Vashti Bunyan Chats

Posted by Miss Ess, May 28, 2008 07:00pm | Post a Comment
Vashti Bunyan's seminal 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day contains some of the most pastoral songs you ever could hear. Written while traveling through England in a horse drawn caravan and produced by Joe Boyd back in London, the record perfectly captures a bucolic snapshot of that journey. Vashti had had a brief flirtation with recording previous to Diamond Day, when she cut singles for The Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham in the mid 60s. Soon after Diamond Day was quietly released, she quit music and lived on an isolated farm for many years. Fast forward to 2000, when Diamond Day was re-released after languishing in obscurity for decades. It quickly won a new audience, and Vashti was inspired to write once again, eventually releasing her second album, Lookaftering, in 2005 and touring for the first time. In 2007, Some Things Just Stick Around in Your Mind, a compilation of early unreleased and rare recordings by Vashti, was released. Here, Vashti tells us about her early inspirations, her life on the farm, working with Joe Boyd and picking up the guitar once again after so many years away from it.

ME: What kind of music did your parents listen to around the house when you were growing up?
Vashti: My father had a great collection of 78 rpm classical records and a huge old radiogram. I have never been able to put names to the music or the composers, just very clear – sometimes note for note -- memories.
ME: Was there a particular person in your life early on who particularly nurtured your love of music?
Vashti: My father – although I’m sure it wasn’t something he tried to do. Watching him conduct his imaginary orchestra with a look of such pure happiness on his face maybe had an effect. My brother also – who was ten years older than me and went to college for a year in USA, returning with LP records and a suitcase full of all the bits needed to make up a deck for playing them on. Fascinating to a 5 year old.
What was the first bit of music you remember hearing that inspired you to write yourself?
I haven’t thought about it till now but I remember this piece of music I loved from when I was about five sung by Kathleen Ferrier that began ‘flocks in pastures green abiding.’ Hmm.
When did you start playing guitar and writing songs? How did you learn to play?
My first year at art school, I was 17; my friend Jenny had a guitar and a Bert Weedon guitar book– with the chords for songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and others. I fell upon it. I’d had violin lessons before and so I learned very quickly. It wasn’t long before we both started writing mournful love songs.
It sounds like you were a shy person starting out in music-- yet it must have taken an incredible amount of courage to seek a label and record tracks. How did you manage to put yourself out there?

Yes, I often wonder how I did it. I was shy around people but I did believe in my own songs. I’ve always been amazed at my youngest son, who was a very shy kid until he got on to a basketball court where he suddenly became tall, confident and sure-footed. I felt like that in a recording studio.
Can you recall the feeling of "Swinging London?" Any particular memories from this time that stand out?
I remember with rebellious pleasure – tinged with guilt -- the way that the older generation were so upset by us all. They had tried desperately to protect us from the hardships they had been through and so unwittingly they gave us minds of our own – and then we flew the nest in ways they could never have dreamed of.
When you were first starting out, what artists in particular struck you?

Bob Dylan's the most obvious one I guess. Before that Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Carole King. Songwriters mostly.

When you look at old footage of yourself, say on YouTube, what do you think of that person? Do you recognize her? Do you relate to her at all?

I’m proud of her.. even though she looks kind of awkward. She had the idea to bring something a little more real and natural into a very stuffy and staid pop music world in the UK. She maybe sowed a few seeds.

What was the experience like of finding and listening to the tracks that now make up Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind?

Eerie. In 2007 I borrowed a reel-to-reel tape deck to listen through some tapes my brother had found in his attic a while back. One was different looking to all the others, played backwards and very fast. I transferred a bit to my computer, turned it around and slowed it down and gradually it dawned on me that this was my first ever studio recording from 1964. 12 songs -- some I’d forgotten, some I’d half-remembered. I had been so determined back then, so hopeful and I’d borrowed some money to hire a studio for an hour. From this tape I’d made a 7 inch acetate demo of just four songs. I guess my brother took more care of my things than I ever did, as I had no idea that tape still existed till a year ago.
How did Joe Boyd contact you to come record Just Another Diamond Day?
Joe Boyd had seen me sing at a poetry reading at the ICA in London in 1966 and asked me to go and meet him to talk about making an album. I didn’t go, as I was still trying to make things work with Andrew Loog Oldham and his fledgling Immediate label. Two years later when I was halfway through a journey to the wilds of northern Britain with horse and cart -- trying to escape my musical failure – a friend persuaded me to go and see Joe to play him the songs I was writing about the journey. He gave me a promise to record an album once the journey was completed, a copy of [Boyd-produced] The Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam and The Big Huge and a five-pound note as an advance. It was a huge amount for me at the time. It was a whole year later that we recorded
Diamond Day.
What was it like to work with Joe Boyd? Did you have a particular vision for howDiamond Day would sound? How much of a voice did you have in the production techniques?
We recorded Just Another Diamond Day in three evenings and neither Joe nor I remember much about it. I had been singing by myself for so long, it was wonderful to work with other musicians even though I was probably not very good at it – and I didn’t know them at all. Joe took the tapes away to the USA with him and I didn’t hear any of it until he had mixed and mastered it over there. If I had been sitting by his side it might have come out very differently. When I eventually heard it nearly a year later I felt very distant from it. I have come to greatly appreciate Joe’s production now but for years I just could not listen to it.
What was your favorite part of farm life and when did you start riding horses?
After growing up i
n London, farm life was hard – rewarding but isolating. The horses are the only thing I miss really. Some were big Clydesdales, a bit dopey and slow-witted. If they stood on your foot it took a while to make them understand to get off it however hard you shouted and waved your arms around. The first horse I ever tried to ride threw me right off. That was Bess, who pulled our cart from London to the Isle of Skye. I think she found the indignity of being ridden unacceptable since she was a cart-horse. Of the many horses I went on to know she was always the special one. They say you only really have one dog in your life. If the same applies to horses then it was Bess.  She was wise and fiery and knowing. She was a gypsy.
Was there music at all on the farm-- did you play it yourself or listen to records at all?
We didn’t even have a record player. Then when we got a car there was a tape player in it and we played a lot of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. I didn’t pick up a guitar (except to teach my son to play) in all the years and I never spoke about my old musical life or allowed anyone else to.
How did you meet Gary, who ended up reissuing Just Another Diamond Day here in the US as well as putting out Lookaftering

First I met Michael Gira (through Devendra Banhart) and he was going to put Diamond Day out on Young God [his label]. He changed his mind about it. Then Devendra put me in touch with Gary Held and I’m so grateful for that introduction. He has been wonderful and a very good friend.
Through the years before the reissue did you ever have any idea that you were considered a cult icon and that original copies of Diamond Day were being sold for so much money? How did you eventually find out?
I had no idea until 1996 when I got my first computer and searched my name. It was a big shock to find any mention, but there it was – reference to Diamond Day and previous recordings, some I hadn’t heard for years – and also a bootleg of Diamond Day. The most shocking thing though was to read good things being said about Diamond Day instead of the old derision and dismissal of it all as songs for children.
How did it feel to pick up a guitar again and write songs? As I understand it, you'd sort of stopped playing for many years. Was it the Diamond Day reissue that got you to pick it up again or was it before that? 
Yes, it was the warm response to the re-issue that gave me the courage to pick up a guitar again and feel my way back into writing songs. It took a while.
What did Lookaftering guests like Joanna Newsom and Robert Kirby bring to the experience of recording?
Joanna Newsom was so gracious and such an extraordinary musician. I’ll never forget her, tiny by this huge harp in the middle of an empty studio, playing a song she’d only heard a few times, playing my song. I was so happy. Robert Kirby brought the only link back to Diamond Day. I had sent him the re-issue and he had mentioned he was starting to play the French horn again so we asked him if he might add some to a couple of the songs. I loved his trumpet playing on "Window Over the Bay" on Diamond Day so it just seemed right.
What was your conversation like with Robert Kirby after not having seen him in so long?
I hadn’t seen him since the recording of Diamond Day, so of course it was quite a moment when I met him again. I apologized for having been so sulky back then about the middle verse arrangement he’d written for "Rainbow River" that I hadn’t let him use. (He laughed about it, which was nice for me, as I’d always felt bad about it.) He said, "We’re the survivors." I’ll remember.
What is the writing process like for you when it comes to the lyrics?
Even when I was very young I liked the way pop songs could condense an emotion or a situation. I think I try to find ways of saying what I want to say with as few words as possible. And with oblique rather than direct reference. Mostly though I have to steer clear of self-consciousness and let the words through in their own good time. Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the supermarket. Sometimes not for months on end.
You've guested on a few albums from artists like Devendra and Animal Collective. What was the experience of contributing to others' work like for you?
When I think of the circumstances that led to my being able to work with other people, the tenuous links that so easily might have passed me by – I just feel so lucky. I learned more than I ever could have by myself.
Do you enjoy touring and do you plan to do it again?
I love touring – mostly because I never did when I was younger. I am at my most content when going along a road. I’d like to tour again if I get another album made.
Throughout your career what has been your peak musical experience?
Mixing "The Same But Different" [from Lookaftering] in a Glasgow studio with Max Richter. Finally getting it to sound the way I wanted it – getting the swell of the violins the way I wanted it. I felt fit to burst. And the first note I sang while rehearsing in an empty Carnegie Hall in 2006... it came back to me like a gift.
What artist/record has had the most impact on you?
Probably Kathleen Ferrier – a contralto singer from the 40s and 50s. She had a voice that nobody else’s has ever quite measured up to for me. Her recording of “What Is Life” probably affected my young soul more than anything else. Still makes me cry.
What have you been listening to lately that you've enjoyed?
Vetiver’s covers album – Thing Of The Past, a collection of Cure singles from the eighties, and a bit of Frank Sinatra’s phrasing.
Is there a song that you didn't write but that you wish you did each time you hear it because it's absolutely perfect?

Syd Barrett’s ‘Bike’ comes close.
Is there an album that you love that is somewhat under the radar and that you think more people should listen to?
I have just been sent a CD from a musician in New Zealand which has really caught my ear. His name is Dudley Benson.
What is your most prized musical possession?
Well it doesn’t really belong to me anymore, as I gave it to my oldest son when he went to live in Los Angeles 19 years ago – an old Martin-like guitar that had belonged to my grandfather. Bird’s-eye maple back and sides with mother of pearl flowers around the sound-hole. It was accidentally run over when I was going back to London to record Diamond Day but Joe Boyd sent it for restoration for me. It took six months. I had a dream while it was away that the machine-heads had been taken from it and sure enough, I was thunderstruck when it was given back to me as I saw the new, ugly, shiny machine-heads in place of the gorgeous originals. These were hanging on a hook in the workshop of the restorer. I took them away with me but the guitar headstock had been drilled to take larger pins. I never played it after that. When my son grew up he found a way to put the old machine-heads back. Sadly the guitar got broken again on its flight to LA. One day we will get it mended -- again.
Thank you so much for all your time.