Vashti Bunyan has always flirted with oblivion. Despite being discovered by the Rolling Stones’ manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham in the 1960s, a contract with Decca and critics who were quick to dub her the “female Bob Dylan,” Bunyan instead decided to buy a horse and carriage and journey to the Scottish Isle of Skye in search of Donovan’s creative colony rather than pursue fame. In the two years it took her to get there he was already gone.
Although her 1970 debut included contributions from the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, it wasn’t until the 2000 reissue of Just Another Diamond Day that Bunyan rose above cult status. Championed by a new crop of psych-folk artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, the attention led to Lookaftering — on which Banhart and Newsom guested — released 35 years after her debut.
Heartleap, the follow-up to Lookaftering arrives now, nine years later. Recorded mostly by Bunyan in her home studio, the album utilizes synthetic sounds to create an intimacy that is deceptively simple and overwhelmingly heartfelt. What began as a collaboration with Robert Kirby, an old friend with whom she’d only recently reconnected, was finished without him — Kirby passed away suddenly just after the two began early work on the record. She delayed the project several years before realizing she had to go on without him. The result is a spellbinding journey, a testament to a singular songwriter whose craft has never been stronger.
Over the course of our conversation Bunyan opened up about loss and creation, and entertained the possibility that this might be her final album.
I love to talk to artists about their earliest memories in engaging with music. Do have a specific “wow” moment when you really first engaged with music?
I remember when I was very young and somewhat afraid of the dark I could never get to sleep. I used to sing myself to sleep very, very loudly, because that kept the ghosties away and that’s what I did from a very early age. My father had a big collection of classical music, and although I had absolutely no idea what any of it was, I call on it, those phrases and that feel. Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony was hugely influential on me when I was very young.
There’s a singer from the ’50s named Kathleen Ferrier who had the most beautiful voice. She died quite young, which was tragic, but my father adored her voice and I grew up adoring her voice. It’s not like anyone else’s. Things like that taught me that even if you sound a bit odd, if you don’t sound like anybody else, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Also I’m sure my father wanted me to be a boy and I would’ve been a choirboy and that’s probably what I sound like a lot of the time.
So many people didn’t know your music until your debut was reissued in 2000, and then you put out your second album in 2005, which was really widely acclaimed. I was wondering if it was intimidating for you to go back into the studio after that.
God yes! It really was. And you know, it’s taken me seven years to put this album together, and during all of that time, probably every few weeks, I thought, “I don’t need to do this! I’ve got the Diamond Day one that was from the beginning of my musical life, more or less, and then Lookaftering was all about looking back over that 35-year gap. Do I really need to do something else, or should I leave those two as bookends to each other and just walk away from it all together? Then these songs kept appearing in my head, and I got interested in actually recording and in computer programs and in electronic sounds and in arranging and in editing, and I just couldn’t keep away from it.
Even so I kept thinking “OK, I’m not going to do this. I’m going to throw the whole lot in the sea and never think about it again.” Then, somehow or other, it got finished. I met the right people who would help me do the final mix and mastering, and they were fantastic to me — we worked for a whole week, night and day, and we pulled it all together, and then suddenly it was finished! And I thought, “Oh hell, I’ve done it, no going back now. I can’t change my mind now.” So off it went!
You’ve been referred to as a folk musician, a label you’ve mentioned isn’t exactly accurate. I was curious for you to elaborate on that.
It’s very hard for me. I am thought of as a folk singer because my first album had a lot of quite well-known folk musicians on it. So I was put into that category, even though the work I’d done before that was all very pop-oriented. I recorded this single written by the Rolling Stones, and that was my world before I came to do Diamond Day. And then these folk musicians were brought in who I didn’t know, because I’d been on the road for two years. [Producer] Joe Boyd brought them in, and they gave the whole album a very folky feel, whereas my idea was much more along the lines with what Robert Kirby did, [on Diamond Day] which was this beautiful arrangement for violins and recorders. That was more where my heart was, in those kinds of arrangements. The folk musicians are brilliant people, but I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t know what their music would be like.
I felt Diamond Day had a life of its own, almost nothing to do with me, because we recorded it in three nights, and I never heard it again for another year, by which time I’d had a baby. It was a whole year before it came out and I didn’t really feel that it was how I felt about myself. When it came out again in 2000, and it was accepted for what it had been meant to be in the first place — which was just a document of a journey — because of these very well known folk musicians, it was again classified as folk. That kind of went against the grain for me, because I’d never thought of myself as a folk musician. I’d never been interested particularly in traditional folk music. And so I kind of felt that I was misrepresented.
On the other hand, what could I do about it? So I’ve been complaining about it for 14 years! My daughter even had a bag printed for me that said in big red letters I AM NOT A FOLK SINGER.
You mentioned working on your computer for Heartleap. I’m curious, as an artist and a musician: how do you work with technology to create, which is an idea that goes against the grain for the creation of something labeled “folk”?
I can’t read or write music. I can’t play the piano. But I have all this music in my head, all these instruments playing in my head. I can use the computer to put that all together.
For this album I have not tried to make things sound real. I embraced the synthetic sounds I’m able to use and make them do what I want them to do. I can’t go into a studio and have a violinist play exactly the notes that I want, but I can play that part on a keyboard — I’ve got a little old Roland — I can manipulate it to exactly how I want it, and I don’t think a human being could recreate it.
What was the first moment, the first kernel of the new album? When did that start, and describe what happened.
The first thing I wrote was a song called “Gunpowder.” I’d just bought a big old 1972 Gibson. It was big and brash and not like me at all. But it had the most wonderful sound. I was living in a tiny rented house, and my son had helped me put together a keyboard on my computer so that I could learn Pro Tools. I just loved being able to record by myself with nobody overhearing me, and that song just appeared out of nowhere.
Others came very, very slowly and others have just appeared. Like the last song on the album, “Heartleap” — it just came I knew I needed to write another song and I’d been trying for about a year. But I couldn’t. Nothing really worked for me. Suddenly this song appeared out of nowhere and I thought I must have heard it somewhere before. It became the last song on the album and I recorded straight off.
So that was the last thing I did and I think it will probably be the last song. It feels like the last song ever but who knows.
You spoke about “Heartleap,” the closer that came so quickly. When I listen to the album, I think about the bookends a lot, so let’s talk about the first song, “Across the Water,” and where that song came from.
I went to see some friends who played in the band Vetiver at a show in Glasgow. Driving back from Glasgow there was a full moon, and the first part of that song just came straight to me. It was a very beautiful night, very clear sky, very full moon. I’d been a bit down, thinking I was never going to be able to do anything musical again, and I was thinking about how you get into what is called a “depression,” where you tend to sleep through the morning and maybe wake in the afternoon and then the rest of the day can be lit by the moon and you don’t go to sleep until the sun comes up. That can be a cycle that you get into when you get really gloomy and life isn’t doing what you think it might.
I think it’s about accepting that things will change and that things will be all right.
I’m curious about Heartleap and the idea of place. You’ve already talked a little about environment and how songs came to you, but I didn’t know if the songs were written in one specific environment, or if it changed while you were creating the album. Is that maybe part of why you’ve not seen it as a cohesive album?
Yes, I think so. Some of the songs were recorded in Topanga Canyon in California. I rented a studio there for a couple of months. Quite a lot of the vocals were done there, as well as a lot of the guitar. Then I did a whole lot at home. The recordings I did in the different places feel different to me.
As far as writing goes, it can be so different. On Lookaftering, there’s a song on there called “The Same But Different” that came to me when I was in the supermarket. I was gazing at a row of cans or something and the song came to me in its entirety and I had to run home and do it.
The other thing about environment is that I discovered that if there was anyone around me, I sang much quieter. If everyone went out of the house and I knew that I had a couple hours to myself, I would record the same thing I’d recorded the day before, and it’d be completely different. I didn’t mean it to be, but just the fact that I knew I wasn’t being overheard made me less self-conscious and I could sing the way I wanted to sing.
I realized it was a waste of time trying to do anything when anyone else was around, so I waited until the house was empty and then I’d run up to my studio and work on the vocals. I’m very much within myself when I’m making things, when I’m recording. It’s the same when I’m playing guitar, which makes live performance a little difficult! I’m getting more used to that now.
You were wanting to collaborate again with Robert Kirby who died suddenly in 2009. What was that like, to lose someone like that who you’d collaborated with and then having to keep on without him?
It was so hard. It was really, really awful. We’d done this work on Diamond Day in 1969, and I thought what he did was so beautiful. Then I didn’t see him again until Lookaftering when he very generously came to play trumpet and French horn on a song. That was the first time I’d seen him in all those years. Then we did a show together, a tribute to Nick Drake, in which he rewrote a score for a song that Nick had only sung with guitar, a song called “Which Will.” Robert wrote a whole string arrangement for it, and it was so beautiful.
We got to talking, and I told him I was doing these songs and wasn’t quite sure how to move forward with them. And he said, “Well, bring them to me, and I’ll see what I think.” When I next visited London I went down to see him and I played him the songs, and he just completely understood what I was talking about — what I wanted to do and the kind of arrangements I wanted. It was all the kinds of things that I was aching to do, and he was really excited about it, said that he would get on with it straight away and we could get started on it in the next couple of months.
When I left his house I was walking on air. It was just so good to find somebody who completely understood what I wanted to do. Two weeks later his wife called me to tell me he’d died on the operating table while having a heart operation. It was so devastating from having been so hopeful, so high about it to be just devastated to lose such a lovely human being. He was such a great guy, totally irreverent, totally joyful — a lovely, lovely man and such a great musician. He didn’t use a computer. He worked at his piano and wrote everything down on manuscript paper. He never heard his arrangements until they were being played.
It took me about two years to actually get back to any kind of music work after he died, and then I realized I had to do it. I didn’t want to find someone else. It didn’t feel right. So I thought, “Well I have to try to do this myself, try to imagine what he might have meant.” And obviously I couldn’t do it like him, but with some of the sounds like the strings in “Mother,” I wanted to imagine what he might have made of that — probably he would’ve done something entirely different.
You said you think “Heartleap” could be your last song ever. Will you be really satisfied if that ends up being true? How does that feel?
It feels kind of good, because I felt like that song said everything I wanted to say in all the other songs I’ve ever written. It’s about the cycle of loving and losing. When I finished that song I felt that it was the end of something. I can’t really describe it. Maybe I’ve said what I wanted to say. But who knows? It may change. I can’t think that I’ll never write anymore music, I’m sure I will, but whether it’s an album, I can’t tell.
I already said to someone at [the label] FatCat, “Oh Lordy, I’m not doing this again,” and so that became “this is her last album.” That’s what everybody seems to have picked up on, that this is my very last album. And it more than likely is. It took me seven years, and there are other things I want to do. For the moment, I’ll say I won’t make another album. I might write other songs, I might make other music, but for the moment I’ll say I won’t make another album.
What are the other things that you would like to do?
I want to write the story of Just Another Diamond Day, and the time leading up to it and the time after it, and what it was really about. Because so much has been written about it and so much has been just slightly inaccurate, and I want to write the real story for the sake of my kids. I tell them little bits here and there and they say, “Oh God, you’ve got to write that down!” And I think I really do need to write it down, so they can understand a bit more about their crazy upbringing.