Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Vashti Bunyan

Homelights ahoy! The Adrian Crowley and Foggy Notions-curated festival takes place at Dublin’s Whelan’s next weekend. For my money, the highlight should be the fantastic Vashti Bunyan on Sunday November 29 (with support from Andy Irvine, Minotaur Shock, Lord Cut-Glass …

Tue, Nov 24, 2009, 10:00

   

Homelights ahoy! The Adrian Crowley and Foggy Notions-curated festival takes place at Dublin’s Whelan’s next weekend. For my money, the highlight should be the fantastic Vashti Bunyan on Sunday November 29 (with support from Andy Irvine, Minotaur Shock, Lord Cut-Glass and Adrian Crowley with Geese). Here’s an interview I did with her for The Ticket back in 2005 after she released the “Lookaftering” album for Fat Cat.

Of all the tales told this past year, Vashti Bunyan’s story is possibly the strangest. There are many elements to consider: the 35-year-gap between Bunyan’s first and second albums, an odyssey which took her from the London of the swinging Sixties to windswept, desolate islands off the coast of Scotland and cameos from Donovan, pop svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, a horse named Bess and a dog called Blue.

It’s a strange story with a happy ending. Having spent the last couple of decades raising kids and animals on farms in Scotland and Ireland, Bunyan now calls Edinburgh home. She spends her days fielding calls about her new album, “Lookaftering”. A bundle of fragile, homespun folk songs, all tied together with streamlined electronic ribbons by producer Max Richter of Blue Notebooks fame, “Lookaftering” is an album of startling, incandescent beauty.

It’s an album which few thought they would ever hear. Back in 1970, Bunyan released the Joe Boyd-produced “Just Another Diamond Day”. It was roundly ignored at the time and Bunyan shunned music and the business.

“Diamond Day” wasn’t her first tilt at the pop game – or her first rejection. Back in the 1960s, Bunyan, an art student who fell under the spell of singers such as Bob Dylan, met Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and thought that she had found a way to fulfil her dream.

“It’s a bit of a myth that Andrew found this little girl and decided to turn her into a pop singer,” she says. “I wanted to be a pop singer, I wanted the glamour I saw associated with Andrew Loog Oldham, but I also wanted to bring my little acoustic love songs into this mainstream pop world. Yes, I suppose I wanted to be on Top of the Pops.”

Sadly, the singles didn’t hit the jackpot, and a frustrated Bunyan decided to leave London. She and her then partner took off in a horse-drawn caravan for the Isle of Skye, where word had it that Donovan was establishing an artistic commune. Bunyan charted their two-year odyssey along British motorways, with stops every 20 miles or so to reshoe Bess the horse, by writing the songs which eventually appeared on “Diamond Day”.

Bunyan put away her guitar when the songs, daydreaming about a better life to come in a rural idyll, failed to find an audience. She travelled with her family around Scotland and even onto Ireland. “We had heard that there were farms you could buy outside Galway for £100 or £200, but by the time we got there, they were selling for £600. We’d missed the boat, I suppose.”

As the years went by, Bunyan never thought about her musical past. “I turned my back on music entirely because I had been so bruised by what happened when the album was ignored. I feel a little bad about it now because it meant my children didn’t have much music around them growing up. My daughter was saying the other day that the only things we listened to were Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Planxty. That was it for their whole childhood.”

One day in the late 1990s, Bunyan typed her name into an internet search engine and couldn’t believe what came up. Unbeknownst to her, “Just Another Diamond Day” had become a lost folk-rock classic with rare copies changing hands for large amounts of cash.

“It was extraordinary and it made me think about what I might be missing.” She arranged for the album to be properly reissued in 2000. When word of her re-emergence began to circulate, many people came calling to pay their respects. She found that several leaders of the new freak-folk scene – Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom – were fans. And she began to think that maybe it was time to write and record some more.

Royalties from the reissue allowed her to splash out on some equipment, and she began to write and record. “Even when I was very young, I was fascinated by the technical side of music. Because I was a very shy young girl, I didn’t have access to the controls in the way I would have like to have done. When I came back to music, I got myself a Mac and a mixer and a keyboard. It was just magic to have everything to hand and the songs and the music came to me very easily.”

Bunyan sounds as if she’s enjoying herself right now. She hopes next year to go on tour and meet even more people who have been touched by her two albums. She just wishes that more of them had been around 35 years ago. Things could have been so much different, she thinks.

“Because I’m loving what I’m doing right now so much, I’m beginning to realise what an idiot I was all these years by turning my back on music. I just really, really wish all these wonderful people had been around when “Diamond Day” was made. They would have understood what I was trying to do much better than most of my contemporaries ever did.”

© 2005 The Irish Times

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