VASHTI BUNYAN: A DIFFERENT KIND OF LIFE
Not many musicians have been the subject of anthropological research papers… But then again not many folks abandon civilization to live on a horse and buggy along the outer limits of the English countryside (see “The Counterurbanisation of Vashti Bunyan”). In 1970, Vashti Bunyan recorded Just Another Diamond Day, which chronicles her search for pastoral life beyond the cities, traffic, and the material world. Bunyan didn’t just write about being connected to nature—she threw away her shoes and lived the dream. As it goes with some of our most beloved music heroes, more than thirty years passed before her songs were unearthed and appreciated, prompting Bunyan to write her second album, Lookaftering, which was translated into lush, beautiful, orchestral music. It was a great triumph but, even so, Bunyan did not have full creative control. She was left with the wish to create a record herself from bottom to top. For the next seven years, Bunyan immersed herself in learning to make music on computer, which truly gave her freedom of expression—something we often take for granted. This has culminated in her new album, Heartleap, a serene collection of tunes that instantly transports the listener to the most tranquil part of their imagination. We took this opportunity to ask her for job advice. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Did you play all the instruments on Heartleap?
Not all of it but I did play most of it. I arranged the string parts on a keyboard and then it was transcribed for real strings.
Since you don’t write music, how did you compose it?
[whispers] The computer did it. It was fantastic. I can’t actually play the piano either but I can play notes on a keyboard which then I can then change into violins, flutes, oboes, whatever I want—on the computer—and it will write the score for me. And I can then hand that score to a real flute player, they can record it and then I can edit it all together. Some of the time, although I had the real strings playing, what I had made on my computer didn’t sound quite the same, so I mixed the two together. Some of the strings are me faking it and some of the strings are real. I did most of the guitar parts myself and a lot of the synthesized sounds, which I did on the keyboard and made them into the sounds I wanted that no human could probably replicate. The sounds that all sort of slide into one another. I had a good time experimenting—a good, long time.
Were you much of a computer person?
I was. When Diamond Day came out, I got royalties for the first time ever, after thirty years or whatever, and I got a Mac and a MIDI keyboard. I first started with a program called Cubase. There was a course at the local college in music technology and I tried to enroll in it and they said I could not—I was too old.
That’s not cool.
I know. I was completely devastated and so angry and determined that it was probably quite a good thing. It made me go into it myself and learn for myself and I got very interested in what the possibilities were. Obviously even now after ten years or so I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with music technology. But I’ve always found it fascinating and being refused access really repelled me.
In the 1960s, what were your frustrations with regard to being allowed to give input on what was done with your songs?
When I was making my first recordings back in the mid-1960s—the singles, five years before I recorded a full album—I was just supposed to turn up, sing, and go away, and I had no input. I didn’t like that at all. I really wanted to have access to the equipment. It all looked so romantic to me. But no, that was the producer and the engineer’s job. And it was pretty much the same when I went to do Just Another Diamond Day. I had already turned my back on music because I found it so frustrating and difficult. Then the opportunity came to record the songs on Diamond Day. The same thing happened. I thought it would all be very different but Joe Boyd, the producer, took all the tapes away to America, mixed it and mastered it, and sent me what he’d done. And that was it. I didn’t have any way of saying can, you know, ‘Can you take that violin out?’
He wouldn’t listen or you were too shy?
A bit of both. It was a year from when we recorded to when I heard it again, and … well, I had a baby in between and that sort of changed my vision of the world. I probably didn’t think I had any way of changing it. He sent me the mastered version. He wasn’t sending it to me to say, ‘Is this OK?’ So thirty years later it was re-issued. In those thirty years I didn’t have anything to do with music at all. I was so … I don’t know about discouraged, but fed up that I couldn’t make myself heard. A lot of it was my fault. I didn’t push for what I wanted in the studio. But I didn’t know what he was going to make of it. The songs on Diamond Day that were arranged by Robert Kirby, who was Nick Drake’s arranger … I think, and thought at the time, that they were exactly what I wanted—almost orchestral chamber music. Then Joe brought in other musicians who were folk musicians. I had been on the road for two years. I didn’t know who they were.
A lot happened in those two years of music.
Exactly! I was completely clueless. I didn’t know who Nick Drake was. To me he was just a beautiful boy in black in the room. If I had been more aware, I would have done things very differently.
But if you had been more aware then you wouldn’t have ended up on the adventure you took instead.
Exactly. Thank you. Yes.
Most people are too afraid to get lost or forgotten if they go off and do something like what you did.
Go off on a horse and buggy to the outer edges of Britain?
Yes, definitely. What people will say or what their family will think…
Well, it was a complete abandoning of everything familiar and comfortable and into the unknown. Maybe my courage at that time was all about that and not really about challenging a music producer. Now looking back, I see the album was very much of its time. And it was meant to be a document of that time and the things people were able to do at that time, like take off and walk a horse down the roads of London. It wasn’t that peculiar. It was somewhat peculiar but it was possible to do. Nobody would say, ‘Hey, it’s not safe to walk a horse through London traffic.’ We were all much freer to carry out our ideas whether they were crazy or not.
You literally were driving a horse and buggy down the streets of London.
Yes, we were! But now there are a lot more rules. It wouldn’t be possible to do what we did then. I remember the horse lost a shoe. And we didn’t know that much about horses at all. We had to look for a blacksmith. We were in the middle of London. The Whitbread Brewery still had these huge shire horses that were pulling their barrels from one place to another and the at the place where they kept the horses they had a blacksmith. I had no shoes on. I was wearing my grandmothers pink crepe nightie and pretty much not much else. It was in the summer and I was walking down Kensington High Street in my nightie—well, it wasn’t my nightie, it was my dress. To my grandmother it was a nightie!—taking a black horse to Whitbread Brewery and not thinking anything of it. I was just so completely in the moment. It never occurred to me that I was making a spectacle. It was like that the whole journey. We were making pictures like that and were very unaware of what we looked like or how we were to other people. We were very much in our own vision, which is what the Diamond Day songs really are. They were a vision that we were going towards. Not the reality, which was trucks going by.
You had to keep the whimsy in the music to keep the vision or the purpose alive.
That’s exactly what the songs were for, to keep us going. I wasn’t ever thinking of recording them. I hadn’t met Joe yet. The songs were for us.
And then someone was like, ‘Hey, let’s get that wagon lady to record some music!’
Yeah! I don’t know what they thought really. I think Joe was completely bemused by what we were doing. He was a Harvard boy. He thought it was all romantic. And it was romantic. The muddy days. The endless rain.
It’s amazing. To go on a journey where you have to struggle to survive. To willingly really commit to that. What does it mean?
What is the driver? The solitude, half-starving, the elements … and it isolates you from the rest of society pretty much. I remember going by rows of houses and looking in windows and seeing people in their warm, dry, safe homes. I would think, ‘What am I doing?’ But I was so completely into what I was doing that I actually didn’t want what they had. I was quite happy to live wild. And when it came to actually settling down and having kids, it took a long time to reintegrate with normal life, or conventional life. I think that was quite hard on my children. They were different to everybody.
Were you trying to raise them with certain principles?
I was and it was very difficult. I don’t think it was right, particularly. I didn’t want to isolate them. I was hoping to give them a better idea of real life than I had grown up with myself. I wasn’t trying to protect them from awful things. I grew up in London. It was post-war. My parents were very protective. A lot of my breaking out was to try to find out what was really happening from the ground upwards. I wanted to give that to my kids. A sense that it’s not terrifying to have nothing. It’s not terrifying to be out in the wild and not have very much. But then as they got older and I evolved, we got much more integrated, especially when they had to go to school.
How were you offering a different experience?
I let them run. Especially my oldest son. I was very unrestrictive. I trusted him to know what was safe and what was unsafe. And he was brilliant at that, not getting himself into trouble. He learned about the physical world. At three years old he was walking around Ireland with a very big horse to take it grazing. I didn’t think anything of it. This little person with this great big horse.
So the kids lived on the wagon?
The kids were on the wagon. It was a new wagon we got in Ireland. It was bigger and it had a stove in it. The original one was six foot by three foot. The Irish wagon was great. And Lief traveled in that as a little boy. Then my daughter only did a bit of travelling in the wagon. But the wagon was always in our life. It was always with us wherever we went. And the horses as well. So they had a lot of education in looking after things. More responsibility. They had to grow up very quickly. My third child was born after all of that, when we were much more conventional. Lief was fifteen. My daughter was thirteen when Ben was born. I moved to the city when Ben was five so he was a completely different person. I love to see the differences in them, but they have all grown into wonderful people, all very different.
Should I be worrying about my retirement right now? Should I just take an office job?
No. I couldn’t. And that’s what my kids tell me. ‘You’ve made it so that we can’t do that. Because we didn’t see you do it. So how are we going to take a normal job?’ I guess we have to have a framework to work against. My youngest son has been asking me, ‘Why do we have to be unique? Why does being in our family make me feel like I have to be different? Why can’t I be ordinary? Why can’t I be normal?’
Life is probably easier if you aspire to be ordinary. I find it hard to be guided by ‘Is what I am doing making me money?’
It is a worry and that’s why people take a job for a salary. I think that’s what human beings do. They go out to see what other human beings are doing and gather an overall picture and then choose what they want to do. But you are given a very limited canvas as you’re growing up. There were schools I could have sent my kids where they were allowed to run free but I didn’t think that was fair either. I didn’t want to limit their experience.
Did you have to give up a part of yourself and your ideals to accept not living in a wagon anymore?
Yes, I did. But if I hadn’t had the children I think I would have carried on that kind of life much longer. Seeing how difficult it was for them to integrate with other kids, socialize with other kids, be around the world as it is. I felt that I couldn’t do that to them. A lot of my friends moved to communities where there was no outside influence at all, growing up without TV and all that. I wanted them to have a straightforward life after we got out of the wagon days. They went to school. School did it. I could have homeschooled them if I had wanted to carry on the ideals that I had collected along the way but I didn’t think it was fair to them. At some point they would have to come into the wider world and it would be such a shock. I witnessed friends of mine doing that and it was terribly hard for the children to grow up into integrated, socialized, happy people.
Isn’t it weird what that says about the world we live in?
Yes. That it gets you in the end!
That’s kind of depressing.
It kind of was at the time but I also thought this next generation, if they could see from another direction … like my kids growing up in a completely different way, if they could see it then maybe they could be part of the change in the evolution of people. And they are very … well, thoughtful people, and that’s what I wanted really. To try and have kids who would then go on to have kids and make it better.
Like furthering a ripple.
Exactly! That’s very good.
I think there’s a parallel between the return-to-nature generation that you were part of and people now trying to live within the system yet just outside of it. Buying a camper and moving to the woods.
It’s really hard to know what to do. My oldest son—he grew up in the wilds, in the hills. He still longs for that wilderness. He often thinks he should sell everything and run to the hills and live free like I did. But he can’t do it.
Because he lives here with his wife and they have a home. They have ties to the world, their child has school, he has his workshop with his motorcycles—once you’re established, it’s really hard to get in a camper and move to Oregon or go live in Topanga. Especially when there’s a child who is settled in the world. People do it. And I have a fantastic respect for those who pick up and say ‘I want something else’ and leave it all behind. Like I did. And just go. But it can have quite an effect on children. It’s hard to know what to choose to do to make it better, or to remove yourself from what you think is a toxic environment. Do you choose your health or do you choose your welfare? I live in the middle of a city now, in Edinburgh and I often think that I’d like to go live in the wilds again.
At the time you were living wild, so to speak, did you ever think you would return to civilization?
Never thought I would. It was a gradual progress. With the children going to school, that made me have to get to grips with what I would have called the real world. Lief was nineteen and had already come to California when I moved back to the city. It wasn’t because I planned ever to go back to the city. But I fell in love with my lawyer. He was my lawyer, now he is my husband.
When did your relationship with [adventure partner and lover] Robert Lewis end?
After twenty-two years. We stayed together more or less through a tumultuous relationship. After fifteen years we found the place of our dreams and settled down. We found this beautiful place in the hills of Scotland and spent ten years restoring it and loving it and lots of people coming to live there and work with us. Then Robert left because he fell in love with a TV actress and went with her to live in London. I stayed at the farm with my littlest child, who was four. Then, two years later I fell in love with my lawyer who I had known for years and years. We stitched our families together and moved to Edinburgh to a completely totally different life. But what it led me to was … COMPUTER. The rest of my life opened up. I found out that Diamond Day wasn’t lost. That people were talking about it. There was a bootleg of it. It took me another three years to get it reissued on CD.
Were you reluctant to open up that part of you, after so many years away from music?
I was terrified. But what did it, which was another difference between the old time and the new time, was the person in the publishing company who had the publishing for Diamond Day. He said he found all these old contracts and what was it about and could I send him the album to hear? And I said, ‘No, I don’t even have a copy.’ But I found someone who did have a copy and made a tape and sent it to him. He called me and said he liked it. That’s the first time anyone had said that they liked it. Family, friends, nobody had said they didn’t like it. But nobody said they did. This was 1997. Then it took us ages to track down the rights and who the recording belonged to. And Paul, the man who liked it, formed this little record label and put it out on a CD. Neither of us expected anything to happen. And it suddenly took off. What you were saying earlier about a different generation that wants to go back to nature or who actually have a different look at life … that is very similar to that look that my generation had in the late 1960s. Devendra Banhart amongst them—there were those who could hear something in those songs that resonated with that desire to get free of it all. They understood it. This generation understood what I was doing way more than when it originally came out. It was dismissed in its day as messing around for kids. It wasn’t. It was a document of a time and a journey and a desire for a different kind of life. As I realized slowly that people were actually understanding it, it was amazing. That is what made me pick up the guitar again. It was that feedback that I never had. I just assumed that it was rubbish. So I couldn’t play the guitar anymore. I thought I was a failure.
It’s sad because playing music is personal—it should be for the person playing it. And that was taken away from you.
I felt bad about it. What kind of a person am I that it takes other people saying that it’s alright before I can carry on with it? Why is that important? A committed artist should carry on no matter what anyone else is saying. I was just too affected by the silence. All I could gather from that is that it wasn’t any good and I wasn’t any good. So when the door opened, it was extraordinary. It led me to writing songs for a second album thirty-five years later.
Did it come quick or did it take time to get back in tune with your creative self?
It took time. When my last child left home, I had all this time and a big space that was empty. Empty nest syndrome is a real thing. It’s a real grief. I filled that space with music. One of the first songs I wrote is probably one of my favorites. It’s called ‘If I Were.’ I really enjoyed putting that together. I made all these demos and didn’t know what to do with them. Until I met, through Animal Collective, the Fat Cat label. In the meantime it was Devendra that got his friend Gary Held to put it out in America. And it was Fat Cat who introduced me to Max Richter, who lived in Edinburgh.
So how did you feel about the album you made with Max Richter, Lookaftering?
I would never have made Lookaftering without Max. We co-arranged it and we worked very hard together. This was a huge step for me. To be working with a producer who listened to me and was incredibly patient and put in beautiful parts. We were going to co-produce it but in the end it was pretty clear that he was the producer. His ideas and his luminous feel for the music made it what it was. I love what we did together and also the other musicians who were on the album. They were all special in their own way. And getting back with Robert Kirby—he came through and played. It was brilliant. I think Max said afterwards, ‘We should make a new one soon.’ But I didn’t have any new songs. It took me seven years. I started writing two years after Lookaftering and it’s taken me all this time. During that time I was looking for someone to produce the next one and learning more and more myself about recording music. It occurred to me gradually that this was something I needed to do for myself and come out of the shelter of other people and try to stand on my own feet. That’s how it started in 1963—just writing songs with a guitar and trying to make them my own, and they would get taken to different kinds of areas of music that I possibly didn’t want to go into. But I did, because it was romantic with the Stones producer—it was fabulous with Joe because he seemed to understand what I needed to do. And then with Max, to have his musical brain. Me, I can’t read or write music but he has since the age of four. But I wanted to see what I could do for myself and to try and get the orchestras that are in my head out there and to have the time to do it. If you go into a studio there’s such a time limit. You’ve got to get it done. And then you can fool around with afterwards, but I wanted to do the editing as I went, and put layers and layers down. It took me so much time, and all the time learning, but I really enjoyed it! It was frightening because I didn’t know if what I was doing was good or not. I didn’t have a person to feed it through. It was in the last year that I worked full time on it. I did a tribute to Nick Drake that Joe Boyd had arranged, and I saw Robert Kirby again and he did a beautiful arrangement of the song ‘Which Will’ with just strings and I sang it. Then we were talking and I mentioned I had all these songs. I went to London and gave him the recordings I made. And he was so excited. He wanted to bring in all these live instruments and I just knew that it was going to be wonderful. I was eager to work with him again and do what I really wanted to do. And two weeks later he died. It was completely devastating. I knew where things were going and then suddenly he wasn’t there anymore. And he was such a lovely guy. It was a real grief. I didn’t do anything with the songs for two years. I could hardly look at them. Then I realized what if I thought about it like, ‘What would Robert have done with the strings?’ and try to find it for myself. Then I did the arranging for all the songs. Except for ‘Across The Water,’ which was improvised at a rehearsal. I had a fantastic time realizing that I could get those orchestras out of my head—well, the string sections anyway—and do it myself.
Did the computer enable you to make the album your way?
It allowed me to free myself. I was very aware when making the record with Max that he didn’t want me to use any electronic songs. He wanted all of it on real instruments. I had many people saying I couldn’t use those sounds—‘You have to use musicians.’ But why? It was still me playing it? And if I manipulate the sounds, it is still me doing it. It is not the computer. I love that there are sounds that cannot be replicated by a real human being. I like mixing them together and making something that could only be made that way. When I go to play live it will be very different! But this is a recording. It is not a recording of a live performance. It is a recording of a lot of different layers all put together. The person who did the final mixing said it was like painting. That I had done a bit here and there and then put the final bits on top. It’s a huge freedom to work with a computer and to manipulate and to be able to go back and change things. I spent hours doing it. With headphones, of course, so no one could hear the messes I was making. It felt like a huge freedom to me to be able to work that way rather than have to go do it in a studio in a short amount of time.
Do you think it will be your last album?
When I finished it and Fat Cat had the final version at last … they gave me a deadline in 2008 and then in 2010 and then I came in in 2014. Then they started talking about the next album and I was like, ‘I am not doing this again! It’s taken me seven years of my life!’ But I don’t know. It may be the only album that I make like this. I will continue making music but the album format is quite a tyrant. You have to have a certain amount of songs that are a cohesive collection. I would like to write music just for the sake of it.
And you can!
Right—now I can.