There was a long gap between her first album and her latest, but Vashti Bunyan is back on tour. Duncan Seaman reports.
As the creator of only three albums over the course of 50 years, it’s perhaps not surprising that singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan can’t resist a little self-effacing laughter when asked what she might have been up to musically in recent years.
“Well, nothing much,” she says in a soft Edinburgh brogue. “I did some recording with Gareth Dickson, who plays guitar with me when we’re out and about. We did a cover of a Nick Drake song for MOJO, that was the last thing I did musically, I think, but that’s quite a while ago.
“No, I’ve been busy with other stuff, that’s for sure. I think probably after I finished Heartleap [in 2014] I had been so completely absorbed in it to the detriment of the rest of my life, like my family. I’d been so closed in for months to try to get it finished after seven years working on it, I was just determined it had to be done, it had to be finished, so I worked really hard every day up in my room cloistered away, which wasn’t good for the rest of my life.
“I was – well, I wouldn’t quite say traumatised,” she chuckles again, “but affected by that and so every time I’ve gone back I’d say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve completely forgotten how Pro Tools works, I’ve completely forgotten how Logic works, umm...’ But then when I do get back into it I really love it again so yes, I’m sure there will be more songs, there are several in the making, but it might be a while.”
Four years ago Bunyan had hinted Heartleap, the first album of her career that she had produced herself, would be her last. She jokes now that was an exasperated response at the mastering stage of the record when engineer Mandy Parnell had said: “For the next one, I want to come and completely redesign your studio.” “I said, ‘What next one? I’m never doing this again ever, ever, ever.’ Dave Howell from Fat Cat Records who was doing the press release put it was probably going to be my last album and that was sort of taken up.
“But whether it is or not I really don’t know, because it’s quite a while now, it’s been four years [since Heartleap], and the last one [Lookaftering] was nine years between that, and the one before that [Just Another Diamond Day] was 35 years or so.”
She says she wishes the process of songwriting had become easier since her unexpected comeback to music when the long-lost Just Another Diamond Day, which she had made with celebrated American producer Joe Boyd and members of Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band back in 1969, was re-released to some fanfare around the turn of the Millennium, but she seems resigned to the fact that it hasn’t.
The morning we speak she says she had been pondering over what had been happening over the last 18 years. “When I sit down now and think ‘I really need to write about this enormous change and this enormous tragedy that’s overtaking us all’, I think I can’t find the words strong enough to say how I feel now, or how differently I feel from eight years ago when I last played in Leeds, how different I find the world now, how different it must be for young people.
“I think it’s similar actually how I feel now to how I felt when I disappeared from London to the outer wilds of Britain trying to escape that desperate feeling that I had no power, no way of making any change to anything. The only thing I could do was to change my own life. I remember feeling like that and that was a lot of the reason behind disappearing from music and disappearing from everything, but of course then I wrote a load of songs about it. But this time I’m finding it much more difficult to get to how I really feel about what’s going on in order to write about it, or at least to write songs. It seems very different and then I just keep going back to the ones I’ve already written and thinking, ‘Actually that’s what I’ve said and can I find any more to say in song form or do I just have to yell?’”
I felt about the music industry that it wasn’t so much about the people who were creating but the audiences that I couldn’t reach. I could not reach my audience and it did in fact take another 30 years before I did.Vashti Bunyan
Where once Bunyan started writing many of her songs on acoustic guitar, latterly her approach has become more electronic. “A lot of how I start things is on the keyboard now. I can’t play the piano, I can’t play a keyboard, I can only find little phrases or bits that I can build on. It’s very different to finding a song on a guitar and I do enjoy it, I enjoy the manipulation of sounds that’s possible and that was what I deeply got into for Heartleap – I could actually change something and make something that a human being couldn’t play on a normal instrument. Being able to manipulate sounds like that was wonderful.
“I got so completely into it. My partner Al brought me a cup of tea one time and stood at the other side of my desk for probably 10 minutes before I saw that he was there. I was so absorbed in what I was doing and that gave me a bit of a shock – him too.”
Bunyan’s journey from Swinging London in 1965, when she was discovered by the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham, to now has been remarkable. At the age of 73, she says: “I just love thinking about it. I know that it was hell at the time, I was very shy and found it all incredibly painful but looking back on it, I feel so lucky that I had the experience of that time in London, and that incredible push by young people to take over from the old guard which was so disapproving and would stop us all in our tracks if they could, but they didn’t.
“Somebody like Andrew Oldham I admire him so much for what he did, and people like him, of course, but he was the only one that I knew. He was extraordinary. I think he was 21 and I was 20 when I met him but he was already the manager of the Stones and incredibly powerful within the music world. They were incredible those people, although I could only really watch from the sidelines because I was so shy. I was pretty much invisible, I’m sure, but I could watch and I could appreciate and I just loved it all.”
Bunyan’s first single, Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. She recalls: “Mick Jagger was there when I was recording it. I didn’t get to know them in any way, I was so shy that I didn’t have any relationship with any other musicians really at the time, I was very much a loner, but I certainly witnessed some incredible stuff.”
When a run of folk-pop singles flopped, Bunyan decided to quit London and head with her then partner Robert Lewis to a commune in the Hebrides, travelling by horse and cart. At Christmas 1968 they stopped in the Lake District, and it was there that she encountered Joe Boyd, who offered to make an album with her. Bunyan says he was “ambivalent” about the project from the off. “I thought that I had left London and left music and halfway through the journey a friend persuaded me to see Joe Boyd and I sang him some songs and he said, ‘Let’s make an album at the end of your journey’, which was another year away. I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see when we get there’.
“I always loved recorded music, the whole experience of recording right from when I was a child. My father and my older brother were very interested in it, so I grew up with the idea of recorded music. Being in a studio was just magical for me and I terribly missed it, and so [I accepted] the opportunity to go back, even though I thought nothing would come of it, I didn’t think anybody would ever have time for those songs. In the event the songs were written in one year, another year went by before they were recorded and then another year went by before they were actually released in album form. At that time the world changed so quickly, especially the music world, that by the time it came out it was totally lost. It has missed its time. If it had come out in ’68 or ’69 when the songs were written [things might have been different] but actually it didn’t come out until the end of 1970.”
By the turn of the 1970s, Bunyan says she thinks she had become “more disillusioned by myself, by my ability to make myself heard, more than the music industry”. “I didn’t really have that much experience of the music industry apart from Andrew and Joe, who were so completely different. I felt about the music industry that it wasn’t so much about the people who were creating but the audiences that I couldn’t reach. I could not reach my audience and it did in fact take another 30 years before I did and so the disillusionment was mostly with my own abilities rather than the terrible, wicked industry.”
Instead Bunyan got on with the process of living life for the next three decades, raising two children in Scotland. She says it was only after Just Another Diamond Day was re-released in 2000 that she began to realise what a cult following the record had acquired among folk musicians such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. “I was terrified of it coming out, I thought the same thing was going to happen,” she says. “It was going to get ridiculed, it was going to be called nursery rhymes for kids but the reviews were not exactly kind but understanding what it was in a way that my contemporaries never actually got. When it came out again it was as if there was a whole different climate, a whole different audience of people who understood. And the people who understood were the same age as I had been when I made that record, and that really cheered me up enormously – that there were another two or three generations that had come to understand what I had been trying to do back in 1967 or ’68 had some worth of some kind. I had gone through all those 30 years thinking it was worthless and nothing and invisible and gone to suddenly realising, actually if I listen to it again it’s not that bad,” she laughs. “And instead of being hugely embarrassed by it, as I had been for all of those 30 years, I wouldn’t let my children near it, I suddenly realised that actually Joe Boyd did a great job and it was very much of its time.”
The later release of Lookaftering and Heartleap have made Bunyan joyful that she is finally able to express herself creatively. “It’s been wonderful,” she says. “With Lookaftering I had Max Richter to guide me through it and he was so patient, so wonderful and so enthusiastic, he was the perfect person to come back into music with and he taught me enough that I could go out on my own and use the lessons he taught me to do something by myself which is what I had always wanted to do back when I was a child or growing up, to be able to make my own sounds and my own music and record it myself and that’s what I did for Heartleap. I would not have been able to do it without Max and all the lessons he gave me.”
Bunyan says she has now come to terms with performing live as well. Initially she was terrified. “I could not stop shaking on the stage.” She credits the advice of Devendra Banhart: “I asked him, ‘How do you get up there and do this?’ He said, ‘Well, you just do it until it really doesn’t frighten you any more’ and I had to try to remember that every time I got on the stage. My knees shook but I thought, ‘OK, it’s going to get better, it will get to a point where my knees don’t shake’ and of course he was right and it got to the point where I actually enjoy it and that’s the best bit.”
Vashti Bunyan plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Monday November 26. www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk