of it. I can forgive it now. I still find it difficult, though, to accept the whole folky nature of it. I didn’t think of myself — and I still don’t — as a folk singer.
That’s interesting because it’s that tradition that has so embraced you work. How do you think of yourself? At the time I was just a pop singer. I suppose now I think of myself as an alternative musician.
This second hiatus was a pretty lasting one. Can you give me an idea of what your life has been like? After all, it seems you’ve lived a much larger part of it outside of music. For the first 22 or 23 years after Diamond Day I more or less lived [the life of the record], a very rural life. I had three children; I had many animals; I bred cart horses. I subsisted by making things, by buying and selling things, by getting very interested in old furniture and all the trappings of country living from the 18th and 19th century. We grew vegetables and lived on very little. And then 12 years ago Robert — the father of my kids and the man I did the journey with who wrote some of the words on Diamond Day — and I separated. And I came to live in the city. Then last year my last child left home and went to America on a basketball scholarship. That gave me a big space in my life, after having so many youngsters about.
In all that time your music had its own life, growing larger and larger without your knowing. Was there a point of realization? Did somebody come up to you and say, “Oh my gosh; you’re Vashti Bunyan,” and you realized what had happened? [laughing] I wanted to write down the story for my children, because they never really knew much about my early life and my music times. That led to me getting a computer and the Internet. And lo, there was evidence that Diamond Day was not as lost and buried as I had supposed. Some of the singles that were never released were on compilations here and there. The really big thing was that there was a bootleg. I got ahold of one and I listened to it and I thought, “This is dreadful. It must have been copied from an old album that was all scratched. I’m really grateful for it now because it got me moving. There were whole bits of songs missing. I thought, “If it’s going to be out there, then it must be out in the form it was meant to be.” That sent me looking for the rights and trying for a reissue. And this time around it just found the right people.
And it was that reissue that got you connected with a whole range of contemporary artists. How did they start to contact you? Well, it was Devendra [Banhart] who started it really, certainly in America. He found my album and he wrote to me and said that he was just starting out, and that he was playing horrible places. He didn’t know whether or not he should carry on. He sent me some of his music and some of his drawings and it was just instantly familiar — like kindred spirits.
What do you mean? Whether it was his nomadic nature or what, there was just something about his music and his use of words that was quite uncanny in how similar it felt. It wasn’t similar to what I did, but just similar to my life. So I wrote back to him and told him he must carry on.
There were others as well… Earlier than that it was Glen Johnson of Piano Magic. He was the first to invite me back into the studio to sing one of his songs. Again, I loved his songs immediately, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sing because I hadn’t for so long. It was that day that really started it all off again. I knew that I really wanted to get back to music again.
What was it like working with those musicians? While you may have an affinity for them, their music is quite different. You did a collaboration with Animal Collective for instance. They’re a very different group. They are very different. When they asked me to collaborate I thought they meant as a backing singer. I turned up at the studio and had no idea that they were going to ask me to actually sing the songs. But, bit by bit, I gained confidence. They pushed me very gently.
What about Devendra? You recorded the vocals for a song on his album Rejoicing in the Hands. Devendra sent me a song and I put it into my computer. I printed out the words and pinned them to my door in my little cupboard room where I work. I recorded my voice over his. Where I had to go across the floor to turn the computer off, there were creaking boards. I sent it back to him, not knowing if he was going to be able to do anything with it, but next I knew it was on the album complete with the floorboards. I hadn’t met him at that point.
I’d heard before you started to work on Lookaftering you had gotten very into home recording… Very much so. With the first royalties from the Diamond Day reissue, I got myself a Mac, a little mixer, and a music program. I shut myself up in my room and tried to write. What I got interested in was arranging. I can’t read or write music and I can’t really play a keyboard, but I can do enough to put down a few lines and mix it into something else.
It sounds like you kept things to yourself though, at least at first. How did those demos turn into the new record? When I was doing the Animal Collective recording I met Jay from FatCat — their label. He said, “What are you doing?” and I said that I was recording in my cupboard at home. He said, “Well send me the demos and I’ll see if I can advise you on what to do with them.” And a few weeks later he wrote to me and said, “I don’t suppose you’d consider making FatCat your home?” I was so over the moon. They also introduced me to Max Richter and said, “You two better get together.” He’s been the most wonderful producer that I could ever ask for.
Max produced, but you did most of the arrangements… Yes, I did a lot of the arranging in the cupboard and then I met Max and he was very faithful to them. On two or three of the songs he arranged them completely from scratch, but it was mostly collaboration. I feel that Lookaftering is much more representative of me than Diamond Day was in its time. The difference this time was that I was completely involved from moment one.
You did bring in a number of other musicians though. Why? All the arrangements I had written were on electronic instruments. What we needed to do was score them for real musicians. At that point I thought I was going to need another guitarist as well. As I was teaching somebody else to do the guitar parts, though, I realized that I had actually gotten better at it. And I found that nobody else played it in the same clunkity way that I do. It was the guitarist that we had brought in that encouraged me to do the parts. He just sort of faded into the background and said, “No, you can do it. You do it the way you do it and I don’t.”
With all your collaborations, you had drummed up a lot of new friends. I have to admit, as I heard that this new record was being recorded, I had a fear that with all these musicians involved — with such distinct sounds and personalities — your unique vision would get lost. Were you worried? What was it like when they did come in? The first one was Joanna [Newsom]. She had only heard the songs a couple of times but she played them beautifully. She was so respectful and sweet to me. There was me thinking, “Here’s this absolute star of a girl, who’s known all over the world, coming to play on my album.”
What about Devendra and his crew? There was a day that Max had booked at his favorite studio and it just so happened that it was a day Devendra was in London with his friends. They all came in with this box full of instruments. They were just all very careful. They all played very quietly at first. The engineer had to stamp into the studio and say, “Look! We all need to put a little more beef into this. You’re all being so quiet.” That got us going.
How did you connect with Robert Kirby [string arranger for Nick Drake and a slew of other folk luminaries]? He had done the arranging on Diamond Day and I’d been in contact with him since the reissues. I asked him if he’d come in and play a bit of French horn. It just so happened that he was in that part of London on that day as well.
Sounds like an amazing afternoon… It was. None of it was thought out. It just happened at the right time, and the right people were there. I know what you mean about being scared that everybody else’s style would swamp what we were doing, but everybody was so thoughtful. In my day there was a lot of great competitiveness and people were wary of other musicians and jealous if somebody made more progress. This time the musicians I’ve come across and the people that are producing are all so thoughtful, kind and clever and generous. It’s such an enormous change.