tue 12/12/2017

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan

After only nine years' break, the introspective Edinburgh songwriter is back

Vashti Bunyan: distinctly worldly

The story of Vashti Bunyan is a compelling one. The urbane Sixties would-be popstrel who gave it all up to ride up to a hippie community in a horse-drawn caravan, writing an exquisite album on the way, Just Another Diamond Day, which then became a lost classic, vanishing into the ether as she too vanished until she was rediscovered by obsessive record collectors and psychedelic freaks and persuaded to return to music after 30 years: who couldn't be enchanted or at least intrigued by it? And when her comeback showed her still with a crystal clear voice and intimate songwriting style it just seemed perfect.

After 2005's Lookaftering, she vanished again. Well, OK, not vanished, but drifted away from music again – and perhaps that was perfect too, adding to the sense of the otherworldly about her, this singer who refused to play the game in any recognisable way. But now after a mere nine years, she's back with Heartleap, perhaps her best album yet. And in person she's anything other than otherworldly: a robust, earthy, funny interviewee, who laughs readily and speaks directly, she explained to theartsdesk why she has taken these long breaks from music, why she is learning to do everything herself, and why she's not done with songwriting yet.

Also, on the final page of this feature, we have been exclusively given the lyric sheet from Heartleap, a perfect demonstration of the concision and deceptive simplicity of Bunyan's verse. She says of her own favourite artists, Leonard Cohen and The Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan "it's not on the surface and you have to listen to them, and find more and more" - and there could scarcely be a better description of her own songwriting.

JOE MUGGS: So your album's complete and being promoted, how are you feeling about it now?

VASHTI BUNYAN: It's good, it's good. I've gone through a really frightening stage between finally finishing the album and the first reviews and reactions, that was a frightening time – but that seems to be moving on a bit and I feel a lot more easy about it. I was feeling very “oh no, what have I done?” [laughs], and I didn't remember this bit, about how exposing it is. I did think “why on earth did I do this again?” but now I'm OK.

Very glad to hear it. Your actual working process was completely different this time, right?

Yes, the only way I could do it was to lock myself away completely. It was solitary, but it was the only way I could actually achieve it. I realised that when I recorded my vocal, if there was anybody else in the house, or anybody about to come in, it was very different to if I knew I was going to have space and time by myself. And I listened to the different recordings, and the ones where I was completely by myself were much more expressive, much more open, so I decided to go along that path, and in the end to do everything myself. Which is a really selfish thing to do, I think, a really ego-driven thing to do, and I don't think I'd do it again.

Really? Even if you know that's how it's going to end up sounding best?

Weelllll... I would not have known that at all, not really. But yes it worked in the end, I think. And it was the only way of doing it. I look back now, though, and think how neglectful I was of my family and all the people around me, and how completely shut away I was... But I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I did it.

Were you working every day then – treating it as a job, almost?

[Laughs] The dread word! But certainly in the last six months, it was every day, every night. I became very interested I think, very fascinated by the process, and that helped. So yes, that last six months was when it really happened, even though it was seven years since the first song was written. Obviously I wasn't working all that time on it for seven years, I would come and go, then a year ago I really decided I was going to do this and finish it, then the last six months were every day, every night, completely obsessed with it.

And this obsession with the technical process, did you have to learn to arrange and mix as you went?

The local college said I was too old and wouldn't understand it and it would be wasted on meYes. Well – for me the process of recording music was always interesting from when I was very young, experiencing the studios and recording in the sixties, seeing these amazing desks with all their faders and buttons and lights. That was fascinating to me, but of course I wasn't allowed anywhere near it: I just came and sang my songs and went away again. But it was all that fascinating range of possibilities that was so wonderful. Then of course I left music for many, many years, but when I came back to it, I discovered music software – and there on a screen was that same mixing desk replicated, with all the faders and buttons and lights!

So I had to find out about it, I just had to find out all those things that I had missed when I was young, and I tried to enrol in a local college for a technical music course – this was 13 years ago – but they wouldn't have me, because I was [prim voice] too old and wouldn't understand it and it would be wasted on me [laughs]. So that was a red rag to a bull and made me really determined to learn, and I did! And of course it's endless, and what I have learned is just a fraction of what I could learn, but it enabled me to compose arrangements. I can't play a piano, but I can figure out and double track and triple track; on the album there's a song with three piano parts, so it would take a person with three hands to play it...

But yes, I just became fascinated by the possibilities of what you can do. I did that layering with strings too, and with all the sounds I could find in my keyboard and in other places, I love gathering sounds and mixing them together. It's a fantastic experience doing that, I felt so lucky to be able to do that, to have the time to do it, to be able to explore and come up with things I didn't know I could do. It's great.

The peril of having the time and isolation to explore ideas on your own is that you can get locked into thought patterns that won't make sense to anyone else. Did you ever worry that you were going round in ever-decreasing circles in that way?

Vashti BunyanYes. I did. And also, I did most of my work with my headphones on so nobody would overhear what I was doing. Really stupid, but that's what I did. So when I brought it out into the room on speakers, it was really different, and unnerving really to have it out there. And then after that to take the step of having it so other people could hear it – even my partner didn't hear the songs until they were pretty much done, and that was unnerving too to play them to a real person, instead of in my head. But then it was good because the reactions were good.

The funny thing was, all the way through, people had been saying to me, oh you should really take it and play it to so-and-so person, because you really need input from the outside world. But I didn't. I always intended to, but I never really did. I did send a few bits to certain people, people I trusted, but what I should have done possibly is send things to people I didn't trust – that I didn't trust to say “oh yes that's lovely”. Somebody who might say “well actually you really need to see to this bit here, that really needs some work”. But I didn't do that, I kept it all to myself until the last process, which was the mixing and the mastering.

And had you learned also from the younger guys you'd worked with when you had your comeback – people like Kieran Hebden and Max Richter?

Yes sure, completely, especially from Max. When we were making Lookaftering I had no clue really, I had done enough to make some demos, but I didn't know how to do the next stage at all. Just to watch him was so fascinating, and he was so patient with me – because I couldn't speak his language and he couldn't speak mine: I don't read and write music... He was fantastic and I learned so much from him, and from all the other people I worked with in different ways.

The one thing Max told me that stuck with me was that you don't have to put a picture on every wall. The demos that I took to him had so much decoration on it was ridiculous, and he had to take everything off one by one. [affronted voice] “But I like that bit!” [patient voice] “No no, you really don't need that bit.” So he was patient and really taught me about what needed to stay and what needed to go and I'm very very grateful for that.

Well the new record certainly doesn't sound overworked – so what you're saying is it takes a lot of artifice to make it sound natural?

[Laughs] Yes, I try to make it like that. Like with the piano parts, I might have composed and constructed them note by note but I wanted to make it sound like it was being played by a 12 year old having piano lessons... because that's kind of how I feel.

Well there's the old dichotomy of innocence and experience: on your early work there was an image of you being some waif or nature spirit full of spontaneity, but a lot of work went into that too, right?

Yes, yes, and it is quite difficult to explain myself sometimes, because obviously the whole Diamond Day journey – and the horse and the chickens and the dogs and that life I led – is the one that I'm seen mostly for. Yet that was a very small part – well, not a small part of my life, but not that lengthy. I've lived in Edinburgh for 22 years now, since I left 20 years in the hills, so for me it's ages ago that I had horses. When I was promoting Lookaftering it was really funny because I think people were expecting me to turn up with a horse and bare feet, tie my horse to a lamppost and go in with my guitar.

Of course, that's not me – maybe it had been 30 years ago, but it just stays with you. I can't shake off the whole thing of being a folk singer. People say, oh well if you sit there with a guitar, and everything is very quiet and so on, well what do you expect? And I understand that yes, that's why I might get called a folk singer but I don't feel like a folk singer. I met Joe Boyd the other day, and we were doing a question and answer session after a film that was made of my Diamond Day journey by Kieran Evans, at a festival in Wales. He was sitting there and he turned to me, and he said “OK, I admit that it's my fault that you're called a folk singer. I am very sorry, but I know it was entirely my fault because I brought in Robin Williamson from the [Incredible] String Band and Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nichol from Fairport Convention, and yes, they made your album sound folky, and yes that was my fault – but I thought that's what you were, because I had visited you in a field with a horse and you lived the most folky life of anybody I had ever met. Of course that's what I thought you were!”

But that's not what I was, not musically. In my lifestyle yes, but never musically. In my head it was much more like what Robert Kirby did for the songs, or like what I do now. I really hope that what I do doesn't ever sound like folk music, because it wasn't ever embedded in folk.

It's funny that Joe Boyd should have been the one pushing for things to be rootsy and folky because of course he is and was a very urbane, in many ways modernist, kind of person...

Yes, I know, and he had met me when I was nowhere near being a folk singer, I think, and had tried to make an album with me a couple of years before all that. Then I went off with Andrew Oldham, and into that path, and only later came back to Joe to make Diamond Day. So he knew that I wasn't that... I think at the time he really appreciated the Englishness of folk musicians, coming from America and... Harvard [chuckles], he had possibly a very romanticised idea of the musicians – and that's where I was put. I guess I brushed the orbit of those people, but I did take off into a completely different direction...

And when you had your comeback in the early 2000s, and there was this new generation of acoustic musicians, did it feel like history was repeating because there was a similar confusion between wanting to be folky and wanting very much to be not-folk...?

Yes it felt like the same confusion, and the sam conflict, and I think they felt it too, when they were referred to folk, folk musicians, folk singers, freak folk, nu folk, all of those terms... Anyone I ever spoke to at that time hated it all, but on the other hand what could they call themselves? There wasn't a category. That's what I loved about them, that they were outwith any normal musical category, and that's where I felt that I met them – in that they were so individual, people like Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart, and Adem, and Animal Collective, all those people I was lucky enough to work with at that time.

Oh yes, Devendra Banhart, running wild. He's just wonderful. A wonderful human beingThey were all such individuals, I think they felt a kinship with each other, but really they were very individual and that's what I loved about them. Well, that and the fact they accepted me and gave me a place. I've said it a few times but it's really worth repeating: I don't think I influenced them, I feel they gave me a place to be, and that was fantastic for me. They were the kind of age I had been when I made Diamond Day, and I felt if they had been around back then it would have been fantastic to me – but to have that chance to find kinship with other musicians, even if it was a little late, was really great for me.

I saw you play at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival that Devendra Banhart curated in 2006, that had quite a sense of an event – all these strange hairy bohemian people flocking to this very trad English holiday camp, and Devendra wandering around the chalets with a big third eye painted on.

Oh yes [laughs and laughs] he was running wild. He's just wonderful. A wonderful human being, I'm very pleased to have met him in my life. I've been very, very lucky.

Of course this generation of musicians were ones who didn't need to wait to be discovered by producers necessarily – is that part of what inspired you to take a more DiY approach?

Well Devendra recorded his first songs on an answering machine and things like that! [laughs uproariously] I loved that, I just loved that way of doing things. It's so different now. I read recently that Joe Boyd is uncomfortable that people can make music in their bedrooms with Pro Tools and what have you, so the producer is somewhat redundant. It used to be that the producer would choose who to work with and who to produce, but now people can look around and choose the producer... or not! Very different to how it was in his day, very different.

The flip side of that, of course, is that anyone can make music, everyone has access to everything, and we get glutted with culture.

It's not necessarily the best, no. But I think it's fantastic that anybody can do it. My eight-year-old grandson can do it if he wants: he can make music, he can put it together, he can understand how it works. I think that's great. Yes, it has led to an enormous amount of not great music, heh, but I don't have to listen to it. You can choose! [laughs]

How do you feel about your own music emerging into this crowded world? I guess you know what it's like to make a heartfelt statement and not all that many people paying attention...

Yes, yes [laughs]. Yes, it's great and frightening in equal measure putting your music out and awaiting a response. For Diamond Day nobody said anything about it at all, there was no feedback whatsoever. Not even my family or my friends. Nobody referred to it for years. I didn't let my children hear it. There was nothing. But now, the feedback is immediate... and for me that's been fantastically helpful. I mean, I think if it had been entirely negative feedback I'd have gone back to the hills.

But it has been the thing that's driven me on, knowing that it isn't a waste of my time, as I'd thought it was for all those 30 years I was away. I'd thought I was a failure, and there wouldn't be any point in picking up my guitar again. But once I had some kind of positive words written on a screen about Diamond Day it was such a surprise, it really was, and it made such a difference to me to have such an immediate response to what I did next. Still today it's amazing to have an immediate response.

So it sounds like there's a tension between this self-consciousness that makes you want to hide away for the creative process and the need to know what people think...

Yes, I hide away – but when I come out again, ohhhhh yes [laughs], I need... I need...

Validation?

Validation, exactly. But if I'd have had that as I went along then I mightn't have carried on. I can't decide whether it was really selfish and self-absorbed and all those things to hide away like that, or whether it was something I just had to do in order to be honest about what I was doing – I just had to have it come from me. If I'd have been writing a story I wouldn't have wanted it edited by someone else. It's kind of a self-portrait... I keep coming back to self-self-self-self – it IS a very selfish thing to do the way I've done it.

I wonder why you think that's a bad thing. Examination of the self can make for excellent art, universal stories, things that other people can relate to...

That's the hope. That is the hope [laughs]. So it works and it chimes with something in somebody, maybe who've been through the same kind of thing. Yes, that's the hope. I think.

Do you actually aim for your music to be therapeutic to other people then? I've seen it referred to as a “balm” or even “healing”...

I've had a response from people about the other albums that they've been... helpful. That they've taken them through bad times – and that Diamond Day makes babies go to sleep, things like that. I think that one of the qualities... not qualities, aspects... of what I do is that I'm comforting myself with the sounds, and I think they possibly can be calming to other people. I haven't particularly created it to be like that on purpose, but when I think back to how I was feeling when some of these songs were written, it was certainly as a way of bringing comfort to myself, and I hope that that might be good for somebody. But it's not the main reason, obviously, that I make music – but I'm hoping that it might be something good that comes from it. And really quite a few people have said that it helped. Or that it sends them to sleep [laughs heartily].

To be profoundly soothing, as opposed to just blandly so, is an underrated quality. Do you think the new album has that too?

I hope it does, I hope it does. I'm too close to it to tell.

Whose music serves that purpose for you?

I always come back to Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen's voice, always. Paul Buchanan's voice, always. They're things that I find immensely comforting. Actually though, for the past year I've scarcely listened to anything. Mandy Parnell who did the mastering on Heartleap actually said to me when we were done, “now, you go home, and don't listen to anything you've done, ever, just listen to other people and get your mind back, get your brain back.” I haven't actually managed to do that yet, because I've just been too busy, but I will take her advice at some point, and listen to the things I love.

It's interesting you mention voices as the vital thing there; is that what you listen to most, rather than, say, Leonard Cohen's poetry which is also what he's known for?

Yes, it's the voice that draws me in. Then listening. Then hearing, more, and more, and more. I like that. The things I like about other people are discovering more and more, that it's not on the surface and you have to listen to them, and find more and more. I love listening on headphones for that reason, to just get lost in a person. As far as Paul Buchanan's voice goes, it just [gasps, shudders], it just gets me where it hurts, and I could listen to it – I did listen to it in fact – and nothing else. When [The Blue Nile's 1996 album] Peace at Last came out, I didn't listen to anything else for a year, because I just kept finding more and more and more in it. [sighs very deeply] Then I just made myself stop, and I actually haven't listened to it since. I might go back to that actually.

So aside from clearing your head of the recording process what are you doing now regarding your music?

IVashti in a window'm going to do some small shows, very small shows, just with Gareth Dixon the guitarist who's been playing with me since Lookaftering came out. We've had a bit of a gap of course, but we're getting back together to see how we can treat these new songs, which have so much other decoration on them apart from the two guitars we can play live – some of them have five guitar tracks on them – that we need to work and see how the songs can speak for themselves when it's just we two playing. So smaller shows to begin with, and see how it goes. I haven't committed to anything next year, much to my agent's annoyance [mischievous chuckle], but I don't want to commit to anything until we see how these ones go.

And what I do want to do next, and what I've been promising my children that I'll do for the last 15 years, is to write the story of the earlier musical days and then into Diamond Day and the journey and all that – just to try and explain to them, rather than write an autobiography, to explain to them what it was like then. The things that are jawdropping to them now about the way we used to carry on in the sixties, I'd like to try and put some background to it, and explain why their parents were... [snorts] the way they were [laughs]. Why they would go off with a horse and wagon and no money. That's what I've promised to do, if I can do it or not I don't know, but that's what I'm going to try and do.

I'm sure publishers will be interested if it is written down – is that something you'd consider?

If I can make it not look like a lovely little dance through the tulips – which is what it's become in the telling, a lovely little romantic journey, which it very much wasn't – if I can put a bit of the grime and the mud in it, then maybe. The story has been told so many times by other people that I would really like to tell it for myself.

And are you even thinking about making music again?

Ah yes... well, no. No, I don't want to make another album. Partly because of the incredible selfish way it makes me live, but also well, I think I'm very slow. I'm incredibly slow at bringing songs up out of my head. And I think, well, if I made another song next week would I have to hide it until I've got another nine or ten songs to go along with it, which could be another god knows how many years? So if I do write anything more, I would put it out as it happens, rather than having to wait for a collection. Maybe the whole format of albums is going to change anyway, maybe there won't even be albums in another nine years. So no, I'm not thinking in terms of an album, but I'm certainly not thinking of abandoning music again like I did!

HEARTLEAP


Across The Water
Fall into sleep as the sun comes up
And wake at the back of noon
Drift through the hours as the sun gets lower
'Til the days are lit by the moon

Every day is every day
Can’t tell one from the other
Wait to fall at the end of it all
As stones skip across the water

Lived on wit, got away with it
Hummed a universal tune
Found a thread away in the head
Followed it over the moon

Every day is every day
One foot in front of the other
Learn to fall with the grace of it all
As stones skip across the water

Guitars and synth VB
Strings improvised and played by Fiona Brice and Ian Burdge, with Gillon Cameron
Kalimba Jo Mango

Holy Smoke

I sigh with every breath I’m breathing
It’s some kind of holy smoke that I believe
Will take me on my way

Some hobo – the dust on my old boots is settling
And I’m slowly growing roots I said
Would never tidy me away

Uhoh, uhoh, uhoh, uhoh

I do remember what an old friend told me
He said "don’t you go worrying about me,
I’m only sad as I want to be"

Well that’s as maybe, but do I want to be like trees
Who stand round in freezing fog just waiting
For the spring to come for me?

Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh noo

Guitars and synths VB
Guitar Gareth Dickson
Guitar Andy Cabic
Vocals Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic
Strings Fiona Brice, Ian Burdge and Gillon Cameron

Mother

My mother would dance sometimes
Believing herself alone
But through a slightly open door
I would watch her as she turned
Turned round, round,
Briefly unbound

My mother played and sang sometimes
Believing herself alone
But through a slightly open door
I could see her face upturned
Songs long learned
So long untuned

I was her only audience
She believed herself alone
My applause should have been rapturous
But I closed the door
And turned, turned away

Piano and synth VB
Strings Fiona Brice, Ian Burdge and Gillon Cameron.

Jellyfish

Last night I dreamt that I jumped in the sea
Wearing a pale blue flouncing dancing dress
I wanted you to rescue me
Desperately
Last night I dreamt that you were looking down
I twisted and twirled and held my skirt out like a girl
I could see you frown at me
Soundlessly.........

And then I saw that all that you saw
Was a Portuguese Man of War
And then I saw that all that you saw
Was a Portuguese Man of War

Last night I dreamt that I drowned in the sea
Wearing your frown and going down
and down
and down
I've come to my senses now
Hopefully
hopefully
hopefully.........

Recorder Ian Wilson
Synths VB
Guitar Gareth Dickson
Guitars VB and Andy Cabic
Strings Fiona Brice, Ian Burdge and Gillon Cameron

Shell

In the telling of your story
There is so much that’s lost
There’s an ocean in between
The seen and unseen
That’s as deep as the loss was
To you so young
I just see a shell

Can't really get the picture
I've nothing to compare
Can't say I understand
Have no hand to lend
You had more than your fair share
For one so young
But you do it all so well

I fold things just like my mother
Into two then into three
I don't know why I do
But then I think of you
And what it takes to be free
From all you've learned
But you know it all too well

In the telling of your story
You say there's so much more
Then you curl away from me
To some deeper sea
And I'm here on the foreshore
'Til your return
I just see a shell

Guitars and synths VB
Saxophone Ian Wilson

The Boy

He sat on the doorstep
With his arms around his knees
Watching the passers by
And wondering why
They don’t see what he sees

He watched from the window
With his hands over his ears
Listening to all the words
He’d ever heard
You don’t hear what he hears

He stands on your doorstep
With his life under his feet
Arms full of roses
Watchfulness
He'll be what he will be

Guitars and synths VB

Gunpowder
It seems however hard I try
The words that I let fly out of my mouth
Don’t ever say what I want them to say

It seems that I can never learn my words
Watching them turn around, burning,
Lighting the gunpowder trails that you lay

I blow my chances
And you throw the years out
With all the merry dances
You led me, you led me

I should look for a shed somewhere
Keep my words in the air, padlocked there
For ever and silently out of harm’s way

Guitars and synths VB
Cello Ian Burdge
Violins Fiona Brice and Gillon Cameron

Blue Shed

I wish I had a blue shed
With nobody in it
I wish I had a closed door
With only me behind it

Oh but all this wishing
I might be sorry
Oh it could be the end of me

I might emerge to a sunny day
With everybody gone away
Into his own blue shed
Or behind her own closed door

Guitar and synths VB

Here

I open my eyes
And you are there
With no surprise
No pain to bear
I scan the horizon
For clouds to appear
I close my eyes
And you are here

Guitar , synth and Dulcitone VB
Recorders Ian Wilson
Flute Jo Mango

Heartleap

Heart leap, headlong, heartache
Heartbreak, head down, heartfelt

Heart melt, headstrong, heart spring
Heart sing, head gone, heart leap

Heart sleep, head space, heartsease
Heart please, headache, heartsearch

Heart lurch, headfirst, heart long
Heart song, head done, heart leap

Guitar and synths VB

All tracks

Produced by Vashti Bunyan

Recorded at:
4thSt, Edinburgh
Adam Peters' studio in Topanga, California
Thom Monahan's studio in Los Angeles
J Ralph's studio in New York
Julian Simmons' Din Sound in London
Calum Scott's studio, Glasgow

Mixed by Martin Korth
Dynamically mastered by Mandy Parnell
at Black Saloon Studios, London

Arrangements by Vashti Bunyan
(except strings in 'Across the Water' - improvised by Fiona Brice and Ian Burdge)

Joe Boyd said, 'OK, I admit that it's my fault that you're called a folk singer. I am very sorry'

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