Vashti Bunyan

We talk to one of Britain’s most essential, yet least prolific songwriters ahead of the release of her final record.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 17 Sep 2014
  • min read
Vashti Bunyan is one of Britain’s most essential, yet least prolific artists, whose quiet determination has yielded just three albums over 44 years.

Revered by everyone from folk experimentalists Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom to psych-pop trio Animal Collective and Brit trailblazers Four Tet and Max Richter, this once forgotten songsmith has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since the turn of the century.

Her 1970 lost masterpiece Just Another Diamond Day helped spearhead the new interest in her work when it was reissued in 2000, and has since encouraged the shy songwriter to issue two follow-ups; 2005’s Lookaftering and the forthcoming Heartleap.

Recently, we had the pleasure of spending some time with Vashti to learn more about her curious songwriting history. She also chats about the creation of her new album and explains why it will be her last one ever…

For the last seven years I’ve been stopping and starting it, and thinking that I wouldn’t do one again, because the previous two albums with their 30 years in between them seemed like bookends. Just Another Diamond Day was looking forward and Lookaftering was looking back. They seemed like bookends and I kept thinking I should leave it at that. Leave them to get on with their lives and I’ll get on with mine. But then these songs kept appearing.

Also I got incredibly interested in the process of recording, and editing and processing and doing all the things that were hidden from me when I had someone else producing and engineering in a studio, with people overhearing me. It was wonderful to be able to learn to do it for myself.

When recording the vocal, I experimented with how it sounded when there was absolutely no one around me and nobody in the house. There was a completely different feel to my voice when I was on my own. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s confidence or because I’m shy – which doesn’t make me the right kind of person to be doing this at all.

Did you get hooked on the process?
Yes, when I started understanding how to record myself I got more interested in it, and possibly more able. I did try with other musicians and producers, but I just felt I had to do it for myself. Because putting it through someone else’s ideas, brilliant though they are, like Max Richter – he was so completely brilliant and I’d never have made Lookaftering without him. But I just felt this was something I had to try for myself. It might not have worked or come to anything but I had to keep doing it.

It seems like a very selfish thing to do, very ego-driven, but it was as if everyone I worked with before had looked after me so well and I was cocooned from the realities of recording. This time I wanted to come out from the shelter of other people because that’s how it was, and try it for myself.

Are you comfortable with people calling you a musician and songwriter?
I’m more comfortable with people calling me a songwriter rather than a folk singer, that’s for sure. It has been quite incredible since Lookaftering came out and I started playing live shows again. At first it felt extraordinary to be playing with people who I considered to be real musicians. I didn’t consider myself to be a real musician. I was on the stage looking around at these extraordinary people who had really learned their craft and who were fantastic artists and I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t deserve to be here. I haven’t put in the ground work or the years. I was doing other things for 30 years.’

But over this last while, once I got used to performing and playing with other people, I have been more able to consider myself a musician. But easier than that, I consider myself a songwriter. Certainly since this last album of songs has been put together, I feel I could put ‘songwriter’ on my passport now!

The new record is very bare musically, and it sounds like you’ve found your songwriting voice. Was that a natural thing?
It was more natural that the songs grew over several years. There was no intention. I think maybe not having a producer and engineer I was able to very slowly piece it together and have it sound the way it did in my own head, and maybe that is quite sparse and spare. I don’t have any percussion underpinning it and no bass line, it’s mostly just a voice and music.

It’s really reflective in tone. Are you a nostalgic person?
Yes, nostalgic, I guess so. The song Mother, for example, was a real experience. I did see my mother dancing and playing the piano and felt terribly sad that she was a dutiful wife and mother – she didn’t have the freedoms that I have to go and do what I want to do. I wasn’t aware enough as a child to see what she was going through and I can see it now. So I suppose, a lot of the album is reflective of other people’s situations.

I just watch people and then suddenly a song will occur. I don’t have any method; they appear out of the blue. People often ask me how I set about it and I have no idea because when I finish a song I look back and think, ‘Where did that come from? Will I ever find another one?’ It’s a very strange process and I really don’t understand it on any level. And then when I look back at the lyrics I’ve written down I see there’s a lot of melancholy in there, but there isn’t meant to be.

Well, I have promised my children that when I got this album done (if!) I would set about writing the story of the journey with the horse and cart and all of that early part of my life, which might explain to them why their upbringing was the way it was. I know I couldn’t do them alongside each other but now I’ve got the album done, it’s like seeing a child off, and now I will concentrate on something else, hopefully.

This album, especially the last song, says everything I want it to. If I do any more, it will seem unnecessary. I don’t need or want to write another album. You always need to give them your all, and I don’t want to be selfish anymore.

For the last six months before the album was finished I worked on it every day. It was so intensive that everything else in my life got very neglected. I have a huge family. But I think that’s what you have to do. To make something like that you have to completely give it everything and I don’t want to be that selfish any more.

It’s interesting that you don’t know where the songs come from, because you seem very in control when you say you won’t do music anymore. Are you able to switch on the craft?
I’ve been very lucky. I don’t know about being able to switch on the songwriting craft at will, but it has definitely switched itself on just enough from time to time over the years, and for that I am very grateful.

I just don’t know how it happens but it’s interesting you say I’m in control, because Mandy Parnell who did the mastering on Heartleap came out of her studio and said, ‘I get it now. You are not a folk singer. So, what are you then?’ And that’s always a really difficult thing. We went through all the different names that have been used over the years for this kind of music and we came across freak folk. She said that one was much better. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m a control freak, maybe I make control freak folk?’

You said it sounds like I’m in control: I’m in control of every note on that album to a ridiculous extent. I have realised over the last while that I’m very ego-driven about the songs. I may be very shy and may not be able to sing when there’s anyone else around but I am very selfish, a bit proud and definitely a control freak!

You are uncomfortable being labelled a folk artist – why is that?
I think probably because in the era I came from, folk music was very much traditional songs about murder and fishermen going off to sea. And I never ever was involved in that kind of traditional folk. I don’t feel that it applies to me. I was always much more interested in classical music, carols and hymns and those kinds of melodies rather than folk melodies.

The image of a folk singer doesn’t sit quite right with me – but I might be quite wrong in my imagery but it comes from years ago. I find it quite hard to read myself described as a folk singer, because I’m not. But what am I?

With Lookaftering you collaborated with Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart – do you class them as folk musicians or do you see them in the same way you see yourself?
Yes, I see them in the same way as I see myself, in that I don’t feel they are traditional in any way, especially Joanna Newsom. They are individual and I think it’s very hard for somebody as individual as they are to be classified as a folk artist. Joanna has a harp but she plays the piano and is an incredible composer – she’s all kinds of things. Devendra is a wordsmith – he’s just brilliant with words - and is so much more than just someone who sits there with a guitar. Both of them have so much more than can be described by the word folk.

Devendra has cited you as a big influence – how did that feel?
I think he found the album when he was in a really bad way and it helped him. He wrote to me and asked me if he should carry on with his songwriting and I replied, ‘Yes, of course, you are brilliant.’ But I don’t know about it being an influence on him.

What they did for me, especially Joanna and Devendra, was to make a place for me and I owe them so much. They opened things up for me to be able to have a place in that. I don’t believe I was the influence on them, I believe they were the acceptance of what I had done all those years ago, which was totally misunderstood in its day.

I‘ve thought about it so much and I don’t know what it was. It was partly because I had written all those songs by myself, on the road, without any other musicians. And then I met Joe Boyd and he very kindly offered to make an album of the songs. By the time I got to the studio in London, he had found Robert Kirby to make arrangements for some of the songs and they were just so perfect because they were based in classical, and were the kind of arrangements I would like to have done myself.

But then when he brought in Robin Williamson from The String Band and people from Fairport Convention I had no idea who they were – I had been on the road so I had no idea who anybody was. It felt too traditional to me, too folky, and not what my intention had been. We recorded it in three days and it all went over my head. I mean, I had just found out I was pregnant, and everything else sort of paled into insignificance at that time. And it was another almost year before I heard the recordings. Joe had taken them to America and mixed and mastered them there.

By the time I heard them again, I hardly recognised myself. Now, from here, I love it. I think Joe’s production was beautiful. The other musicians were fantastic – it was just that it didn’t feel like me. For many, many years I could not listen to it. I didn’t let my children listen to it, I abandoned it completely. Nobody ever gave me any idea that they had listened to it – ever! Or, if they had, they thought it was just nursery rhymes or whatever.

So it was people like Devendra who actually recognised that it was not songs for children and it did have some kind of value to it, which I had never given it myself.

Is that acceptance and encouragement important to you as a songwriter?
Yes. I know it’s not great to admit, but having positive feedback about that old album in 2000 was what got me going again. When I picked up my guitar again it sounded OK rather than terrible - and it didn’t make me upset anymore. I found music quite difficult… it wasn’t until the reissue that I stopped feeling like a failure.

If you could edit anything from your songwriting past, would you?
No. I wouldn’t. At the time, certainly if I’d have known more, I would have stood up for myself more, especially in the very early days with Andrew Oldham. Although, now, again, I absolutely love what he did. I think I have been very lucky. If at any time I’d have had more success than I’d had through those earlier years, I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had or the children I’ve had and I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to go back, look at it and do it again in the way that I want to do it.

You mentioned being on the road when you were young. Was your guitar always with you?
It was, yes. From the age of 18 it was always with me. That’s where I wrote all the songs for Just Another Diamond Day.

Did you have the guitar with you in the years after Just Another Diamond Day or did you give up music altogether?
I had a guitar – it was a beautiful little parlour guitar with birds eye maple and mother of pearl flowers all around it – hanging on the wall in every house I’ve lived in. But I never played it. The first time I played it was when I was teaching my 16 year old son to play guitar all those years ago and that’s the first time I picked it up. I gave him that guitar when he went to live in America 20-something years ago. And I didn’t have one after that at all until my daughter gave me one for my 55th birthday. I found it quite difficult… it wasn’t until Diamond Day was reissued in 2000 that I could actually pick up a guitar and not feel terribly sad and feel like a failure.

I don’t speak to many songwriters who have such a weird relationship with their work – most people are quite comfortable with it…
I don’t have any more negative feelings about it all any more – I just feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to do both. There’s this whole thing about women not being able to do child-rearing and have any kind of creative career and I’m a terrible example of that. As soon as I knew I was pregnant I didn’t write another song for 30 years. What was that about? Was it because I couldn’t, or I didn’t want to or because the songs that had gone before were like children themselves? I couldn’t work it out. I still don’t know!

The new songs are much more difficult to do live because I’ve used so many electronic sounds on it… I guess that’s something I wanted to say. Just Another Diamond Day was all completely acoustically recorded and Lookaftering used all acoustic instruments on the final version. This time I’ve used quite a few electronic sounds because I can make them do what I want.

I can’t write music so to get an idea across to a violinist or a flute player is quite difficult for me. But, if I’m sitting at the keyboard – even though I can only play it with one finger – I can make an arrangement, I can double track or triple track, I can make an arrangement for myself and sometimes when I take that to a real musician it doesn’t sound the same. So I go back to the electronic ones and the synths, and I really enjoyed putting those sounds together.

A lot of people said I should have real instruments and musicians on my new album because I’m a folk artist – but I’m not! I love what I was able to do by manipulating some of the sounds in my computer. And the last song, Heartleap, there’s a clarinet in that and I’ve extended each note into the next note. Now you couldn’t do that with a person – you’d have to have two musicians doing it and alternating their notes. I loved being about to do the things that aren’t possible with a real human being - I’m the player, on a computer screen and keyboard, and I’ve really loved doing that.

Did you take to it quite naturally?
It was completely natural to me, and I think because I’ve always been really interested in the process of recording, ever since I was a very little girl when my brother brought stuff over from America. I didn’t have access to that when I was very first recording – I was just supposed to turn up, sing, then go away again. And with Joe Boyd’s production I had no say in that. With Look Aftering I did have way more say. Max was really wonderful with me and taught me. And so with what Max taught me I was able to really find out how to do it for myself and please that very young girl that couldn’t get access, or didn’t get access, to all of that. It was a great pleasure to me.

Heartleap is out on 6 October through FatCat Records.
Vashti Bunyan is published by Spinney Songs.