Vashti Bunyan: Interview
Triumph of the Ephemeral
I tell you about Vashti Bunyan except that she's broken my heart. Yep, I'm
smitten. The more I listen to Lookaftering, the less dignified I become.
I begin to blubber and wax about how the most pure and beautiful things should
be personal, should be reserved for those with those with truly open hearts.
Those who don't scoff at dreamers, sentimentality and a love of and desire for
This folk singer comes from a long, trying journey of self-discovery. She's
tried and folded her hand at art school. Taken a stab at getting known and
falling under the radar after British press called her "the female Bob Dylan."
Journeyed to Donovan's island hideaway by horse and cart and wrote an album (Just
Another Diamond Day) in the process. Arrived as Donovan was leaving, she'd
had a time of it trying to make a home with her man on the isle of Berneray in
Scotland. Many years later, she Googled herself and discovered a flurry of music
lovers held Diamond Day in high esteem. Recently, she was called out by
some formidable contemporary talents (Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, Four
Tet and Stephen Malkmus - amongst others) to collaborate, play and - eventually
- record a new solo album.
The songs on Ms. Bunyan's latest record, called Lookaftering, are
as lovely as the lady herself, and there is so much more to both than sheer
prettiness. There's a cool, deftly composed sort of reflection. It's open-ended,
yet neatly sewn. It's precise and effortlessly poetic; a hypnotic whirl of
earnest sentiment and evocative imagery.
This singer/songwriter delivers some of the most cherish-worthy sounds I've ever
come across, and her conversation reveals her to be kind, patient and still
fascinated with life. Her utter lack of jadedness is charming and, these days,
unusual. You just don't come across guilelessness like hers that often. So
here's to Vashti Bunyan, a resurrected muse well worth gushing over.
So, I may as well get right to the point, how's it been making music again?
It's been magical and miraculous and makes me realize
how much I've missed doing it.
What is it like knowing you have a whole generation of new admirers getting into
It's so brilliant I can't tell you. It's the people I
so wish had been around the first time. It's wonderful to find kindred ears so
much later. A lot of people who listen to Diamond Day are the same age I was
when I made it. It's extraordinary that it's taken all this time for it to be
understood. It really wasn't in its own day.
I read somewhere that you were looking for an opinion when you were trying to
get a record deal, and they said, "Beware of the ephemeral."
[laughs] Oh, yes... that was Peggy Seeger, and she
said "Beware of the ephemeral," and I didn't know what that meant. I went home
and looked it up and thought, well yes, it seems like I want that. It's
important to me, those lovely ideas that you can barely get ahold of.
Who was your greatest inspiration as a young musician?
When I was young, it had to have been Bob Dylan. When
I discovered Bob Dylan -- when I went to NY when I was 18 -- my first response
was, "Oh my God, why am I bothering? This is all that's needed... there's nobody
else in the world that needs to do any songwriting, he's just doing it all." In
a way, it made me want to just stop there and then. Also, it gave me
encouragement that there were songs in the world that weren't just silly love
songs. You could talk about real things in songs. I can't begin to say that he
was an influence, because that would mean that I was doing something like
him, but he was an inspiration certainly.
And has he stayed as an inspiration up to now, or have you found different
I think when I left music altogether in 1968, I
completely abandoned all information, all education, I lost touch with music all
together. I didn't even know the people who were playing on my album. I had no
idea who they were. I didn't even know who Nick Drake was. I was completely
isolated from music, and that continued up until about 12 years ago, when I met
somebody who started to fill in the gaps for me. I'm still filling in the gaps,
you know? It's extraordinary, how much I have missed.
"[Animal Collective] was extraordinarily kind
and encouraging, pushing me to sing in a way that I didn't know that I could
sing. I'm still rediscovering my singing voice, which I hadn't used for all
I'm just curious, you mention Nick Drake.
What do you think of his music?
Oh... when I think of Nick Drake, it just leaves a
hole in my heart that he was so under-appreciated in his time. And I think that
he knew perfectly fine how much of a genius he was; or, if not a genius,
he knew that he was good. And to have people not hear him must have been
When you write your songs, what typically comes first, the lyrics or the
I don't know, because when I finish a song, I cannot
remember how it started.
Yes, it's extraordinary, a kind of miracle. I know
that one of the songs on this new album came to me in a supermarket. It came to
me almost fully formed. That was the song I called Same but Different.
The whole thing just sort of came to me when I was wandering through a
supermarket aisle. I had to right away write it down. But I don't know, really,
where [the songs] come from.
Your music seems to me to be inspired by sort of bare-bones, everyday enduring
beauty -- you know the sort of inevitable dishevelment that occurs throughout
the day. Do you find this to be true?
Yes, I certainly over the last years, since my
children came along, I have this terrible conflict. Needing, on one hand, to
make a steady safe environment for them to grow up in, and to be out on the road
or wanting to be out looking for adventure. But then, I find myself back doing
the washing and mending socks and dreaming in my head of all these wonderful
places that I would like to be going to. Or to be out in the wilderness. There
is this conflict between wanting to get something done and wanting to be free.
I can see that. From your account on your website, your life as a farmer on
We had ourselves a little island called Berneray, but
not for very long.
Well it seems very harrowing, but very inspiring. Have you given any thought to
writing any further about it?
Yes, yes I have. And I have, probably for the past
seven or eight years, I've been coming back to it every so often to write the
story of my earlier life, and about the wagon journey and my husband. And every
time I sit down to write about it, I think, "This all seems so unlikely, like
I've made it up. It's a very difficult thing to decide what angle to write it
from, whether I write the true story of how difficult some of it was, or whether
I write more of an adventure story.
The little bit I read on your website sounded like both to me. You paint a
compelling picture of Wally Dix in particular. She seems wonderful. Did you ever
think about her when you were writing a song? Did she ever creep into a song?
Well I didn't write any songs after the Diamond Day
songs, but I think that people like Wally Dix have certainly influenced my
life so profoundly that she's probably in everything I do. People like her and
all of the people I met on that journey, the elderly people- their wisdom was so
striking. And they were people I would have probably never met if I'd stayed in
the city or had kids right off. They were such courageous people, who had lived
through those wars, and come through them still very compassionate human beings.
I loved them dearly, but especially Wally Dix. She was so rude! [laughs]
She seems like a real character.
[on the new LP] I think the song Wayward would
probably apply to her. But not consciously.
What did you do for a living while you were away from music?
We just more or less lived on our wits. We would do
odd jobs for whomever needed things done; places painted, gardens dug, that kind
of thing. Then we met up with some Romany travelers who taught us a lot of
dealing ways, and we then started buying and selling things and selling them by
the side of the road or take them to market stores, then I had a small shop
where I sold old things and made new things. Y'know we started out very small,
then eventually we had a workshop where seven or eight people would come to make
whatever they made and we had a place on the farm where we sold the goods people
made. We also collected up old broken down farm furniture and made it good. We
made tables out of old wood. We did that until Robert -- the father of my
children and traveling companion separated about 14 years ago. He moved to
London and I moved to Edinburgh. Both our lives were [thereafter] changed. He
changed to being totally involved with a lot of people. I was involved with
breeding horses and training cart horses and leading a more urban life. My
youngest child has been brought up in the city, very different from his brother
and sister. Now everybody's growing up and leaving, so this is a very apt time
for me to find music again. I think the whole "bringing up big family" chapter
is changing. My head and heart can now get back to music.
"Since my children came along, I have this
terrible conflict. Needing, on one hand, to make a steady safe environment for
them to grow up in, and to be out on the road or wanting to be out looking for
adventure. [...] There is this conflict between wanting to get something done
and wanting to be free."
When did you start writing the
About four years ago, when I first got a computer I
could write music on. They just very gradually started to come. I have an awful
lot of rubbish still sitting in my computer that I must get rid of. [laughs] But
after that, very slowly, they came. When we first started recording, I had about
six of them, then the rest came along during the recording.
I was curious, who is Jenny Wright, and how did she inspire the first verse of
Jenny Wright is an old friend who lives in Dublin, and
she wrote me an email about two years ago about an other friend of ours who was
having a tricky operation. She was saying "I'm not given much to praying. I find
myself pleading with the air to make her better," and I thought that was so
beautiful that I wrote back asking her if she'd mind if I used that for the
beginning of a song... umm she never wrote back [laughs]. Jenny Richardson did
get better, and I did finally track down Jenny Wright, and I sent her the words,
and again I didn't hear from her. We went ahead and recorded it anyway. Then,
when I finally did get through to her, she said that she was delighted. Even
after we recorded it, I had thought, "I might have to rewrite that thing, but
I'm very glad that she said yes. Of course, she gets half the rights and I'm
delighted that she let me use it; it [defines?] the whole song.
What is the story behind the cover painting?
The cover painting was painted by my daughter. She
usually paints whippets, and we were going to use some of her dogs on the cover,
but in the meantime she came up with this painting and I thought it had such a
wonderful, otherworldly, dignified air about it. And I love hares anyway --
they're such extraordinary creatures -- that the dog is on the hare's
collar. It appeals to me that its kind of the wrong way around, so the hare has
power over the dog. It's kind of "loving your enemy" as well. I just thought it
was a very powerful image.
Do you plan on performing at all?
Yes. Fat Cat are putting together a show for me to do
in London at the end of October and, if that goes well, we'll do some more;
probably put together a tour for the end of next year. I want to come back here
as well. The label that is putting out Lookaftering here would like me to
come back and do something and I would love that. It's a big thing for me. I
have never performed here so that's my next big challenge.
I heard your performance at The Royal Albert Hall went over really well.
Yes, it's the only concert I've done in over 30 years,
and I was ecstatic, really. I was very frightened, and I think the first few
rows could see me trembling, but it was such a wonderful experience that it
really encouraged me to feel that I could do some more. I need to conquer that
fear and get on with it. I never did that when I was young, and I feel I've got
some dues to pay, really. I'd love to do it. I'd love to be able to do it.
How did you hook up with Animal Collective? Your work with them is amazing.
Well, the two guitarists who played with me were
Kieren Hebden and Adem. Kieren came to Edinborough on tour when he was promoting
his Rounds album. I went to see him, and he had Animal Collective
supporting him. He said to me, y'know these guys all have your album. I was
completely dumbfounded. I thought, "How could people from Brooklyn know anything
about me?" I was still thinking that nobody had ever heard Diamond Day.
We got talking a bit, and a few weeks later, I got an e-mail asking if I would
consider a collaboration with them. I was completely overwhelmed. What I thought
they meant was, y'know, backing vocals [laughs]. So when we arrived at the
studio, they sort of gently pushed me more and more until I was doing all three
songs. They were extraordinarily kind and encouraging, pushing me to sing in a
way that I didn't know that I could sing. I'm still rediscovering my singing
voice, which I hadn't used for all those years. So it was a magical time for me.
You guys sound terrific together.
It was fabulous how gently they just added and added.
I was enthralled by them.
Now, Prospect Hummer, did you choose that title.
No, it was their name for it. I have no idea what it means. I rather like it
that way... keeps the magic growing.
Learning How to Dive, was that your song?
No, that was theirs. They were all theirs. They just sent me the songs and
we went from there. But the way we worked it in the studio was very different
from the tape they sent me of the song. So it was like relearning them all over
again. It was very good for me to sing other people's songs, to go places I've
never been before with my voice.
I can't believe how people from such differing backgrounds and generations can
come together and produce something that great.
Yes, it's very encouraging, on all kinds of levels.
Do you have any dream collaborators that you've been in contact with?
Not really. I have been busy working with The Animal
Collective, but I'm beginning to gain the confidence that all things are
possible. No names just yet.
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