Features I by I 06.10.14

Holy Smoke: folk icon Vashti Bunyan on her last ever album – and why the Scots called it wrong

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In this age of information, inactivity has become a strangely seductive force.

A peculiar paradox is occurring where the more one reveals, the more one’s power is diminished, while procrastinators hidden from view under a cloak of invisibility only add to their own mystique (step forward Kate Bush and David Bowie – or don’t for that matter). There are plenty of modern examples of artists who’ve become the focus of attention because of a refusal to yield to demand, with interest only inflating during these creative cessations. And yet Kevin Shields, Grace Jones, Throbbing Gristle etc etc, pale into insignificance when their bizarre interregnums are held up to the painfully prolonged, pregnant and Pinteresque (all rolled into one) pause of Vashti Bunyan. Her story of shattered dreams and a disappearance into obscurity for three-and-a-half decades, and then her reassessment and ultimate redemption, must be one of the most extraordinary and heartwarming tales told in modern day pop folklore. It certainly couldn’t happen again.

Pre-internet, Bunyan had no idea that her stock grew ever stronger as she eschewed singing, playing and writing songs, for domesticity and motherhood in the wilds of Scotland. A full 35 years elapsed between the releases of Just Another Diamond Day in 1970 and Lookaftering in 2005, which to put it into some kind of perspective, is two years longer than Jesus Christ spent on planet earth. Following the advent of the world wide web, it soon became apparent to Vashti that love for her music was indeed bountiful out there, and original copies of Just Another Diamond Day were changing hands for up to $2,000 a pop on eBay. It was all a far cry from the hopeless situation she’d found herself in in 1970, when the album – produced by hip ’60s production supremo Joe Boyd – completely tanked. Reviews weren’t favourable either, and having already underachieved once before as Andrew Loog Oldham’s latest protégé in the mid-’60s, being touted everywhere as “the next Marianne Faithfull,  it looked like the game was up for Vashti.

It would have been a great shame had the back story to Just Another Diamond Day disappeared forever too, but it didn’t, and it has now passed into legend. The songs were written during a period of great upheaval and personal adventure for the singer and her then boyfriend Robert Lewis, who had found themselves homeless and living in a rhododendron bush in 1968. Evicted from under the foliage at the behest of the Bank of England (which owned the land), they serendipitously came into the possession of a horse and cart that very same day, bartered from a passing Roma. With her pop career floundering, the pair immediately set off from the south east of England for the Isle of Skye with the aim of joining a community set up by celebrated ’60s folk troubadour and notorious lovemachine, Donovan, taking in a host of sites along the way, including the Lakes. The whole adventure can be retraced with Vashti herself in Kieran Evan’s excellent 2008 From Here To Before documentary. Vashti wrote about the people and events she encountered during the first part of their trip, and if the album was a musical equivalent of a road movie then the stars are the dogs and horses and the people that became their friends. Once they reached their final destination after two long years on the road, Donovan and all the beautiful people had upped sticks and left the Scottish islands.

And so here we are in 2014, and it’s a mere nine years since Vashti’s last release (which is less than half the lifetime of Joan of Arc if we’re still measuring in historical figures). Heartleap is only Bunyan’s third album in an on-off five decade career that she says will be her last. Self-produced, cohesive and characteristically gorgeous, it’s a record that will undoubtedly delight her fans, who love her for her consistency if not her prolificacy. Admirers include Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective and Kieran Hebden, who’ve all recorded with her.

Hello Vashti. As a resident of Edinburgh, how is Scotland coping following the referendum?

Oh well, as you no doubt know, 45% of it are gutted including me. I was so disappointed. Next time. Next time!

In the breakdown I believe 73% of over 65’s voted ‘No’ and 71% of 16-to-17 year olds voted ‘Yes’…

That’s right, yeah, and it feels as though they’ve been let down by the older generation, because it was their future we were supposed to be voting on. So yes, it feels very sad.

How long have you lived in Scotland now?

Over 40 years. A long time. My God, more than that… 45 years I’ve been here in Scotland, apart from one year in Ireland.

Do you feel like a native now?

Nearly [laughs].

I was listening to ‘Holy Smoke’ earlier with the light seeping through the open window on this beautiful late summer’s afternoon and wondering how your music could have been so ignored when it first came out…

Yeah, comprehensively ignored. It could have hardly been more buried really. But then I thought it was completely buried, and so it was a surprise to me when I discovered it wasn’t entirely buried.

Had the internet not been invented then do you think you ever would have realised there was a groundswell of appreciation out there?

I wouldn’t have known anything about it if it hadn’t been for the internet, or me getting a magazine about the internet that set me off on a whole course… So thank goodness for the internet. It’s made the second part of my musical life, really.

You left a song unfinished in 1970 and just walked away. Was that easy to do? You just thought: “right, that’s it… I’ve had enough…”

I had had enough. I think after Diamond Day came out there were only a couple of reviews I read, and one was about how it had made the reviewer depressed. And I thought, “I can’t be doing this, I did this whole journey to get away from that. How can I be making somebody else feel so bad?” And so I closed that paper – I don’t remember which music paper it was – and I swore I’d never pick up my guitar again and I didn’t, except to teach my 15-year-old son how to play guitar. I didn’t touch it from then on.

It’s amazing that a review could have had such seismic repercussions. As a reviewer myself, the thought of changing the course of someone’s life like that is horrifying.

I know! I’m sure he was telling the truth as he saw it. And then another review said it was just nursery rhymes for children, and so I just felt completely misunderstood, and more so that I had just been so wrong to do it. I didn’t want to read anymore, and so I just stopped.

It’s interesting now, though, that because your music wasn’t sewn into the fabric of the ’60s, it somehow feels more contemporary as a result. So in a way it kind of worked for you…

People ask me if I have any regrets, and really I have none. At all. It worked really well for me that I’ve had the life I’ve had and had this second part where I’ve got back to the music. Yes, I think it wasn’t right for its time; it might have been right had it come out two years before that when the songs were actually written. It was a year from when they were written to when they were recorded, then it was another year before they came out, and at that time things changed so incredibly rapidly. There was so much going on, it was so exciting and such an incredible time that it was bound to get lost really. And that’s okay. The fact that it has been reassessed now by completely different people than it was presented to then – the music journalists and the audience that was there then didn’t understand it in the way that this generation has understood it – and that’s been very…. very nice for me. And very kind.

Did you carry any resentments for Andrew Loog Oldham, or even Joe Boyd, who said he didn’t really go into bat for you when Diamond Day was finished?

Ah ha, no, not at all, and certainly not now. When I look back at what Andrew did it was fantastic! And how lucky I was to have a small go at that world. It was fabulous. The fact that it didn’t work for me is neither here nor there now. When I look back at what he did, I really love it, and when I look back at what Joe did and how brave he was to stand by his word that he would record an album at the end of my journey… and you know, by the time I had finished it was about dogs and horses and things. It made his heart sink! And he still kept his word. I think probably what a lot of people miss is people like Andrew and people like Joe, they put everything into these recordings. They had to pay for studio time, they had to pay for everything, I didn’t have to pay for anything, I just came along and… sang [laughs]. But they were putting their livelihoods on the line to get this music out, and I think that can be forgotten.

At the time people strangely had you pegged as the next Marianne Faithfull, and it’s difficult now to see any comparison at all…

It was a big upset when I finally realised that was how I was being promoted – as the new Marianne Faithfull – it seemed completely wrong to me. I was more interested in getting my songs out there than getting me out there. I never really saw myself as a performer, I’m a songwriter. And it was quite unusual at the time for a girl to be writing her own songs, so that’s where I thought the big difference was. Personality-wise we were so so different, and now we couldn’t be any more different. I’ve had such a different history.

“It feels as though [young Scots] been let down by the older generation, because it was their future we were supposed to be voting on. It feels very sad.”

She’s about celebrate 50 years in the business, and you’d probably celebrate – I dunno – 35 years out of the business and maybe 15 in it?

Yeah, well I started when I was 18, so that was ‘63. So yeah, 51 years I guess I’ve been knocking on that door, and yes, I took a big bite out of it for 35 years. Completely out.

You lived in a rhododendron bush and she lived on a wall, so maybe she’s the more urban version of you?

Haha, I know, I know. There are some peculiar parallels. And it will be with me forever that I was promoted as the new Marianne Faithfull, and that’s what it says on the cover of Mojo this month. I thought, “oh my goodness, will I ever be just me”. But that’s the way it’s been.

Joe Boyd also produced Nick Drake. Were you aware of him at the time at all?

I was. I wasn’t aware of his music, and I met him many times with Joe, and it was only later that I heard his music. At that time when I met him I didn’t have a record player. I’d been out on the road from having a very music-led life up until 23 when I took off with that horse. I’d been very involved, read all the music papers and listened to absolutely everything, and then after I left it was nothing. And I didn’t really listen to the [Incredible] String Band, or Fairport Convention or Nick Drake, or any of those people that I was associated with through Joe Boyd; I didn’t know any of their music at all until later. But Nick Drake, I met him a few times. Joe wanted us to sing and write a song together and that was a disaster.

Oh really?

Well we were both just too shy to even speak to each other I think. So it was never going to work.

I suppose unlike you, he never lived to know that people truly loved his work.

How lucky does that make me that I survived to be able to see that the music did actually mean something to somebody, whereas he died before he got that opportunity and that’s just totally tragic that he didn’t get that, and terribly unfair that I did. He was the genius and I’m sure that he knew it. I was just this girl with a few sweet songs. He was… he was real.

Artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom obviously love your music and wouldn’t sound the same without you.

Well maybe, but I know that Joanna hadn’t heard Diamond Day when she made The Milk-Eyed Mender. It’s always assumed she was influenced by me, but not at all. She and Devendra really helped me to find a place in music though; they made a place for me and rather than me influencing them – because they had such a wonderful following and promoted me in a way – they were my advocates for a while, and I was extremely fortunate that they understood the music.

Devendra talks about your music in spiritual terms, so you must have had an influence on him.

Well, I guess [laughs]. I think we influenced each other a lot, certainly as far as… well he certainly helped me to get going with live performance again, and to keep doing it until I didn’t feel scared anymore. He really helped me with that and I think we’ve had a very nice friendship and I feel very grateful.

You don’t see yourself as a folkie do you?

I don’t, no. I get terribly annoyed [laughs].

How about the Godmother of Freak Folk then?

I know, well that sits better, haha. Yes, I think for me and people of my generation, we think of folk singers as those who frequented folk clubs, and I never did, and I never sang folk songs. I always sang my own, unless forced otherwise. So I don’t think of myself as a folk singer, but then the word ‘folk’, I keep being told, embraces an awful lot more styles of music than it used to, and so I have to stop wrestling with it all the time.

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I keep reading that Heartleap is your last album and yet I don’t read why it’s your last album. Please elaborate.

I think because it took me seven years from beginning to end, and while I obviously didn’t work seven years end to end, it did take me that long to come up with that many songs. If I were to write another song next week, would I have to wait for another nine to come along before I put out another album? Or should I just think of it as songs I’m singing? And will there be such a thing as an album in eight, nine or ten years? Things will change so much in the coming years, and I just can’t see myself putting a collection together again. I’d certainly still love to write songs and write music, but a concentrated collection? I think that might not be something I’ll do again. I don’t think I’d want to do it again, because it’s made me a very selfish, self-centred, self-absorbed person, certainly for the last year. I wouldn’t want to do that to everyone around me again quite so intensely.

Yeah but you’re an artist, so you can’t help but be a bit selfish. It’s the same if you’re a writer, you kind of have to be.

Well yeah I know, and I have been. The other thing is I really want to write the story of the Diamond Day journey, and a bit like Kieran’s film, I would like to go back and write it down for my kids really. To explain it to them in a way that it hasn’t been explained completely – and that’s something as a writer I’d like to do.

I was going to ask you about memoirs. Your story is magnificent and yet it hasn’t been put into book form yet from what I can gather. It definitely needs to be written, and who better to write it…

I would like to because it was such an incredible time. The ’60s into the ’70s was an extraordinary time and I just hope I can do it justice really and tell the truth as I see it about that time, and the people I met, the things that we did and how crazy it might seem. I would like to put some background to it so it doesn’t just look like some lovely little trip through fields of flowers. It really wasn’t – certainly my journey wasn’t – and I would like to put some reality into it.

Would you be interested in writing a autobiography about your whole life? I’d be interested in the years when you were away. Did you by any chance read Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys? Much of that was about her time as a housewife, and it was so evocatively written and a truly inspiring read actually.

Somebody told me about it and I will definitely seek it out! I think what I’ll probably do is take a few little stories from the future and put them in where they’re relevant. I don’t just want to write the history chronologically, but where there’s anything that I can reference a few years later, I will put something like that in. There’s so much of it now that doesn’t seem believable – half of it even – but I will try to make it so.

“The ’60s into the ’70s was an extraordinary time and I just hope I can do it justice really.”

I know you said Joe Boyd was more in charge of the direction of Diamond Day and it was his vision. Regarding Heartleap, I’m assuming this is the album you’ve had most control over?

Yes it is, because at the time I had no input at all, but with Max Richter who produced Lookaftering it was very different. He included me in every decision, and he taught me as we were going along, and I understood what he was doing. And that was fantastic for me, and that was what led me to try to do it for myself, because he had taught me so much, and I thought, “I’ve got all these ideas in my head that I find difficult to get across to other musicians because I can’t read or write music, but with this software and these tools I can try to do it for myself”. At first I didn’t think I’d make an album from it, I just wanted to do it, you know. But after a while I realised I did want to go through the whole process myself, and maybe it’s selfish that I have done it this way. It was also because I had the time to do it and wasn’t constricted by studio time or other musicians’ time. I could take my own time to just build things up layer by layer and do it the way I wanted. I don’t think a producer would have had the patience with me or had anything to do with me after about three weeks! So it was just as well I did it for myself.

Is this a more reflective album? You have a song called ‘Mother’, don’t you?

Yes it is. It is. It’s much more reflective I think.

And that’s you playing the piano on ‘Mother’?

It’s made up out of three tracks of me playing. I can’t play the piano so I made it up. It’s a fake piano, but I loved being able to do that. I can’t play the piano but it was great to be able to put those notes together and make it sound a bit like I could.

It sounds very natural.

Oh good. Thank you!

‘Gunpowder’ is a beautiful song. It’s got a meditative quality to it…

Well actually, that was the first song I wrote for this album seven years ago. It’s about how I couldn’t ever not say the wrong thing to this ex-partner. I felt as though he was laying the trial for me to light up and then there’d be an explosion, and I was just trying to describe that feeling of, “damn, I’ve done it again”. The imagery of gunpowder leading to a large keg came to me, and it wasn’t entirely my fault, but on the other hand I should learn to not say these things.

So maybe not so meditative then. Do you always write from personal experience?

I do, or if I see somebody in a particular situation. On Lookaftering there was a song called ‘If I Were’ and that was about somebody else’s relationship I was watching. While on this album it’s mostly about me, there are at least three about other people. I think it’s just observing situations people get themselves in.

When I was listening to the song ‘Shell’ earlier, it was resounding around the flat and kind of reverberating on some of the surfaces. I was wondering how you did it…

How did I do it? Well with lots of tracks. I think there were about 16 tracks on that one and I’d actually taken some off because it was a bit too boomy. But I just wanted it to be a sort of wash of different instruments. There’s one real one, one lonely saxophone, and that mixed with the synth sounds that I used probably added to the booming effect. I had to take it down quite a lot in fact.

It still booms, but that’s a good thing.

Oh dear, I hope it hasn’t blown your speakers. That would be something! One of my songs blowing somebody’s speakers! [laughs]

You talked about having a lack of self-awareness and confidence during the making of Diamond Day. Do you feel more assured as an artist these days?

Yes, I think so. A lot of that is because at that time I never had any reassurance or any feedback about what I was doing. Not from family or friends… or even seeing things written that were completely not me like the Marianne Faithfull thing. That made me feel that I was no good at this at all and that I should stop. But with the internet, to get that kind of feedback, I think that inevitably if it’s good it will bolster you and make things feel so much better. And I know it’s probably not a very good personality trait, but to have some positive feedback really helps. And yes, it has helped me have a bit more confidence and helped me have some kind of picture of what it is I’m doing. It’s very hard to know what you’re doing unless someone else hears it, sees it, reads it and says something about it. The internet has really helped to give me a picture of what I’m doing, like a mirror. It’s really hard to work into a vacuum.

In the film From Here To Before you talk about having left music behind and you say “I hope I never leave it behind again”. You’re not leaving it behind now then are you?

Oh no, I couldn’t I don’t think, because when I did come back to it, I realised how much I’d missed it and became aware of the huge hole there had been in my life. So no, I wouldn’t do that again, I love it too much.

When you went on that two year journey, did it almost give you a sense of purpose where you didn’t feel you had one?

Yes. Oh yes, completely. And it was like being reeducated. I’d had a pretty sheltered kind of post-war childhood and I needed to learn what the real world was like, and I sure did. Yes, it was pretty much for that reason that we did it. We needed to learn, and we did learn about the different kinds of people there are. And we did learn how wonderful people can be, and how not wonderful others can be. The purpose was to get to the other end of the UK, to get to Skye. That was the purpose, but on the other hand the real reason was to give us a real basis of what life is, to teach ourselves some basic lessons, and I think we did that. I think we were right to do what we did, even though it was mad at the time.

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