interview by Keith Wallace
Growing up in Ireland in the late '70s, the idea of taking to the road in a gypsy caravan was not so bizarre to me, thanks to the cult-kids TV show Wanderly Wagon. It was almost given that I would fall in love with the music of Vashti Bunyan.
Following her expulsion from art college in the mid-'60s, Vashti a burgeoning young songwriter hooked up with Rolling Stones svengali Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label, and was given a Jagger-Richards tune called "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind" to record. Suddenly, she found herself being marketed as "the new Marianne Faithfull" and "the female Bob Dylan." The Stones-written single disappeared without a trace, while further one-off recordings never saw the light of day, mostly thanks to major label machinations.
Recorded in 1969, Vashti's debut album Just Another Diamond Day tells the story in song of a late '60s road trip by horse-drawn wagon, from London town to the remote Scottish island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides. The album is a lost relic from the British folk revival of the late '60s/early '70s, when traditional folk was twisted into strange new forms, as if there was something eerie and exotic in the air (it's no coincidence that Joe Boyd's production company home to Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, John Martyn and Nick Drake was called Witchseason!). "I wrote and sang pop songs through the mid '60s, and only became interested in folk music for the simplicity and beauty of the tunes. I did not align myself at all with the traditional folk musicians of the time I avoided folk clubs, for instance. I have never thought of myself as a 'folksinger.' When it came to trying to explain the folk [aspects] of Diamond Day to people, I thought 'hippy-folk' described it better, or maybe pastoral...em pop?"
According to legendary producer Joe Boyd, the record is "a kind of document of a pilgrimage lasting a year and a half...Vashti's songs may seem unreal to urbanized listeners, but they should listen with open hearts and minds. I have never known anyone whose music is so completely a reflection of their life and spirit"
A haze of acoustic guitar, misty recorders, shimmering harp and strings, with Vashti's strikingly pure ethereal tones floating over it all, the music of Just Another Diamond Day reflects the mysticism of the age. Featuring escapist yes, pastoral and occasionally eerie lullabies, these dreamy tunes from the princess of the highway were born of an embrace of life on the open road, in search of a rural idyll, away from the hustle and electricity of the city. You can smell the smoke, and feel the heat from the blazing fire.
"I have thought of the album as a bit of a document of sixties idealism, though at the time I had no self-consciousness as to what kind of songs I was writing. I had no plan to record them, and sometimes still I can't believe I ever let them see the light of day. They were very personal a way of seeing the world, a childlike way, a way of coping with the relative hardships of the journey. The journey was maybe influenced a little by Kerouac as most similar journeys undertaken out of choice would have been at the time but we were living in a house on wheels out of necessity and homelessness. The journey came out of that."
I asked Vashti if this flight from city sickness was literally the trip chronicled on the album.
"I was a fairly solitary person, and knew very few other musicians. The movement out to the country was not just confined to musicians of the time, but I guess they were the visible ones. Part of the attraction for me was maybe that city living was getting harder to make work if you didn't have a job, while there were wonderful, empty, big houses out in the country that could be rented or even bought cheaply, and my dream of self-sufficiency could be carried out in them.
"Successful musicians could buy these places outright, but the not-so-successful ones had to go further a-field to look for a place to be, like the Outer Hebrides, Wales or deepest Cornwall, or indeed the west coast of Ireland."
As Vashti had appeared in the "Swinging Sixties" documentary Tonite Let's All Make Love in London alongside Pink Floyd (whose Syd Barrett became the most obvious casualty of excessive psychedelics usage), I wondered if the move to Scotland wasn't a reaction to the more druggy side of the late '60s scene.
"I haven't thought of it like that before...but you may be right. My brushes with drugs were not happy ones, so that isolated me from my contemporaries and added to my difficulties in making myself heard. Certainly, it must have contributed to my feelings of having failed at music, which was really what made me run away from London. It could have been to anywhere, but because of meeting Donovan, who had dreams of starting a community of like-minded people on the islands he'd bought off the coast of Skye, it was Scotland. It took us my partner Robert and I two summers to get there by horse and cart, by which time the pastoral dream had come and gone."
Produced by smoke-folk guru Joe Boyd, with string and recorder arrangements by Robert Kirby (mandolin, fiddle, banjo and harp were added by moonlighting members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band), Just Another Diamond Day defines the pastoral dream, and endures as a psych-folk masterpiece.
"When it came to recording Diamond Day, Joe Boyd invited Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), and Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol (Fairport Convention) to accompany me on some of the tracks. I was so far removed from anything to do with music in 1968 and 69 going from having been almost obsessively interested in it before, to being cut off without radio or TV or music papers (no electricity little money) that I didn't even know who they were! I rehearsed three songs with Robin Williamson one evening (it was only the second time I'd met him), and the next day we recorded the songs in very few takes.
"I came to know Robin better later, but we didn't play any more music together. Dave and Simon came in to the studio one day I hadn't a clue who they were and we then set about recording three songs, which were all done in one or at most two takes. I was so unused to playing with anyone else that it was a fantastic experience for me, but I never saw them again. I've always thought that it was their presence on the album that led to it being classified as 'folk' and also led to it being sought after by collectors. It never occurred to me that it would ever be listened to for its own sake."
Fresh from scoring Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, the string and wind arrangements by Robert Kirby lend Diamond Day its spooky atmospherics.
"Again, I didn't know who Nick Drake or Robert Kirby were, since I'd come straight down from the Outer Hebrides at Joe Boyd's invitation having been out of circulation for about two years in one way or another. I met Nick Drake a few times through Joe; we kind of eyed each other with some apprehension and competitiveness like siblings in Joe's family. Joe wanted us to write something together, but I had a young baby by then who cried whenever I picked up my guitar. Nick seemed not too taken with the idea anyway, so we gave up very quickly.
"He was always very quiet, but the last time I saw [Nick] was in the Witchseason office, when we were both waiting to see Joe. Nick stood facing the wall, and we exchanged not a word."
Following sessions for Just Another Diamond Day, it was back to life in the harsh Outer Hebridean winter, where the idyllic dreams unraveled amid a crumbling cottage, unfriendly locals, and Vashti's discovery that she was pregnant. Returning to London with Robert for birth of their son Leif, and finding themselves homeless, they had a choice: stay in city with the child to promote Just Another Diamond Day, or move to a row of houses in the Scottish Borders with the Incredible String Band.
Once again they left the city and music. Before the winter fire, there was more dreaming, eventually culminating in their abandoning the UK in favor of Kinvara, on Ireland's west coast, in the summer of 1971.
"Nobody seemed to give Diamond Day a second thought when it was released in 1970. In fact, it was not really released it just edged its way out, blushed and shuffled off into oblivion."
Just as Vashti did along with fellow free-spirited folkie Anne Briggs the album disappeared from view.
"Not ever, never ever in the [intervening] years did I think of returning to music. I didn't give the album a second thought didn't have a copy, I gave them all away years before. It has been a shock to find that the album was known about and not as long forgotten as I had thought."
Having sat undisturbed for thirty years in a London warehouse, the master tapes for Just Another Diamond Day were recovered and reissued along with four extra tracks from well-worn vinyl, an acetate, and a home-recorded tape.
Having previously re-released the seminal soundtrack to The Wicker Man via Trunk records, Paul Lambden was responsible for unearthing Vashti's album and re-introducing it via his Spinney label.
"I was working for her publishers Warlock Music when she rang to see if there was anything we could do about a pirate CD of Just Another Diamond Day that was out there. I told her the best way to stop it was to get the album officially released, but as there was no copy of the album in our archive, I asked her to send me a tape.
"Once I heard it I knew it just had to be reissued. It wasn't so difficult to find the master tapes they were in the Phillips/Universal archive but it was very difficult getting permission to use them. After a year or more and with Joe Boyd's help I managed to get the rights back for Vashti, who now has the tapes safely under lock & key."
I asked what it was about the album that led to Lambden's work as a musical archaeologist.
"I'm always searching for music that is a little different, and the combination of Vashti's gentle-yet-earthy voice with the neo-folk arrangements immediately made an impression on me. That and the fact that the album was the sole production from Joe Boyd's Witchseason that had yet to be reissued."
Via the Spinney imprint, other artifacts are seeing the light of day.
"The Barry Dransfield album was another lost UK folk classic which had sunk without trace upon release and seemed like a suitable partner for Just Another Diamond Day in some ways, as both albums were originally released at an inopportune time. The master tapes were well and truly lost and I had to spend over £400 buying a mint vinyl copy from which to master.
"The record covers a wide range of songs from traditional to music hall to contemporary but in the process makes them all seem like obvious bedfellows that were relevant to the time and, I would argue, today. That's what I find interesting. The label was set up specifically for Vashti. With the second, Wil Malone's Death Line soundtrack from 1972 and third Barry Dransfield releases, it began to seem like Spinney would become a label for the release of old recordings from the late '60s/early '70s but that is not the case, Spinney is there to release music which is distinctive, no matter when it was recorded."
Vashti has pulled off a Lazarian return from obscurity to work with some of the leading musical lights of this new century.
"I am finding, in general, that the people I have met through coming back to music are brilliant, thoughtful, hugely knowledgeable and interested. I am loving it. I have found that there is a huge and thriving community of wonderful musicians who play on eachothers' albums now, certainly the people I have met since Diamond Day was reissued. Piano Magic for instance I had a great day recording in London with Glen Johnson. It was the first time I had been inside a studio since Just Another Diamond Daywas made, and I was over the moon. I left the studio and walked back across Hyde Park near to where I had grown up feeling like a different life had begun."
Inveterate collaborators Piano Magic coaxed Vashti into singing on "Crown of the Lost," the standout track of their 2002 4AD release Writers Without Homes, introducing Vashti to a new generation of hungry ears.
"Initially we were connected because Piano Magic's publisher Paul Lambden from Rykomusic reissued Just Another Diamond Day on his Spinney label," says chief Piano Magician, Glen Johnson. "Through him we approached Vashti to collaborate on a track for our last album, Writers Without Homes. I wrote 'Crown of the Lost' in an hour, drunk on wine, and posted it to her that night so that I couldn't retract it in the cold light of day. She called me two days later to say it was beautiful, and could she sing it?
"She's a dream to work with. Very unassuming, gentle, smiling and her voice hasn't changed a drop, it really attracts me. It's fragile, honest, na ve, though world-weary. Just Another Diamond Day is a long-lost, quintessentially English folk classic it has a magical quality about it".
I asked Vashti if she feels her music has been an influence on a new generation of musicians, like James Yorkston.
"If it has been, then I am very happy. James I met recently and I think he is wonderful he did know the album. Apparently he was working in a bookstore in Edinburgh a few years ago, and I bought something from him and he knew who I was from the name on my card. He said nothing to me at the time, but he says he very excitedly told a friend about it who said 'Who?'".
"I first heard Vashti on Late Junction on BBC Radio 3", says Yorkston. "I was amazed how pure and unpretentious the music was, compared to the chunky swill that one normally hears on the radio. I bought the CD at the first available opportunity, spent two weeks listening and living with it, and bought half a dozen copies for friends' Christmas presents.
"I just feel her music was made for the music's sake rather than the music business' sake. Our music is similar in that I think we're both fairly uncommercial but unconcerned." Would Yorkston place himself along a songline that stretches from Vashti's era to the music he makes today? "Not really, but I don't think Vashti really considers herself a folk musician and neither do I, not in the traditional sense anyhow. Although I do a few trad tunes, I'm not sure she does.
"I guess maybe Vashti and myself are connected vaguely as we're kind of outside the traditional folk thing, but are also associated with it due to circumstance and sound. Oh, and we both live in Edinburgh!"
Vashti talked about her current situation, and the reality of re-launching a music career later in life. "Following Just Another Diamond Day will be a problem impossible even and I am thinking more that I am going back to where I set off on the Diamond Day path, and picking up the love songs where I left them, to start writing picture songs.
"It is a kind of prequel to Diamond Day, really. I am negotiating with a label who would like to help me make a new album. My only problem is the time I would have to sign myself up for. Twenty years, they want, and I am loathe to say, 'Erm, but wait a little minute here I will be nearly eighty.'
"I may just do it myself on a smaller scale I haven't made up my mind yet which way to go but I have met many different people with many different ideas, and I am just putting it all together and trying to figure out which would be the best path. I'm finding that writing songs comes easier now than it has since before Diamond Day was recorded, [which] has encouraged me."
The fascinating cast of musicians and producers gathering to work with Vashti include former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, Kieran Hebden of Fridge and Four Tet, Max Richter, Mum/Bjφrk producer-programmer Valgeir Sigurdsson, James Yorkston, and Piano Magic.
Perhaps Vashti's most ardent and influential acolyte has been "freak folk" troubadour Devendra Banhart. Having adopted Vashti as his mentor, he secured the release of Just Another Diamond Day on the DiChristina label in America, as well as inviting her to sing on the title track from his album Rejoicing in the Hands, a transatlantic duet with Vashti recording her vocals in Edinburgh to the accompaniment of a creaking floorboard!
Spinney are set to release an album of rare recordings which predate Just Another Diamond Day, including Vashti's two singles from the '60s; the release will feature artwork designed by Vashti herself, and a collaboration with rustic experimentalists Animal Collective "they had me singing like I didn't know I could!", according to Vashti is due to surface on Fat Cat later this year.
Having not entered a recording studio in over thirty years, I asked if the brave new world of electronics and recording technology has proven bewildering or liberating for Vashti.
"Recording is different. I'm not stuck in a glass box, unable to make any contribution to the way things sound, for a start. Recording was the thing I always loved best, and so to be back in a studio again is so very good. Better though is my computer, and music programs, which mean I can lock myself away and play with the all the technology that fascinated me but was denied me back then because I was a shy girl or because singers had no say in production or whatever. I like being able now to get my hands on the faders!"
So what are Vashti Bunyan's hopes for the future? "For my children, that they will find out that they are alright in the world a whole lot sooner than I did, and for me that I can write and record the kind of songs I always wanted to and that they not disappear for thirty years.
"I'd like to have something to leave for my children, even if it is just songs. Sounds a bit daft, I guess, but I hid my musical story from them for so long, and now I'd like them to know it and know that it isn't ever too late to have big dreams."
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