Vashti Bunyan: Interview
The Past and Future Collide
It's been eight years since the initial reissue and subsequent widespread discovery of Just Another Diamond Day, two years since the release of her acclaimed follow-up Lookaftering. And with the release of Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, a collection of early material recorded in the mid-1960s, Vashti Bunyan has come full circle. She has left behind the idyllic agrarian dream immortalized in Just Another Diamond Day and finally found what escaped her in the 1960s -- life as a musician, whose work is appreciated by fellow artists and the public at large. It's a rare second chance in the annals of popular music and one that Vasthi Bunyan clearly treasures.
Speaking with her in the cozy sitting room of her Edinburgh town house, we discussed life as an aspiring pop star, the best parts of traveling, and vindication resulting from a T-Mobile advertisement.
How did Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind come about?
After Diamond Days was reissued and it sold more than the 200 copies we thought that it might, a person named Paul Lamden said how about going back even further and finding all the really old stuff. I said yeah, but it took us nearly seven years to get all the licensing put into place. Everything had been bought, sold, bought, sold, and it ended up with all kinds of different people. Small companies had been bought over by bigger ones; it mostly belonged to companies like Century and Universal. We still haven't completely sorted it out.
You wrote everything on Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind such a long time ago. Do you still feel connected to it, or is it like another person wrote it?
It's definitely like another person wrote it, another person sang it, and another person lived that whole time, really. I think I feel closer to the person who wrote those early songs than the person who wrote the Diamond Days songs. Diamond Days was a bit of a sidetrack in my life. I'd been trying from 1964 to get my songs heard. At that time, the only route you could take was through the big record companies. I tried and tried and nothing seemed to be happening. In a fit of fury, I threw everything away. I threw my whole life away and took off in a horse and wagon for a different kind of life. And that's when I wrote the Diamond Days songs, but my life didn't stay that way; the myth is that I took off for the Outer Hebrides and I stayed there. I didn't. That was a part of my life. I gradually got back into mainstream life. Partly by having children; it's difficult to live an isolated hermetic life when you have kids. I gave up music when the Diamond Days songs didn't work; I gave up music entirely. I thought “Right, I've tried it all kinds of ways I'm obviously rubbish at this, I'm not gong to do it anymore.” And I never sang again from about 1970. So when I came back to music after Diamond Days, it was so much more kindly received, the sort of songs I started to write when I picked up my guitar again were much more like the original ones really. They were very personal. The Diamond Days songs were very much looking outwards and looking forward. The first songs were love songs, and they were personal songs.
"For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be walking on air."
What were you listening to at that time?
The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly -- certainly in the early days that was my main pop influence. My father had a big collection of classical. Although I have no idea what any of it was, you could ask me to quote a piece of Handel and I wouldn't have a clue, but it's all in my head from having grown up with it, and that hugely influenced me. And the kinds of songs I was taught at school and Christmas carols -- there's an awful lot of that type of songs in my music. And American music, early American rock music. White rock music, the only kind of music that did come over here really. I didn't have all the siblings that knew more about it than I did, so I was completely on my own looking for music.
I did listen to Joan Baez when I was first learning to play guitar. I didn't like her voice. I didn't like that folky mannered kind of folk that especially here was traditional. People trying to sing like they imagined those songs would be sung when they were originals. And I didn't particularly like that very confident way that she sang, because I didn't feel that the songs merited that kind of treatment. I wanted to make it much gentler.
You've said in interviews that you hate being labeled as a folk singer. Did you conceive of yourself as a pop singer? On YouTube, there's a clip of you performing a couple of songs in 1964 and the announcer has this super cheesy American announcer voice. It struck me as a very mainstream situation.
That was Shindig; they came to Britain once a month and recorded British singers and took it back and slotted it into the American show. I never saw it until it showed up on YouTube. When I saw it, I thought how did I imagine that this gloomy girl singing these unhappy songs was ever going to break through to the mainstream, but that's kind of what I wanted. I wanted to go against the mainstream at the time of very glamorous girl singers, who more or less looked like their mothers' generation. I wore jeans and t-shirts and dressed like a boy and I was very scruffy. And miserable. Sulky. And I wanted to bring that into mainstream pop. How I thought it was going to work, I do not know. I was definitely a pop singer. I very much had pop singer ambitions, and I wanted to be in the charts.
You've mentioned many times that your shyness in the 1960s was a major reason why things didn't work out for you. But wasn't getting discovered by The Rolling Stones' manager a huge boost to your ego?
At that time, although I was very shy, I did have a huge ego about my songs. It was a difficult combination. I got very hurt when people didn't understand, but on the other hand, I was very shy, so I didn't put myself forward. But yes, meeting Andrew Oldham was quite a moment.
"We were determined that we wouldn't rely on the state in any shape or form. We wanted to be completely independent and just pretend they didn't exist, really. "
I can imagine that if I was approached and was told right, so Thom Yorke wrote this song, but he thinks it would be much better if you sang and recorded it. My ego wouldn't deflate for decades.
I didn't think, “Oh my god how cool is that.” I thought, “But, I wanted to do my songs!” It was my father amazingly enough who said you can't turn this down. This is an amazing chance. Maybe it's time for compromise. But it is incredible when I look back and think, why didn't I just faint?
Between 1964 when those first singles came about and Diamond Days in 1969 were you focusing full time on music or did you have some sort of job?
Well, this was the trouble, I was constantly saying it's about to happen, it's about to happen. I was living with my parents, and then they'd get fed up with me and go live with my brother and then a new single would be about to come out. Everything was just on the cusp of happening! I didn't have a job. I refused to have a job. In fact, I did get a job with a vet at the end of 1967. It was a disaster. I couldn't do it. I couldn't deal with doing same thing every day. And that was the one and only job I've ever had in my life. And my children seem to be following the same path. [Laughs]
Were you allowed to tour at all?
No, I wasn't allowed to. Well in ‘66, I did do the Cheltenham poetry festival. I was on my own on the stage in this huge theater with my guitar and not thinking anything of it really. There were about 10 people in the audience; I was still completely unknown. I wasn't allowed to tour. The management decided that that was what had spoiled Marianne Faithful and given her ideas to leave them. So they kept me doing things like painting the office and designing posters. They were trying to keep my feet on the ground I suppose.
It seems like banning your artists from publicity and exposure is a strange marketing strategy.
Well, I was allowed to do TV shows and radio, and I went all over the place doing that. I had a great time, but I wasn't allowed to play live. And I think that was a big mistake; it would have helped me so much. It would have built my confidence and allowed me to be amongst other musicians as well, because I was always very isolated.
The idea of taking a horse and wagon seems very romantic to me. Traveling people did still exist in Britain as late as the 1960s. If someone were to take a similar journey today would it just be a novelty? Or impossible?
It would be much harder to do today. At that time there were still people traveling with horse and wagons. It was the very end of the horse culture. There were still a few people in the countryside plowing with horses. There was enough there that we could learn from those people. That was very important to me to find out what the world had been like before the internal combustion engine. The difference now is that those people are no longer around to teach and to carry the tradition on. There's a few, but not enough.
They had the most wonderful way of communicating, this fabulous network throughout the country. We'd come across travelers and they'd know where we'd been, how long we'd been there, how many days it had taken us to get there. They knew that we weren't travelers. But they were fascinated by us because they were close to leaving that culture behind them. And because we were very quaint, they liked us and were hugely helpful.
The police were terrible. They were so used to being bad to traveling people. They thought that we were “Tinks,” as they called us. They would start to speak to us in a very aggressive manner because people had called them and said we were staying on this piece of land and they'd come and be very horrible and abusive. And then one of us would say something and they'd realize that we weren't travelers, we were educated people. And they would change. It was really horrible to see and understand what traveling people went through for generations. And still do of course.
The trip wasn't exactly romantic, it was kind of the only thing we could do in the circumstances because we had no money at all and we needed to get to the Isle of Skye from London. Through a series of circumstances, we hit on the idea of having a house on wheels and we didn't have any money and horses eat grass... we were that innocent about it. We were that ignorant about the whole thing. That's what we thought and by magical means we managed to get a horse and cart and to understand that actually horses don't just eat grass. You can't just run a horse on grass alone.
Whether it is possible to do today? It is possible to do today and people still do do it today, especially in Ireland. Also, we lived on 2 pounds a week, or less. We lived incredibly cheaply; I don't think you could do that now. We were determined that we wouldn't rely on the state in any shape or form. We wanted to be completely independent and just pretend they didn't exist, really. Make a world of our own. We wanted to make our own world and we pretty much succeeded. And the songs came from that.
The whimsical idea of a pastoral existence that is instilled in those songs came about while you were traveling towards it. Did that ideal pan out in reality?
Well, I guess we did in that we lived that way for a long time. We changed so much through the journey. We wised up about people and had some fantastic experiences and some very lucky escapes and some wonderful things happened along that journey. And yes we did have these pastoral dreams. I had those pastoral dreams all throughout my years growing up in London. I was always very romantic about farm life. And, of course, those realities of farm life were hidden from me when I was a child so finding out about farm life, the realities of how animals are treated and the realities of rural living were quite a harsh lesson, and I think that the songs that I wrote tried to keep that away, tried to keep that at bay. I wanted to keep it the lovely vision of the shepherd and the shepherdess. Over the years, we did live that kind of life, but I definitely found it quite harsh. Trying to live a life where you don't do any damage to anything is really tough. When the children started to come along, it felt like we were so isolated. Some of it I loved completely, I loved the horses; we bred carthorses over the years. I was very much in love with all of them. And the freedoms. But the isolation started to get to me after a while, because I was brought up in the city. It's not as if I use the city now that I've come back to it; it's not as if I go to the theater all the time or meet up with people all the time. It's just the fact that there are people out there. When you're living in the middle of nowhere, you go a certain kind of crazy.
"I wasn't allowed to tour. The management decided that that was what had spoiled Marianne Faithful and given her ideas to leave them."
One theme that consistently appears in every album you've done is traveling. What is it about travel that appeals to you so fundamentally?
Just being on the move... I think I always wanted that when I was young, and then when I actually did it, it was all that I imagined it would be. The feeling of complete safety. Although you're in such a dangerous way of living, it had its own peculiar kind of safety because you didn't have to be scared of anything. The worst was happening. You were out in the world on your own, it was raining, you were hungry, you didn't have any money. It was all terrible, but there wasn't anything much worse that was happening so all you could do was enjoy it and revel in the freedom of it. And it was only recently that I found out that my mother's grandfather was a Romany Gypsy. When we met traveling people, on the journey, there was one particular woman that said to me, “Well, you're one of us, but he isn't,” turning to my partner Robert. And I was so pleased. I didn't know then about my great grandfather. He was the reason my mother had the most incredibly dark eyes and hair. Nobody could quite understand where this child had come from in a family of very fair people.
I know that when I was a child, I was fascinated by traveling people because they were so colorful. They were still traveling in the most beautiful old wagons. They were very distant; you couldn't get near them. I'd drive past them and just look and be fascinated by the thought that people could spend their entire lives on the road and never go into a house just really appealed to me. I've been here 14 years and I never thought I'd be here more than six months! But here I am. I've always been restless and I've always wanted to be somewhere else wherever I am. At the moment we're thinking of moving to Los Angeles.
I was curious if you feel any kinship with Nick Drake? Not necessarily musically, but rather in the way both of you were so criminally overlooked.
Only because he was so ignored in the same kind of way. I think the difference between us is that he knew what a genius he was. He knew how profoundly good his songs were, whereas I didn't. I thought that my early songs were, but by the time I got to Diamond Day and crossing paths with Nick Drake, I had lost that kind of confidence. He did his utmost to make it work although he couldn't do live performances; he was too shy. But he knew his recordings were wonderful. I think he would be so happy with what is happening because that is what he wanted, and it broke his heart that he didn't get it. It broke my heart too, but I found something else to sustain me in my kids and launching myself in a wholly domestic kind of life, but that would never have been an option for him.
I think that if he made the same music but did it today, he would have been successful as a result of all the all the various channels of music distribution available now.
Sure, if there had been that kind of pathway open to people like him, he would have found his audience. There was one even then. It's not that people weren't ready to hear him, it's just that he couldn't find them, people couldn't find him. And also, I would have loved to have known more how he felt about it. My experience with record producers then was they were god. Joe Boyd wanted to put all this orchestration onto Nick, and though it was beautiful, I don't think that was what he wanted. And he maybe thought that he wasn't getting through because he had all these other people's ideas imposed on his music. And that was kind of how I felt about Diamond Days; it didn't come out remotely how I had it in my head. I love it now and I wouldn't have it any different, but at the time, I didn't feel like it represented me. And I wonder if Nick Drake felt the same as I did.
"I wanted to go against the mainstream at the time of very glamorous girl singers, who more or less looked like their mothers' generation."
I think it's interesting that in the last five years, both of you guys were introduced to such a wide audience through advertisements.
Yeah well, a lot people said, “How could they use Nick Drake for a car advert?!” But I thought it was great; it introduced him to a lot of people who would have never heard of him. When it came to my turn, which I never expected, I loved the irony of it. “Diamond Day” was written when I'd been rejected entirely by the commercial world and I was hurting. And that's when I went off and ran away and wrote that song as a response to the commercial rejection: “Oh well, I don't care about you, I can just go and grow my food in the field and use horses and to hell with the modern world.” To have it picked up by Saachi and Saachi to advertise a mobile phone just thrilled the hell out of me. [Laughs] For me I thought it was brilliant because it was a vindication of what I had always thought of my writing, that I was commercial, that it would have caught people's ears. I don't feel guilty about it in the least. And it did pay for my son to go to college in America.
It's a funny twist... more than any other album that I own, Just Another Diamond Day compels me to stomp on my cell phone, go live on a farm, and pretend modernity never happened.
Yeah, it is a twist and I love the twist; it gives me a lot of pleasure.
Have any of the collaborations been difficult or did they all come about very naturally?
They all came about very naturally. With all of them I was very nervous, especially the Piano Magic one because that was the first that I did and the first time that I'd been in the studio since 1969. So I was really terrified and I hadn't sung in all that time, so I didn't know if anything was going to happen at all. I just didn't think I was going to remember how to sing. But when I got in front of the microphone, it was like those years had gone. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be walking on air. It was like my life was beginning all over again, you know, my musical life was coming back into focus, that it was all possible, and that's when I began thinking about making another album.
And then with Animal Collective, I was really nervous how that was going to be. I'd seen them playing, but I knew that you could see them playing one time and then you could see them playing another time and it would be completely different; their inventiveness was moving so fast, I didn't know what to expect at all. We had three days to do three songs.
Had they written those songs already?
Yes, they were written at the time of Sung Tongs. Three days to do three songs seemed amazing to me as we did Diamond Days in three evenings. To spend a whole day on a song seemed incredible to me. I thought that I was going to be doing backing vocals, but over the course of the first day, I was pushed further and further. They were so wonderfully encouraging and very gentle.
That was a fantastic experience, and also, seeing the ways things could be done. Dave [Portner, a.k.a. Avey Tare] one day decided he wanted his voice to be very echo-y, so he had the engineer take a mic lead all the way down to the toilet at the end of a big long corridor because he figured out the echo in there was just about right. He did some amazing yelping noises that were just so great! Completely right. He didn't think anything of it and nobody else did either. They just got on with it and did it. There was no drama, no performance. I had such a good time those days, it was lovely.
Have there been any albums in the last few years that totally blew your mind?
Umm, well of course Devendra [Banhart]'s progression has been a wonder to behold. I'm always really bad at this question. I loved Bill Callahan's last album, just absolutely loved it. I'm sure I'll think of lots more after you've gone...
Do you have any plans for a new album?
I'm supposed to be writing just now. I have one complete song and a whole lot of fragments. I'm supposed to have them finished by May and there's no way. I'm hoping, and the plan is, I'll be working with Andy Cabic of Vetiver.