Mythic folkie speaks to ClashMusic

Recorded in just three days, Vashti Bunyan's debut album 'Just Another Diamond Day' has become surrounded in myth.

Written in the horse and cart while Vashti Bunyan travelled the length of Britain, it sold poorly when released in 1970. Part of Joe Boyd's Witchseason enterprise, the entire project has recently been re-evaluated.

Now acclaimed as an outright classic, Vashti Bunyan emerged from the shadow of her debut album as a performer of rare grace and fragility. Set to appear in Glasgow's Celtic Connections, the singer has agreed to perform as part of a tribute to fellow Witchseason alum Nick Drake.

ClashMusic sat down with the legendary singer to talk about her career, and found a performer whose energy, humanity and enthusiasm burned as brightly as ever.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

How did you become involved in the ‘Way To Blue’ concert?
I think that it’s really because Joe Boyd is curating it. He did first organised the concert for May last year. The first concert which we did was commissioned by Birmingham Town Hall. I’ve been involved in a few things which Joe has done – he did a tribute to Syd Barrett just after he died. I was involved in that one and really loved doing it, so when he came up with this idea of doing a Nick Drake tribute he asked me if I was interested and of course I was.

How aware of Nick Drake’s work were you at the time?
I was aware of him, and I had some of his music but when I was first recording with Joe Boyd I didn’t really know who Nick Drake was, I didn’t know who Fairport Convention were, I didn’t know who The Incredible String Band were because I’d been on the road for such a while that I knew nothing about anything that was going on! So when I first came across Nick I knew him more as a shadowy figure in Joe’s office, it was only later that I came to know his music.

How did you go about choosing which songs to perform?
It was Joe, really. Joe Boyd asked me to do this song, and Robert Kirby – who did all Nick’s arranging – he was doing arrangements for strings on this show, he thought it would be a great idea to put ‘Which Will’ to strings rather than guitar. So strings will be accompanying me on ‘Which Will’. The other song I’m doing is one written by Nick Drake’s mother – Molly Drake. I had to get permission from Nick Drake’s sister, Grabrielle, to sing this song as it hasn’t been released before and nobody else has sung it. She very kindly gave me permission, and I think it’s a wonderful song written by somebody who had absolutely no idea that anybody would ever hear them. Again it was arranged by Robert Kirby for strings, although Molly Drake played it on piano. Robert Kirby died recently, so I’m not quite sure how we’re going to do it on the night. I hope we’ll be able to do it as Robert had arranged it, as I really loved singing those songs in that way.

The influence of Molly Drake on her son is huge.
Yes! Such a voice she had, really emotional. I have an unreleased recording, from a reel to reel which sat in their sitting room apparently. There are some wonderful songs on the tape, but I chose this one. I don’t know, maybe it reminded me of my own mother and the life that women had at that time. I think it rang some bells for me.

Does the second life of Witchseason surprise you?
Well for me it was a surprise! I wasn’t surprised that Nick’s work found its audience. It was absolutely inevitable that awareness of him would grow over the years. Something that good could not just disappear. Joe’s idea, his vision when he first came over from American in the mid 60s – he saw something in English traditional music and the way that young people were dealing with it, the way that we maybe did, is something that has been re-assessed over the past ten years.

It’s fascinating that it takes an American to point out something that British artists are good at.
I know! Then of course British people didn’t really listen.. well I suppose they did! Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band were very successful in those days, they really were. I guess John and Beverly Martyn had quite a following. While some of the smaller people on the label – like me – didn’t!

Vashti Bunyan - Just Another Diamond Day

To talk about your own career, what led to you leaving Andrew Loog Oldham’s management?
Well I didn’t exactly rebel against it, it just didn’t accept me. I wanted to be a pop singer, I wanted to be a commercial singer, I wanted my songs to be heard – I didn’t want to be a little disappearing person! Which is what I became, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do – I wanted to be a pop singer. That’s why I went along with Andrew Oldham and his idea of recording a Stones song. Although I wanted to do my own songs, as I was writing before I was singing. When it didn’t work with Andrew Oldham I felt that perhaps I had gone down the wrong path, it wasn’t that a svengali had found a little folk singer and tried to turn her into a pop star – that was not what happened. But I just decided that I was more interested in acoustic music than I was in the big orchestral arrangements that Andrew was doing. Although I like those as well, I wanted to merge the two so that’ what I set out to do, although I didn’t manage it. Some people did, I just didn’t. I wanted my songs to be heard, so after I made the ‘Diamond Day’ record with Joe Boyd and it wasn’t heard I thought ‘oh well I’m no good at this’ and didn’t do it anymore.

You leave the music industry, but did you continue to play music for you own enjoyment?
No. I was so, I don’t know, disappointed. I was very young when I began doing this and I began to find it all.. I found the rejection just terribly difficult. Although I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words then. So what I did was give up on music altogether, and concentrate on other things in life. Like bringing up my children.

There is the famous story of your album being composed on the road, what was this like?
Well it was a journey from South London up to the Hebrides. Initially to Skye but we carried on to the Outer Hebrides. It was an education, the best education I could possibly have had, in that it was a time when things were changing so much and to be travelling with a horse and cart was fairly ridiculous! But we learned a lot about history, I suppose, and we met so many interesting people that we would never have met any other way. We lived on virtually nothing, it got a bit hairy and dangerous at times but it was a wonderful way to learn about life as I had a fairly sheltered upbringing. When my mother died, and my father was very disapproving of my hippy ways, it seemed to be the only thing to do. Just disappear out of conventional life. So that’s what I did. Walking the length of the UK it took a year and a half. I wouldn’t do it now but I’m certainly very glad I did it then.

It must have been a spectacular journey.
Yes! We went through some different places and it really taught me how amazingly diverse the people of the UK were. Moving from industrial to more land, the contrasts were extraordinary. Travelling so slowly the contrasts happened very slowly, and being out in the weather you don’t realise you are getting cold – it happens so slowly that you adjust. I remember many wonderful things about that time, which I am very grateful to have.

Did you travel alone, or did the travelling community assist you?
The members of the travelling community got to know about us very quickly as their communication system was more effective than even the police had! Everywhere we went they would know who were are and what we were doing, and they would try and persuade us into a better horse or wagon. Or ask us why we don’t just give up that silly horse stuff! They were fantastically helpful and welcoming. I got to know an awful lot more about what it is to be somebody outside of society, how you get treated in lots of ways. The way that travellers got treated back then, and I’m sure an awful lot of them still, was a different kind of education and one that I’m glad I received when I was so young.

The way the travelling community is often treated can be very cruel.
Yes. I couldn’t believe that the stories persist about the stealing of children and chickens! But they did, and we were moved on. People would see we were coming and then phone the police saying ‘don’t let them stop in our village’. Then there would be other people who would be so generous and understanding and interested. So yes it really did divide people into the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – it was quite extraordinary.

After this you go back to the studio – were the songs complete at this stage?
No they were complete. Robert of course did the arranging – I’m not sure how he did this, I presume that I gave him a recording of some kind. I don’t know how I gave them the songs, I may have just gone and sang them to him. For me it was quite weird to be singing with other people playing with me. The sessions were done in three evenings. It was a blur, and I think Joe doesn’t remember it terribly clearly either! It was extraordinary to have other people like Dave Swarbick, Robin Williamson, Simon Nichol playing with me - also friends of mine such as John James and Christopher Sykes. It was so unusual to have other people playing along on other instruments on these songs which I had only played by myself before then. It was an extraordinary experience for me, but then it was all over so fast and I never heard the songs again for almost a year. Joe took the tapes away to America and he mixed the album there. Then the next I heard he sent me an acetate and that was it – I had no input from then on.

When you broke that period of silence, how did you approach songwriting? Had your attitude changed over time?
I think because I had stopped doing it comprehensively when I started again, doing it very slowly, I was picking It up where I left it. I found that when it did all start coming back it was very much the same sort of thing. Even though my life had changed so much and everything had gotten so big, when I got back to music it was like my other life was on the other line and I had got back to when I was 25. As if nothing had happened in between – as far as the music went anyway. My voice sounded the same, I couldn’t believe it when I went to sing which I hadn’t done for so long it was pretty much the same and the songs I wrote were still full of pastoral imagery. Even though I had been living in the city for several years. I was amazed how much of it was still there, despite being locked away under many locks and keys. A lot was still there.

Vashti Bunyan - 17 Sugar Pink Elephants

Where did that pastoral tendency come from? Did your artistic background impact upon the visual element in your songwriting?
Maybe it did or maybe that’s how I’ve always seen things, with visual metaphors. But I think that when I was a child I was brought up in the middle of London and so the romance for me was farms and farmland, animals and woodland. All the things which I felt denied growing up in the city. So maybe that’s in there somewhere. Although I’m back in the city now – I have been for several years! I love it, it feels like going home in many ways. But that bit in between, I feel I had to explore that bit of living out in the middle of nowhere and I did. For a long time, it was 25 years I was out there in the hills.

After ‘Way To Blue’ there is a full UK tour – what prompted this? Are you working on new material?
Oh I wish I had! What happened was after the last bunch of touring around ‘Lookafterting’ – that was the first time I had done it. The first time I had really been out on the road, because I didn’t tour when I was younger. I knew that there was pressure on me to do another album and to write a whole lot of more songs and I thought ‘I can’t do this while going on the road’. It’s too difficult to fit together. So I told Fat Cat that I would take time out of live performance and focus on writing – and guess what happened? Nothing much! I don’t know, maybe it’s a cyclical thing. It suddenly occurred to me a couple of months ago that I wanted to do another tour. After having said ‘I don’t want to do this’ I suddenly thought that now was the time. So I’ve got a whole lot to do but I’m thrilled to bits about it, I’m getting to go to Japan again, and Singapore, Scandinavia, Berlin and a whole lot in the UK. So I’m really pleased to be able to do it but I don’t know what triggered it off. I’ve written another eight songs but not enough for a full album. I think perhaps the being around musicians again could prompt a bit more and we could maybe record a few more about half way through the year or something.


Follow Clash: