Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Vashti Bunyan

The story of the woman who shunned music and the music business after her debut album was released in 1970 only to find herself back in demand many years later

Thu, Oct 16, 2014, 14:28

   

The arrival of a fine new album “Heartleap” from Vashti Bunyan serves as a timely reminder of her amazing story. It’s her third album in all, her first “Just Another Diamond Day” coming in 1970, with the follow-up “Lookaftering” released 35 years later. The reason for the gap? Life and all of that. I interviewed her in 2005 when “Lookaftering” was released and heard about how she turned her back on pop in favour of travelling around Scotland and Ireland. Bunyan has said that her new album will be her last album, but something tells me people will still be discovering this amazing singer for many years to come.

Of all the tales heard this past year, Vashti Bunyan’s story is possibly the strangest. There are indeed many elements to consider: the 35 year gap between the release of her 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.

Yet it is a 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. Unlike most of her neighbours, however, 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, it’s an album of startling, incandescent beauty.

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

The “Diamond Day” album had not been Bunyan’s 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 like 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.”

However, the singles which were released 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. The trip took two long, tough years. Bunyan charted their odyssey along British motorways, with stops every 20 miles or so to reshoe Bess the horse, by writing the songs which would eventually appear on “Diamond Day”.

When these songs, daydreaming about a better life to come in a rural idyll, failed to find an audience, Bunyan put away her guitar. 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 pounds, but by the time we got there, they were selling for six hundred pounds. 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 to see what would come up and could not believe her eyes at what she found. Unbeknownst to her, “Diamond Day” became 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.”

Bunyan arranged for the album to be properly reissued in 2000. When word of her re-emergence began to circulate, many people came a-calling to pay their respects. She found that many of new freak-folk scene such as Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom were fans. And she began to think that maybe it was time to write and record some more.

“The reissue and the attention gave me confidence”, she explains. “It’s been a gradual process and there have been many sleepless nights, but both “Diamond Day” and the new album have been so kindly received that I’m really flattered by all this attention. I feel very, very lucky.”

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 people of this ilk 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”, she says. “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.”