Vashti Bunyan’s first album “Just Another Diamond Day” was recorded in 1970, produced by Joe Boyd, and included Dave Swarbrick, Simon Nicol and Robin Williamson amongst its players. Its gentle style of music did not gain a wide audience and Vashti quit the music business, seemingly for good. In the intervening years, however, the album was increasingly recognised as a lost folk classic and its influence was heard in the work of more modern folk performers such as Devendra Banhart. In 2005, Vashti was inspired to release her second album “Lookaftering”, a mere 35 years after its predecessor! Interest in her work started peaking at this point.
As part of the promotion for the second album, this interview with MICHAEL HUNTER was recorded on November 8, 2005 for Roots & Branches – one of only a handful of Australian interviews at the time.
I must give Lookaftering one of my highest compliments for music – having listened to it a few times, ‘timeless’ is the word I’d use. It sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, or recorded 40 years ago.
Oh that’s nice, thank you. I know, it’s extraordinary. I’m sure it’s something to do with the big gap in between, during which I had nothing to do with music at all and so I think it is out of time, out of its own time. I don’t know, it’s quite mysterious to me how it all happened, really. I don’t understand it.
Is it almost like the world has finally caught up with you?
Well, it’s strange. I think the world has wider ears maybe now and can listen to all kinds of different music, rather than dismissing whole tracts of it out of hand. I think people are also, in my experience recently, so much kinder than ever they were. Maybe it’s that I’m having such a lovely time now but it does seem that everybody I speak to has such lovely things to say. Not just about the music and the album, but about things in general – and about music, definitely.
It’s true, a whole lot of the barriers seem to have fallen down so, in the positive sense, it seems like anything goes. So nice gentle, acoustic music has its place as well.
It has its place at last. (laughs)
I was asked to pass on greetings from Flip Feij in the Netherlands….
… who I believe had an old film of you performing in 1968, which they were thinking of using in a documentary. Is that still happening, do you know?
Um, I haven’t heard from him since that was suggested so I don’t know. It’s funny ‘cause I always felt so very embarrassed by that film because I was so very young and I was so innocent. I was singing to a lot of very young people in a youth club. The soundtrack is really funny ‘cause you can hear them all shifting and coughing and wondering who on earth this weird person in a long dress was, sitting up on stage singing with a guitar!
But now of course, I look back and I think “Oh that was so wonderful to be able to do that”, so I don’t know what will happen to the film, or the soundtrack really. I’ve kept them hidden for a very, very long time.
So you haven’t had a say in what the documentary has covered?
Nooo… I think I have to let things be, really. I don’t want to control things, I think it’s better just to let people make of it what they will, as long as it’s not used as an ad for something I couldn’t agree with. That would be different, but just for a documentary, I can’t control how people think about what happened back then.
The standard thing anyone would say would be “yes, it’s been 35 years between servings”, as it were, but many of your contemporaries from the time sadly have either left music or aren’t able to perform. I’m thinking of people like Anne Briggs or Sandy Denny. So it must be heartening or encouraging to still be able to record and finally have the audience you’ve wanted all this time.
Yes, well I feel incredibly lucky. So many people who would have deserved it so much more – of course their music has survived, and that’s the magic of recorded music. It stays in the world in the form in which it was put into the world, and the people who made it may no longer be here but their music is as beautiful and vibrant as ever it was.
But for me in my situation, I’m so lucky to be able to make some more, to pick up the threads again and find it still within me and find a world that wants to hear it. I mean, how much more lucky could you be? I’m sixty, my last child has just left home and suddenly I have this whole new world. I feel blessed, that’s for sure.
So hang around long enough and things will start to happen?
(hearty laugh) Yes! I hope so, I hope all of this will be very encouraging to people, that life doesn’t stop having possibilities as you get older. It’s always there.
We’ve been talking about all the philosophical side of things, but there is the Lookaftering CD as well! Along similar lines to before, people who are with us and those who aren’t – the song “If I Were” which in common with the rest of the songs is a lovely track, really reminded me of Shirley and Dolly Collins, if you’re familiar with their work?
Yes. It’s funny because whenever I hear any of the songs compared to somebody else’s work, I think I should rush out and find out who these people were, ‘cause I never knew back then who they were. When I was recording my album with someone from the Incredible String Band, I didn’t know who the Incredible String Band was. I didn’t know who Fairport Convention were and yet there was two of its members standing by the side of me playing mandolin and banjo!
I don’t know any of these people and it’s only now that I’m beginning to rediscover all that I left behind, and to find out who everybody was. I never knew Anne Briggs, I wish I had known her. It is crazy, and then when I find that some of my songs are compared to other people, I feel really stupid because I don’t know them. I need to go and find out, listen to some Shirley and Dolly Collins…
It’s an interesting thing. As you say, you had various luminaries of the folk world at the time of “Diamond Day” way back then, and now you have various luminaries of the – shall we say alt-folk world here right now. It’s a nice link between the two. I only ask this question because of what you were saying before – had you heard of people like Joanna Newsom before you started recording Lookaftering?
Yes, oh yes. I certainly knew about her and I’d known Devendra Banhart for about three years before we made the album. It all came about so elegantly really, it wasn’t planned particularly. Joanna just happened to be in Glasgow the day we had a recording studio booked there, and Devendra just happened to be in London when we had a studio booked there. It all just happened so beautifully, and also the other people on the album like Aden was in London that day and was able to come by. Robert Kirby was the only real link back to “Diamond Day”, he did the arrangements on “Diamond Day” and he came in and played trumpet and French horn, at the end of the day in London. It was the most extraordinary session that one, so many people were able to come to it. It just felt like it was meant but nobody planned it in any way.
So yes, I knew of them and I certainly knew Aden, I had played with him before but I hadn’t sat down and written a list of all the people I wanted on the album. It was just that as we progressed with the recording, it just seemed that all these people could fit in. It was a great way for it to happen.
The arrangements on the CD are lovely; they’re appropriate and just contribute to the song without overwhelming it. Did you have much of a say in the arrangements yourself?
Well, I wrote a lot of the arrangements before I even met Max (Richter) and he was able to interpret my demos, if you like, very very well. Then we wrote some together and then he wrote some completely himself so that the whole album is a collaboration, really. Some of the songs are completely mine, some are completely him and some are both of us.
Did I read correctly that you wrote some of the songs on computer?
I wouldn’t say I wrote them on the computer, but I wrote them with the help of the computer in that I could record them into music programs and I could overdub, I could write the arrangements. I can’t read or write music so it was wonderful to be able to play a part on a piano keyboard, put it into the computer and turn it into a violin so I could hear what it sounded like, or into a flute or all kinds of different instruments and different sounds and really play about.
I’d always been interested in the technology of music, even when I was eighteen, nineteen. First in a recording studio, it was the control room that looked fascinating to me but I was a shy young girl and I never got there. Being able to get to grips with a virtual studio now is fantastic for me ‘cause it’s the only way that I can get the arrangements in my head to another person and to another musician, you know, to get the part to a real violinist to play it. It’s fantastic to be able to use a music program. So I think about half of the songs were written on a keyboard and half with a guitar in the way I used to write them.
So the CD is out there, and suddenly the demand is out there… I wouldn’t presume to ask for an Australian tour but will you be doing any touring to promote the CD?
I will be, yes. We’re planning to start in January and Max will come with me and two other musicians, and we’ll see how it goes. I would love to go to Australia and I would love to go to Japan. I would love to do some dates in Europe, I would love to go to America and at the moment, it looks like all that is a possibility. Next year looks really exciting to me, that the whole world is opening out.
I could never have ever dreamed it in my wildest dreams that this would happen and I’m so grateful to all the people who have made it happen. It’s a very strange thing putting out an album – it’s as if you put this thing out into the world but you then you then have no control over it any more. It goes off and it makes its own life. “Diamond Day” made its own life over thirty years without any help from me whatsoever but this one – well, I’m talking to you in Australia! It’s the most amazing difference but even so, it’s because this album winged its way over to you in Australia and now you’re phoning me! Ah, it’s the most wonderful thing.
Dare I even suggest that you deserve it?
Oh thank you (laughs)! That’s very kind of you.
Well, can you disagree with it??
I don’t know, I think I probably can’t believe it so I think I don’t deserve it. But maybe in another year once I’ve seen what it’s like to be on the road, maybe when I’ve really really done it, you know? Because I feel that I never did tour and I have dues to pay. Maybe I’ll deserve it after that.
Nevertheless, could we say the pilgrim has made a lot of progress? [Vashti is a descendant of “Pilgrim’s Progress” author John Bunyan…]
Oh, well yes. It feels like it. It feels like a long journey and I’m sure everybody’s life is the same, but well, I am really blessed to be able to do this.
The CD is fairly short by today’s standards, though that also means the songs don’t overstay their welcome…
It is quite short, yes. I tend to make the songs quite short. I quite like the thought of condensing an idea into as few words as possible. We didn’t want to pad it out with things just to make it longer. I don’t know, it made itself more or less.
The obvious question with which to finish – is there any thought for a third album sometime before 2040 or so?
(laughs) A regular production, every thirty years! I am hoping very much to do some more, yes. Now that I’ve started, I certainly won’t leave it behind again. Hopefully, there will be more songs to come.
“Lookaftering” is available through Fat Cat Records which is distributed in Australia through Inertia Music www.inertia-music.com . Just as a matter of interest, there was a slightly heartstopping moment when, literally at the last minute, the recording program brought up a “this program has performed an illegal operation and will be closed down” message! Luckily it lied, the program didn’t close and the interview was saved very quickly. Unfortunately, with the printed word, you can’t hear Vashti’s quiet, unassuming manner of speaking or her infectious laugh, but given her style of music, neither would be of any surprise, The phone line itself though was of very low quality, so it’s best to read the interview than try to listen to it now! As of 2013, the third album of new material is yet to appear… (MH)