Lost music rediscovered: An interview with singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan
Vashti Bunyan’s delicate music has appeared in True Detective and Skins. She studied in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and traversed Britain in a horse-drawn cart over two summers and one winter. Rebecca Sylvestre interviews a talented woman whose music is experiencing a cult renaissance.
Vashti Bunyan is an English singer-songwriter, whose career has taken fascinatingly unorthodox routes throughout the years. A rather unnoticed career in pop music prompted a lengthy hiatus. Vashti has since released new music, beautifully formed offerings that exemplify a life of lived experiences. Her previously underappreciated releases have found a new legion of admirers. Vashti kindly agreed to an interview where she reflects on her musical path from past to present.
You have always been a creative person. Prior to pursuing music you studied art. What brought you from studying art academically to entering the music business?
Vashti: At 17 years old, the youngest in my family, I was sent to the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford as I was ‘the arty one’ and no-one seemed to think I was good for much else. The school was in two large rooms in the Ashmolean Museum. It was very traditional in its teaching methods and I became quickly bored and so I spent more time in the museum than sitting drawing plaster casts of Greek antiquities.
My room-mate Jenny Lewis had a guitar which I borrowed and we both started to write songs for ourselves. We formed a group with another friend – called The Three Of Us – and we sang at a charity dinner in London where we were approached by a music agent. We ignored his offer as there was still another year of art school to go. But then I was expelled from the school for not spending enough time drawing and painting and I went back to London – without my band-mates – and then to New York, where I discovered Bob Dylan’s album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This album had a huge effect on me and convinced me that I wanted to be a full time solo musician and songwriter.
You started off in a more pop-oriented direction. What prompted the transition to a more gentle-natured folk music?
Vashti: I always loved pop music and would never have thought of myself as a folk singer – and still definitely do not and don’t like to be promoted as such. On returning from New York in 1964 I took my songs around various managers and producers in London but I was not like other female musicians in that I did not sparkle in beautiful dresses but wore a long men’s jumper, short skirt, guitar over my back… not the right sort.
(A younger Vashti Bunyan in the TV Times, 1965)
Then I met a woman agent who knew Andrew Loog Oldham, the young manager of the Rolling Stones. He offered me a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind – to record as a single. I wanted to record my own songs but I agreed – but only if one of my own songs could be on the B side.
I loved the whole process of recording but was not allowed any input. I just sang and went away. That was the way it was then. The single came out with a lot of publicity but I was heartbroken to realize I was being promoted as a dark-haired version of the blonde Marianne Faithfull – who had recently left Andrew’s management. It was assumed he had replaced her with me. I felt I was nothing like her – mainly because I wrote my own songs and was quite serious about my own music. The single went nowhere.
I recorded more songs with Andrew – and another single called Train Song with a Canadian producer called Peter Snell – but nothing came of any of it. After three years of trying to bring my quiet songs into mainstream pop, I gave up and went to work for a vet as a nurse. Animals were easier to deal with than the harsh realities of the music business, where I did not and could not ‘fit in’.
How did I make the transition to gentler sounds? They had always been gentle, and that was maybe the problem.
(Vashti’s Horse and Wagon)
Your album Just Another Diamond Day chronicles your travels via horse and cart from London to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland when you were 23. It all sounds very romantic. How did those around you at the time react to your nomadic way of living?
Vashti: I decided to leave London, music, my family and friends to set off on a horse-drawn journey with my boyfriend and my dog. We were headed for the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland, where the musician Donovan had bought some land and planned a community of like-minded artists. It took us two summers and a winter to get there – by which time Donovan had left for California.
Along the way, I wrote songs to keep us going – the journey was hard at times and did not seem at all romantic in the rain. I didn’t intend to record the songs, as I never wanted to set foot in a studio again, but halfway through the journey I met the producer Joe Boyd who offered to make a recording of the songs at the end of the journey as a kind of document. Joe kept his promise and we made Just Another Diamond Day at the end of 1969.
You ask how those around me reacted to my nomadic ways? Well, my father cut me out of his will! Although he softened later and I was told by others that he was quietly proud of the rebel in me. After he died my brother, sister and I found a note in a big old ugly vase on the top of a bookcase. It read ‘This is for Vashti – if no-one else wants it.’ It still makes me laugh.
You had a break from music in the period between Just Another Diamond Day and your second musical offering, Lookaftering. Looking back on the space between the two albums, what made you feel the time was right to create again?
Vashti: Just Another Diamond Day came out very quietly on vinyl in 1970 – a full year after it was recorded, by which time I had a young son. There were maybe only about 300 copies of the album pressed. It was completely ignored or just dismissed as songs for children, so I decided that this time I really would stop making music. I didn’t pick up my guitar again until teaching my son to play when he was 16.
In about 1998 I found out through the internet that the album was not so long lost and forgotten as I had always thought. It had gathered a kind of cult following, and the original vinyl was so rare it was selling for wild amounts. I set about finding out who owned the rights and eventually it came out on CD in 2000 on a tiny label called Spinney. This time it found an audience much more receptive to its gentleness and I was amazed at the understanding it was given – so much more than it had ever had from my contemporaries back in 1970.
So now when I picked up my guitar it no longer reminded me of failure and heartache, and new songs started to appear.
In your song Across the Water you sing “Lived on wit, Got away with it.” What did you learn from your travels that resonates with you to this day?
Vashti: I learned not to be afraid of having nothing. I’d had a sheltered upbringing and gave it all up for a penniless life on the road – making it up as we went along – loving the freedom of escaping from the expectations everyone had of me when I was young. It wasn’t just an adventure from which we returned to ‘normal’ life again after a while. We carried on living that diamond daydream for many years.
I truly think of it every day. The elderly people who taught me so much about the way life used to be before electricity and running water and cars. I turn on a light now and instantly I remember candles and firelight. The Romany travellers we met – they wanted to teach us the ways of the road – yes, wit and wisdom. Never forgotten.
Nature and the changing the seasons seem very apparent in your work. In Just Another Diamond Day it is as if the album follows the weather. Diamond Day and Glow Worms could read as summer; Rose Hip November contains many winter metaphors and Come Wind Come Rain seem to welcome travelling forward in the wake of springtime. In your albums Lookaftering and Heartleap, the lyrics of your songs seem dreamlike and reflective. You reference oceans, the sea, jellyfish, clouds, moonlight and warm sunshine. Your work draws on natural forces that the listener can visualise and almost feel. What do you think makes you drawn to these natural energies?
Vashti: I grew up in central London, always longing for the freedom of the countryside and farmlands. I had a lot to learn about the realities of farming and so the horse-drawn journey through England and Scotland taught me a lot of what I needed to know. However, the journey also brought me in to close contact with the ground.
It was as if I became part of my surroundings and therefore more careful towards them. The seasons changed slowly as we walked through them and I became much more aware of them. Hills and rivers and sea – all the images I drew on for the Diamond Day songs are, I guess, still strongly within my mind, and I draw on them still… even though I now live in a city.
(Vashti more recently)
You produced the music for Heartleap by learning to use a music production program on the computer. Was working this way more preferable to you?
Vashti: Yes. With the first royalties from Just Another Diamond Day in 2001 I bought a Mac and a mixer and the music program Cubase – and I was entranced by the screen full of the faders and lights and buttons I was never allowed near in all the times I had recorded in studios when I was young. I’d always been fascinated by the technology of recording – but now there it was in my computer, all there to be learned and used and enjoyed. Loved it. I could work at my own pace and not have anyone overhearing me.
What do you think about your music being used in pop culture – in advertisments for the likes of T-mobile and features on television shows like Skins and True Detective?
Vashti: My young self would have been delighted to know that her songs – deemed so ‘uncommercial’ in their day – were being used for commercials and film soundtracks in the future. I am so fortunate to have had this happen. Of course, I’ve been accused of ‘selling out’ since Diamond Day was so much about a simple life and a non-commercial dream, but I am still glad the songs have been heard. Especially Train Song – the single I recorded with the Canadian producer Peter Snell in 1966. He came closest to understanding what I was trying to do, but the single was completely unheard in its day. Now it is the recording I’m asked for most – for permission to use it in soundtracks and advertisements.
What would you say to any reader discovering your music for the first time?
Vashti: I would not know what to say. They might dismiss it as inconsequential and too fragile and light – but I would maybe ask for a closer listen as they might (or might not) find more there.
Do you have any plans for the future, in music or otherwise?
Vashti: I still perform live from time to time and still write. I am trying to write a fuller account of the horse journey as the story has been told so many times for me – and I always feel there is something missing. So, I will try to tell the truth of it.
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