Vashti Bunyan: vanishing act

Anita Awbi chats to freak-folk legend Vashti Bunyan to learn about one of the most curious songwriting stories in British music.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 24 Sep 2014
  • min read
Anita Awbi chats to freak-folk legend Vashti Bunyan to learn about one of the most curious songwriting stories in British music.

When Vashti Bunyan insists that her new album Heartleap will be her last, who are we to argue? Here is a cult songwriter who’s given us just three albums in 44 years, her craft tightly bound in uncertainty, each performance wrought with trepidation.

Vashti’s unique approach to life and music may have limited her creative output and kept her on the cultural fringes for decades, but that’s where she seems happiest. ‘This album, especially the last song, says everything I want it to,’ she states from her Edinburgh home. ‘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.’

Bad news for her legions of fans, who number folk experimentalists Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, psych-pop trio Animal Collective, and Brit trailblazers Four Tet and Adem. Once a forgotten songsmith with a lone LP under her belt - seventies' lost masterpiece Just Another Diamond Day - Vashti has slowly blossomed into one of Britain’s most essential, yet least prolific artists.

In recent years, the world has finally switched on to her sound with her music appearing in advertising campaigns for the likes of T Mobile, Reebok and NFL. She has since been invited to perform at the Massive Attack-curated Meltdown Festival, shared the stage with many of her contemporary psych-folk peers and been the subject of a candid BFI documentary, Vashti Bunyan: From Here to Before.

Over the last four decades, her songwriting and production techniques have gently developed, but her tender charm and musical dexterity have remained in tact. Whimsical wordplay and honest warmth always shines through her songs, culminating in a humble body of work devoid of pretension and fakery.

But where did it all begin for this timid, Newcastle-born artist? Vashti’s back story reads like a modern folk fable, complete with a horse, cart and remote windswept island. In the late sixties, after two fruitless years under the tutelage of Rolling Stones’ svengali Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham, she became disillusioned with London’s music scene and took off in a wagon loosely headed for Donovan’s new artist enclave on the Isle of Skye.

While on the road with her acoustic guitar, she began to formulate the songs that became her debut album. Those fourteen tunes, thanks in no small part to the studio work of the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, became a twinkling collection of otherworldy folk. Her timeless pastoral vision and vocal purity had created a lasting acoustic beacon. But soon after, the record inexplicably sank without a trace and Vashti vanished. The process left her deflated and insecure.
It wasn’t until the reissue of Just Another Diamond Day that I stopped feeling like a failure...

Refusing to pick up an instrument for another three decades, Vashti was blissfully unaware that the album was slowly becoming a cult classic, and original copies were being exchanged for handsome sums.

‘For many, many years I could not listen to Just Another Diamond Day,’ she remembers, almost as though she still hasn’t come to terms with it, even now. ‘It just didn’t sound like me. I didn’t let my children listen to it, I abandoned it completely. Nobody ever said anything good about it - ever! Nobody ever gave me any idea that they had ever listened to it. Or, if they had, they thought it was just nursery rhymes or whatever.’

While many songwriters can draw a little inner confidence from their work, or muster enough conviction to carry on, this lack of acknowledgment was crippling for the introverted artist. It put paid to her musical endeavours for 30 years.

Luckily, the story didn’t end there. She’s since enjoyed a slow songwriting rehabilitation that has delivered two more seminal albums, 2005’s Lookaftering and the forthcoming Heartleap. In 2000, after an impossibly long silence, she finally stepped into the limelight to oversee the reissue of Just Another Diamond Day, encouraged by its new found cult status. She also undertook a series of collaborations with the likes of Animal Collective, Vetiver, Adem and Joanna Newsom. This work finally culminated in sophomore album Lookaftering – 35 years after her debut LP was released.

‘I know it’s not great to admit, but having positive feedback about that old album back in 2000 was what got me going again,’ she says, sounding a little embarrassed. ‘When I picked up my guitar again it sounded okay 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.’

Vashti’s work is now rightly venerated among her younger peers - which has helped propel her recent burst of creativity. ‘What they did, 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.’

When Heartleap is released in October, it will end her musical journey and act as a catalyst for another adventure – an autobiography of her younger, wayfaring years. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to have any regrets about her awkward relationship with music, and instead delights in all she’s learned along the way. For starters, she’s proud of the fact that she made this album almost entirely alone, incorporating sequencers, synthesised instruments and self-taught production techniques to free her from the restrictions of the professional studio.

‘When I started understanding how to record myself I got more interested in it, and possibly more able,’ she says. ‘I did try with other musicians and producers, but I just felt I had to do it for myself. It might not have worked or come to anything but I just had to keep doing it.’

Even though Vashti has mastered her home studio, she’s still self-deprecating about her motivation to create - and it’s this uncertainty that has marred her whole musical career. Although she’s obviously delighted she’s been able to take the production reins herself, she quickly adds: ‘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, I was cocooned from the realities of recording. This time I wanted to come out from the shelter of others and try it for myself.’

Vashti began to notice how her voice changed when she recorded herself alone compared to when there were others present. This awareness has brought an audible depth to her timbre and a new freedom to her melodies. And then there’s the music…

Both Just Another Diamond Day and the Max Richter-produced Lookaftering used only acoustic instruments. But this time she’s opted to keep many of the electronic sounds from her original, computer-based arrangements. ‘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,’ she explains.
‘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!’

 ‘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.’

Herein lies yet another contentious area for Vashti. Disillusioned with the folk music of her teens and twenties, she firmly maintains that she’s not a folk singer songwriter and takes offence when referred to in that way. When pushed, she prefers to be labelled under freak-folk, or, as she says laughing, ‘control freak-folk!’

Looking back on her strange musical path, she acknowledges: ‘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 over the years. For that I am very grateful.’

Read the full interview with Vashti Bunyan

Heartleap is out on 6 October through FatCat Records.

Vashti Bunyan is published by Spinney Songs.