Her first single may have come out back in 1965, but Vashti Bunyan is only about to release her third ever album (fourth if you include the excellent compilation Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind), Heartleap, in October. But then, Bunyan’s story is nothing if not unusual and, best of all, one with a happy ending.
Discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham in the mid-’60s, she released just two singles, the Jagger/Richards composition “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind” and the self-penned “Train Song” (which has since found new appreciation after being featured in several adverts), but, frustratingly for Bunyan, neither took off.
Tiring of her life as a struggling pop singer in London, Bunyan and her boyfriend Robert Lewis decided to leave it all behind to live the hippie dream, buying a horse and cart so they could make the epic journey to the Hebrides to join singer Donovan’s planned artists community there. (Check out the great documentary From Here To Before, in which Bunyan retraces the year-and-a-half-long journey she took in the late ’60s.)
The traveling songs she wrote along the way became her now-beloved debut album Just Another Diamond Day. Its lack of success at the time finally convinced Bunyan to leave behind music in order to raise a family in Scotland. Thankfully, …Diamond Day wasn’t as forgotten as she thought, and, by the 1990s, had not only become highly sought after, but also was influencing a whole new generation of folk musicians from Devendra Banhart to Joanna Newsom. A long-awaited CD reissue in 2000 finally gave Bunyan the recognition she so long deserved and started one of the most remarkable comebacks in music.
I caught up with the enigmatic and fascinating singer-songwriter to talk about Heartleap and her time as a struggling singer in London during the mid-’60s.
REBEAT: Congratulations on the new album, Vashti. “Heartleap” is a really wonderful record, you can tell a lot of time and love has gone into making it.
VASHTI BUNYAN: Yes, it took me a while. It took me awhile to realize I could and wanted to do it by myself. I’d gone down several different paths before coming to the realization that I wanted to have it all under my control. I had to admit to myself that I’m a control freak and that’s what I was going to do. [laughs]
Was it all recorded on your own at home?
Some of it was recorded at home. And some when I was given a studio to work in in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles for one whole summer. I did a lot of the vocals there because I was completely by myself with nobody overhearing me. I gained a bit of confidence, really, when I was completely by myself. It’s very different being in a studio; even if you’re in a room with glass and doors between you and the people who are recording you, you’re still not on your own. I found it much easier just to be by myself and not worry about anyone overhearing me or making an idiot of myself.
There’s a lot of talk about this being your final album. That can’t be true, can it?
Well, it’s nine years since my last one [Lookaftering] and between that one and the one before was 35 years and even if I do get quicker, it’s still going to be a while. Also, I just wonder if there’s going to be any such thing as an album in another nine years. I don’t think it’s that I won’t write any more music or that more songs won’t occur to me, but I can’t see that kind of format lasting, really. I think it’s going to go song by song. So that’s why I said I wouldn’t do this again. Not have that idea, “Okay, I have to have at least 10 songs before I can put anything else out into the world again.”
There is a really moving song on the album called “Mother” where you describe secretly seeing her dance and play music. Is it based on your own childhood experiences?
It is, and the imagery is all real memories. I know it has caused a few people to well up a bit and cry because maybe that’s how, I don’t know, maybe there’s an innate guilt about your mother that you leave her behind. Those memories are so clear of seeing her actually dance when she thought no one was there and playing an old out-of-tune piano. And I tried to illustrate that out-of-tune piano with the slightly wonky piano part I wrote.
Do you think she was a frustrated artist?
Yes. I think women of her generation, it would never have occurred to her that she could have had any kind of career in the creative arts. She was a wife, and she was a mother, and that was what she was committed to. Yet, there was this whole other side of her that was never explored. As well as thinking about my own mother in that, I was thinking of Nick Drake’s mother [Molly Drake], who wrote the most beautiful songs. Luckily, they were recorded, but I don’t think, in her mind, she ever had a thought of taking them out to the world or going on to a stage with them. I think so many people of her generation and my mother’s generation didn’t have the chances that I had, and that further generations have had, to do anything we wanted, really.
Was it always your dream to become a pop star?
It was, yes, from about the age of 17 or 18, it was what I wanted to be. The word “folk” never occurred to me. But, yes, that was what I wanted, to have my own songs, because there were very few girl singers who wrote their own songs at that point. That was what I wanted to do, to bring my own songs into pop music, and my dream was to be in the charts with a simple song, and I never quite achieved it.
When did you start writing songs?
I was at school and I shared a bedsit with a friend who had a guitar. She taught me the basic chords and we both started writing songs at that point. I was 18, sitting in a bedsit in Oxford and yes, these songs started to come quite fast, really. Her name was Jenny Lewis, and we wrote a song together called “17 Pink Sugar Elephants” when she was drunk and had just come back from a party. I remember sitting on the floor and never ever thinking anything would come of it. But, then, I used that tune for my second single, which was called “Train Song”, and that song seems to have been the one that has been the most successful for me.
How did you eventually meet Andrew Loog Oldham?
I was knocking on doors, playing for people who were completely unsuitable, old school kind of agents and entrepreneurs who would smile at me benignly and say, “I’m sorry, dear, but you’re just not commercial.” Of course, I wasn’t, because I would turn up in a jumper full of holes and a guitar on my shoulder, thinking this was the most romantically wonderful thing that I was doing. I couldn’t find the right people until, by amazing chance, I met Andrew Loog Oldham. I don’t think he really saw the jumper and the guitar over my back, he just thought he could make something of me and my songs. He gave me a Keith Richards and Mick Jagger song for my first single [“Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind”], which I railed against. I wanted to do one of my own songs, but they put one of mine on the B-side [“I Want To Be Alone”]. And I really thought that this was it, a Keith Richards/Mick Jagger song, it should work. I was immensely disappointed when it didn’t. But I was totally the wrong kind of person, I would say. I never spoke to anybody. I was in the studio with Mick Jagger and Andrew Oldham and all these amazing people around me, and I think I didn’t say a word. [laughs] I just wasn’t right for that world at all. I kept trying for another couple of years but in the end it was just too heartbreaking that I couldn’t make any headway with my songs. And that’s when I left.
I know the press, at the time, called you “the new Marianne Faithfull.” Do you think that’s what Andrew Oldham was trying to market you as?
He says he wasn’t, and it never occurred to me that that’s what he was doing, but that’s how the press portrayed it: the replacement for Marianne, who had just left his management, and he was looking for somebody to replace her. He absolutely denies that, says that wasn’t what he saw in me at all, but, you know, once one newspaper said it, the rest all said it, and it’s been said for the rest of my life. At the time, I was horrified that I was being portrayed as a brunette version of the blonde Marianne, because my whole thing was that it was the songs that I was writing, not the way that I was singing them or what I looked like or anything like that — it was the songs. So, to be portrayed as just another copy of somebody who had gone before was really hard to deal with at the age of 20. It was quite hard and continues to be hard, actually, because it’s always the thing that’s mentioned. And at the time I didn’t think I was anything like her.
There are some great clips of you on YouTube from the time, and you look like a total pop star.
That was Shindig!, an American show, and they used to come over and record a whole lot of British musicians one after the other and sort of put them into the American shows with a lot of canned audience. I think maybe if that had been shown here, it might have been different, but there was very little that was seen of me here [in the UK]. I did do some TV shows, but they were all regional ones. I never made it on to Ready, Steady, Go! I think I was on Thank Your Lucky Stars. There was a little video — it was great, actually. I wish I could find it — of me wandering along the banks of the Thames in a black plastic raincoat. I would love to know why it didn’t work, but I just wasn’t able to promote myself in a way that would have made me a hit.
You mentioned Molly Drake earlier and your career reminds me in a lot of ways of Nick Drake’s: you both were unappreciated at the time and rediscovered years later. Did you know him at all?
I did, because we shared a manager in Joe Boyd, and a producer. I did meet him a few times in Joe’s office when he was already very, very shy and finding things very difficult and turning his back to people. I found it very difficult because I took it very personally. I thought, “Oh dear, he really doesn’t like me.” Then Joe Boyd sent me to Nick’s house to try to write a song together, which was a complete disaster because both of us were so shy, and I had a baby by then who cried every time I picked up my guitar. And Nick was sort of hunched over this old upright piano, not saying a word. It really wasn’t ever going to work and I don’t know why Joe thought it ever would. But, yes, I did meet him a few times.
At what point did you decide to give up on music altogether?
I decided twice, really. I decided when I left London and went off in my horse and cart to a different life. I decided I was never going to set foot in a studio again or have anything to do with the music industry, but then I met Joe Boyd halfway through the journey, who listened to my songs and persuaded me that at the end of the journey, we would make an album. I never thought it would happen, but it did, and I did go back into the studio for three days with Joe and other musicians, and we made …Diamond Day. And nothing happened with that, because it was a year from when the songs were written to when they were recorded, and then another year until it actually came out on vinyl, by which time I had a child and another life altogether. When …Diamond Day was roundly ignored, I completely gave up on it, I thought I really was wrong to come back and try again, and I’m never going to come back and do this again, and I didn’t. I didn’t pick up a guitar, I didn’t play any music, my poor kids had a very music-less childhood, I suppose, and I never sang to them. I didn’t play for many, many years.
Is it true your children had no clue you had this past career as a singer?
No, they didn’t and it wasn’t until …Diamond Day came out again in 2000, and I was starting to talk to people about the story and about my early life that the children would look at me with their mouths open, “You never told us that! You never said you were around those people! You never let us know!”
Were they excited when Just Another Diamond Day was re-released and you suddenly started to get all this recognition?
Yes, completely, and so pleased. And they’ve all been completely supportive. My youngest was only 14 when Diamond Day came out [again] and he was slightly embarrassed by it, “My God, my mother was a hippie!” The older two, who were quite grown up by then, were absolutely thrilled and very excited by it all.
You are about to do some live shows in support of the new album. How do you find touring now?
Oh, so frightening. With Lookaftering, it took me a little while to not have my knees shaking at the beginning of every show, and, eventually, I got used to it and began to enjoy it. I’ve not been really doing any live shows for the past four years, so I’m going to have to start all over again with the terror. I am absolutely frightened of the next shows, but also really wanting to do it. And right at the beginning, somebody said you mustn’t keep saying that you’re scared, you mustn’t keep saying that you’re nervous, you just have to keep telling yourself that you’re excited. But I am! I’m looking forward to it very much.
Are you still enjoying this second phase of your career?
Yes, I think mostly because it’s so unexpected, especially when I think of myself a few years ago, and how I wouldn’t have believed that I could have this chance to play the music I wanted to play and write the music I wanted to write and have it be heard. I can’t explain to you how extraordinary that’s been to me. Actually, it’s been quite difficult with this one, knowing it that it might be listened to. Where with …Diamond Day and Lookaftering I didn’t have any idea whether they would ever be heard but this one — I know it will be, and that’s always been in the back of my mind with every song, with every bit of recording. And I think that’s maybe the thing about the difficult second album — that you have to double-take everything, “Oo, how is this going to come across?” But how lucky am I to be able to do it.
I hear that you’re thinking of writing a book about your life.
Yes. For the last nine years I’ve been saying I have to write the story. I have to put my kids right, because so many people have written the story for me and there’s always something that’s a little bit wrong. So, I’ve been thinking after the next album I will sit down and I’ll start to write the story. That’s something I really think that I owe it to my children: to write down what happened and why their childhoods were the way they were and just to try to explain to myself also the culture of the ’60s into the ’70s; that, to me, is fascinating to look back on. When I look back on it now, I think, wow. I’m still proud of what we did.
(Cover photo by Whyn Lewis.)