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The Far-out Folk Interviews: Vashti Bunyan

This is the first of a new monthly series of interview by music writer Jeanette Leech, who is currently finishing her book on far-out folk, Shifting Sands, to be published autumn 2010 by Jawbone Books. During the course of her research, Leech has had the opportunity to speak with some of the genre’s most dynamic artists. She was introduced to Molossus by Editor Jenny Lewis, a longtime friend and collaborator of Vashti Bunyan. Leech has selected the interviews herself, and to honor our internationalism Molossus will maintain British spelling and punctuation.

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Jeanette Leech

The Far-Out Folk interviews are conversations with some of the most innovative musicians of the last five decades.  As folk music began to cross-pollinate with other musical styles in the mid-1960s, new sub-genres arose – acid-folk, psych-folk, outsider folk – and it resulted in some breathtakingly original visions.  This creative burst lasted until around the middle of the 1970s.

Within the last decade there has been a huge revival of interest in these artists from the 1960s and 1970s.  This has helped to inspire a whole new clutch of artists who have made folk music both radical and contemporary once again.  Commonly tagged ‘freak-folk’ (although the term is not well-liked by the musicians themselves), this new strand of folk music has proved itself to be equally pioneering.

This series of interviews, with musicians from both eras, was conducted for my forthcoming book Shifting Sands, the story of acid, psych and experimental folk music over the last five decades.  It will be the first full-length chronicle of this outstandingly inventive genre, and will be published in autumn 2010 by Jawbone Press.

In 1968, after a series of disappointments in the London music industry, the singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan took to the road in a tiny horse and cart with her boyfriend Robert and they headed for an artist’s commune on the Isle of Skye.  The songs she wrote during that journey were to form the 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day – however, the album was not a commercial success and Vashti ceased making music shortly afterwards.  In the intervening decades – particularly after Just Another Diamond Day was reissued in 2000 – the album’s reputation grew considerably, and it now rightfully regarded as a classic British album.  Vashti herself is seen as one of the great British folk icons, despite her reluctance to consider her music as ‘folk’.  She released her second album, Lookaftering, in 2005 to great critical acclaim and many contemporary artists, including Devendra Banhart, Adem, Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom cite Vashti as an important influence on their own work.

Vashti invited me to her house in Edinburgh, and we enjoyed a lengthy conversation that reflected on her experiences within the music industry, both of her albums and her journey in the horse and cart.

I thought we could start by discussing Lookaftering, and how you came to write the songs on that album.

I think the thing about Lookaftering is that it was the bookend to Diamond Day.  It was the result of thirty years.  I hadn’t done any writing, at all, or really anything.  I guess that made the songs quite intense.  I hadn’t been able to play guitar or listen to my own voice for all of those years, ever since Diamond Day.  But just after Diamond Day came out [as a reissue], my brother died.  That was a big thing.  And with the first royalties of Diamond Day, I bought a Mac and a little keyboard and a mixer and I started playing my guitar again, and I started to write those songs.  And very, very slowly they started to come by.  I had imagined that I would write something more urban, because I’d moved here [Edinburgh] from twenty-five years in the country.  I was brought up in London, and I lived in London until I was twenty-three.  And I thought, coming back into the city, all of those pastoral ideas would go.  But they didn’t, and that was the imagery I drew on, without thinking really.  And two of the songs I recorded with Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, we were going to do a whole album together.  I said to him that I wanted it to be as unlike Diamond Day as possible because, even two years after its reissue, I was still kind of embarrassed by it.

Really?

Because it had been so ridiculed when it first came out.  Just totally dismissed as songs for kids or whatever, I couldn’t listen to it without cringing, for all of those years, and I didn’t have a copy of it.  Whyn [Vashti’s daughter] told me that she and her brother used to take the tape that I had hidden in the back of a drawer out to the car to play it, because they knew that I wouldn’t let them play it, because I couldn’t bear to hear it.   So I asked Simon to make [the new material] as unlike Diamond Day as he possibly could.  I didn’t want any acoustic guitars, I wanted lots of percussion, lots of bass, lots of everything else except no choirboy vocals and no acoustic guitar.  Which is what he did, but it didn’t work.  It really didn’t work.

I carried on writing and eventually I met Animal Collective.  I had been asked to go and perform at the Royal Festival Hall by Stephen Malkmus, who was doing a Meltdown festival there.  I was absolutely petrified.  And Simon said that he would come and play piano for me.  And then he said: ‘Oh.  I’ve got to do something in Barcelona on that night.’  But he knew Kieran Hebden who’s Four Tet, and Adem, and he put me in touch with them.  And they happily agreed to do the guitars and they brought in another friend, Fiona Brice, to do the violin.

I remained friends with Kieran and Adem.  Kieran was coming up to Edinburgh, and he had a band called Animal Collective with him.  And he introduced me to them, he said ‘you know, these guys all have your album.’  I said, ‘why?’ – that’s what I mean by still being slightly embarrassed by the whole thing.  Then a few weeks later I got a call, asking if Animal Collective could record with me, just three songs for an EP, for a label called Fat Cat.  That was when I met the Fat Cat label and Dave Howell.  Dave said ‘What are you doing now?’  I said ‘Writing, and I’d like to make another album one day, but it doesn’t seem to be going very well.’  And he said, ‘Send me the demos and I’ll see if I can advise you.’  And a few weeks later, he said, ‘would you like to make Fat Cat your home?’.  I was so delighted.

He and another Dave from Fat Cat said, ‘oh – didn’t Max just move to Edinburgh?’  And that was Max Richter, who became the producer.  And as soon as I heard his stuff, I knew that that was what was missing really.  We immediately hit it off and started working together in his studio.  But I had these demos that I’d done in my room, on my own, every note in the right place, and Max wanted to do all the songs with real instruments and real musicians and I said, ‘But I like my demos’.  So, we kind of compromised, and that’s why there are a lot of electronic sounds on there, that you might think are real instruments, but actually they’re not.

I only had six songs when we started working together but the rest of them just came in a rush once we were on track.  There were all of those years, and the children, and the life that I had had inbetween.  I had an awful lot to draw on for the songs because an awful lot had happened.  Diamond Day was really looking forward and dreaming of this fantastic pastoral future.  And Lookaftering was, having done all of that, survived it, come through it, and it had given me a lot to think about, and a lot to write about.  It’s as if those two looked at each other across the years.

Those songs are so personal and when I was writing them I had no idea that anyone was going to hear them.  Same with the Diamond Day songs, I had no idea if they would ever really be recorded.

How has it been to work with the new generation, the musicians who admire you?

All the people, that I’ve met, people like Andy Cabic and Devendra Banhart, those musicians that it’s tempting to put under the umbrella of New Weird America, freak folk and all of that, I’ve just found that they have a sensibility that was totally missing when I made Diamond Day, when I was writing those songs and when I was living that life.  They seem to have something about them that is what we were trying to be.  My generation, we had the ideas, but we hadn’t grown up with those ideas, they were all new, we were in unchartered waters.  And we weren’t really full of peace and love.  We just thought that should be the way we should be.  But these people, actually they are really generous to each other, and have this amazing sensibility about the world and how things should be.  That’s what I found so lovely about them.

So maybe it took a generation to make those ideas happen?

A couple of generations, really.  So that gives me enormous hope – that it is maybe an evolutionary thing that is happening.  And the music is the most obvious manifestation of that.

Do you still think you’re idealistic now, in the way that you were then?

Yeah, ridiculously so.  I’m obviously not as cluelessly innocent in the way I was when I was writing those songs, but that whole journey that led into the songs, was such a huge education that by the end of it I certainly wasn’t the innocent person who’d started to write those songs.

When you were growing up, were you a big pop fan?

Oh yes.

What was your first record?

Oh God.  ‘Travelling Light’ by Cliff Richard.  My daughter said she’d kill me if I ever admitted to that!  But at that time he was an immensely talented kid.  His first records were absolutely extraordinary and his way of singing I think was extraordinary.  It’s just that he was deeply uncool, and there was nothing he could do about it.

I didn’t have access to much of the American stuff, really.  But after I did get access to it that’s definitely what I veered towards.  Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson.  Those incredibly neat pop songs that said everything that needed to be said.  When I first started writing songs, when I went to art school, my roommate had a guitar, that was what I was writing, but I was trying to make it say a little bit more than the usual pop songs.  She and I both wrote together.  Some of those early songs I wrote I’m really very proud of, because they were so simple and so concise.

I went through absolutely torturous pathways to try and get some of those songs out.  But I was so not the right person to try and do all of that.  I was horribly shy and I was just this little tiny figure, cowering in the corner, watching this amazing pantomime going on all around me.  I didn’t have the personality to be confident around those kind of people, Andrew Oldham, The Rolling Stones.  I doubt if they even noticed I was there, really.  But it was an extraordinary experience to have been around those people, and to also have been in London at the time, when young people were grabbing the music industry back for themselves.

I’m always surprised and impressed just at how young everyone was, at that time.

I know.  When I first met Andrew Oldham he was 21 and I was 20.  And he’d already made The Rolling Stones into the biggest thing on the planet.  Everyone was really young, but incredibly strong and ambitious, unflinchingly ambitious, to take the reins.  It was an immensely exciting time.  An awful lot got thrown out with the bathwater, but it was a complete restructuring of morality in a way.  I was born at the end of the war, and my parents obviously had been horribly traumatised by all of it, and their generation had been horribly traumatised by all of it.  And they wanted to keep us safe, they wanted to keep us protected.  And we were, amazingly protected from the realities of life and very, very spoilt in that we didn’t have to worry about going hungry, or that something was going to drop out of the sky and kill us all.  We had the luxury of being able to take it all apart and put it all back together the way we thought it ought to be.

You were on that London scene for two, three years was it?

Yeah.  Constantly trying to get a single out.  When I first met Andrew Oldham and he gave me ‘Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind’ I was appalled.  I got into big trouble because on the radio, I said something like I didn’t want to do Mick Jagger and Keith Richards songs because I thought I wrote better songs.  So when I went into Andrew Oldham’s office the next day, I was in big trouble.  I hadn’t meant that exactly.  But he did put one of mine on the B-side, so that kept me happy for a while.

But then I joined up with this Canadian producer called Peter Snell, who made ‘Train Song’ with me.  And I thought, I’ve done it all wrong, I don’t need Andrew Oldham and his huge orchestra.  I need to do just what I set out to do, to try to bring some kind of acoustic music into mainstream pop, that’s what I really wanted to do.  But without Andrew Oldham’s huge this and huge that nothing happened to it at all.

When Andrew started up Immediate Records they asked me to come back and I’d written a whole lot more songs by that time and we recorded ‘Winter Is Blue’, again with an enormous orchestra, and I wasn’t sure about it, because the arranger had changed my tune a bit.

They shelved ‘Winter Is Blue’.  And with that happening too many times, really, I couldn’t stand it anymore.  My parents were going ‘when are you going to get a job, when are you going to get married, when are you going to…’  I was either living at home or I was living with my brother, depending on who was most fed up with me.

I didn’t have a lot of friends in the music business.  Which again, coming back to now, the way that people like Devendra and Andy are is that they are so generous with each other’s music.  It’s as if people like Devendra and Andy imagine that that’s what we were like, and they are enacting that wonderful generosity of spirit that they imagine we had.  What I was doing was neither folk nor pop, and I found it very difficult to find my way at all.

I have read that you didn’t consider your music as folk.

I didn’t have any feeling for traditional music, and I didn’t consider myself a folk singer, I had never entered a folk club in my life, but I loved the melodies.  I just thought I was a pop singer, I wanted to be a pop singer, but I wanted to bring this otherness to it.  It was partly the classical music that I had been brought up with and the choral music that I heard my father play, but not folk music, other than the stuff that we’d all been taught at school.

So, you were getting fed up in London by this point?

I was just getting more and more dispirited.  I’d got a job at a vet, but that was a disaster as well because I just ended up with stray dogs in the house, and I think we had a monkey at one point.  I had this friend, Robert, and he knew people who had horses and wagons, these very young romantic children of aristocratic families.  They were amazing, and they looked incredible.  Robert was at school with one of them and he was also at school with a friend who had grown up with Donovan.  I was fed up and upset, my mother was in hospital, my father got fed up with my dogs and threw me out, and so I went to see Robert who was, at the time, a penniless art student whose parents weren’t supporting him either, and so he was living in a wood behind the art school.  And he’d made a little house under a tree, and I just went to live with him there, at a time when people didn’t just move in with each other, and it was an absolute scandal amongst my family.

We had this beautiful place in this wood, where we had a fireplace and little seats around the fire out of fallen trees.  I had my guitar, and we had an oil lamp, and it was gorgeous.  But then we got thrown out, because these guys arrived who said the land belonged to the Bank of England.

We had a friend who had an old car who came and collected us and took us to his mother’s house.  Anytime we went anywhere, we ran out of petrol.  When we got out to push the car once, there was a gap in this big wooden fence and through that gap in the fence was a little horse-drawn wagon.  We ended up buying it, and the horse that went with it from this traveller guy.  The other bit of the story was that Robert knew Donovan and Donovan had bought these islands off the West Coast of Scotland and he wanted to people it with artists and musicians – we thought this was a grand idea.  Donovan lent us the money to buy the horse.  He and his friends all set off in their Land Rover and we didn’t arrive up there until the end of the next summer.  So, I don’t know what we were thinking, really.  We probably thought it would take us a few weeks.  We soon learnt.

Were you moving further on with the journey every day?

Pretty much.  Finding places to stop was difficult.  And that’s when we became incredibly aware of what people are like.  The people who would say, yes come in, or those that wanted to call the police because the gypsies were coming.

And yet some of the people that we met were so generous and open and excited by what we were doing.  People would give us corners of fields sometimes, people even gave us their gardens to stay in, or we would stay at the side of the road if the verge was big enough, or we’d sneak into a field.  We tried to do ten miles but if we couldn’t find a place to stay at the end of ten miles we’d end up doing twelve, thirteen, and the horse would be getting really tired.  So sometimes we would do less, if it looked like a good place to stay.

How did you keep going with food and provisions?

A lot of it was people’s generosity.  We had very little.  We budgeted for about two pounds a week, but that had to cover the horse getting shod every fifty miles or so.  I remember looking in a sweet shop window and it was like a psychedelic experience.  They were so forbidden.  Who needs acid?

I know that we were denying ourselves, in a way.  It wasn’t something that we had to do.  We put ourselves through it.  But at the time we felt that it wasn’t a choice.  There was no other way of living.  For us it was serious life, and we kept at it.

When did the songs start to come?

‘Glow Worms’ was the first and that came when we were living in the wood.  And Robert and I weren’t really so much of a couple at that point, we were almost partners in it, rather than a romantic couple.  We became so as the journey carried on, it became that we were the only ones really, that understood what we were doing.

‘Glow Worms’ was probably the last love song I wrote because Robert said ‘why don’t you stop writing all these miserable little love songs and write about the world around you and all these wonderful things that we’re finding’.  And that’s when I started writing.  I think probably ‘Timothy Grub’ was the first one because that was the story of being in the wood, being chucked out by the Bank of England and finding the horse and wagon.  Robert wrote the words of three of the songs, and I think that’s not often acknowledged.  It was his idea to get on the road with the horse and although we came to it together, it was definitely his vision.  But I think in the end I probably took it more seriously than he did.

The songs were a way of keeping going really, because we were going through some really grotty bits of Britain.  Songs like ‘Jog Along Bess’ were written in one of the most bleak places I’ve ever lived in my entire life.  It was a glen up in the Highlands on the way to Skye.  And it was raining, and there were midges – I don’t know if you know anything about Scottish midges?  Well, they’re worse than mosquitoes and they’re very tiny and they bite, and they hurt and they itch, and they are horrible.  And there we were, in the rain, and we had an American friend with us who was completely dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to live in this country.  And I wrote ‘Jog Along Bess’, sitting against this wall.  It seemed that the more lightweight songs came from a time when it was really horrible.

Then we lived in a house in the Lake District which these amazing people gave us.  It was extraordinary!  Some people were just so wonderful… I don’t know if you want that bit of the story?

Yes please!

The wagon was in a field and it was getting cold, it was November, and we didn’t know what to do.  Somebody told us about a caravan site that was closed for the winter, and that they might rent out a caravan that had a stove in it.  We stopped this guy on the side of the road to ask him if he knew where it was.  We said that we were on our way to Skye, and that we were with a horse and wagon and it was going to take us a long time to get there, but we needed somewhere to stay for the winter.  And he said, ‘Oh, that’s funny.  Me and my wife, we’re setting off for the Hebrides tomorrow, you better come in and have a cup of tea’.  And we’d been in the house for twenty minutes and they offered us the house to stay in.

That’s quite incredible.

And it would not happen now.  She was an amazing woman, Iris Macfarlane, a children’s author.  She wrote one of the songs on Diamond Day.  Extraordinary people.  They were so excited about what we were doing.  We did leave in March, but we had a fantastic winter.  But my mother died while we were there, so that made the second part of the journey much more difficult.

And then when you got up to Skye…?

I remember Robert and I just looking at each other, we knew almost straight away that there wasn’t going to be a place for us there.  There wasn’t a place for the horse, there wasn’t a place to put the wagon even, and there wasn’t a place in the heart of it for us.  We had become travellers, we had learned so much, we had become road people.

It was back to the horse and the wagon and we thought – ‘now what?’  And what we did was to carry on to North Uist, and we then found a place on an outer island, called Berneray, a little tiny island, we found a ruined house there which we bought, for £150, which was an insurance settlement from when somebody had gone into the back of the wagon.  And we’d been there a few months in this crazy, crazy ruin of a house, but at least it was a house and it had a roof of sorts, an old thatched, turfed roof which moved in the gales.  We went down to London in November to make Diamond Day with Joe Boyd.

What was it like to have other people suddenly in on those songs?

Very strange.  Because I’d been playing them by myself for all that time.  And Joe brought Robin Williamson in, who I’d only met once before.  We did Diamond Day in three separate evenings.  The first evening was just with Robin and another couple of friends, John James who had travelled with us, playing piano parts and dulcitone, and we just improvised that first night.  And I think the second night was when Robert Kirby was brought in with his amazing arrangements.  The third day was when the Fairport guys came, Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick.  When they started playing on ‘Come Wind Come Rain’, mandolin and banjo – it’s one my favourites now, but at the time I was very uncertain – I thought it a bit folksy.  I didn’t see Joe again after that third session, he went back to America.  I went up to the Hebrides and carried on my life.  Anyway, I was pregnant.  I’d found out while we were in London, that I was pregnant.

I didn’t hear anything from Joe for ages and ages and ages.  Eventually he sent us the acetate of it.  There were lots of things in there that I couldn’t bear – the fiddle on ‘Jog Along Bess’, and the whole folksy nature of it, it felt like it had been recorded round a campfire.  Which was obviously what Joe had the idea of but I didn’t, I didn’t want it to sound handmade.  I was very much into the depth of well-produced music.

Now I appreciate it, I understand what he was trying to do, and he did what he wanted to do.  I liked some of it.  I loved ‘Rose Hip November’ and I loved the ones that Robert Kirby did, but the ones that gave it that folky edge I couldn’t relate to at all.  I understood what Joe was doing with his other musicians, but I just didn’t feel like I was a part of that school, of Fairport and the Incredible String Band.  I felt much more related to Nick Drake and what he was doing.

As soon as I knew I was pregnant I never wrote another song.  Which to me was significant.  It wasn’t that I didn’t try, because I did, but nothing happened.  I felt as though I had wanted this child so much and that desire had been the songs, really.  That all of that need had gone into the songs.  And once I had my child the songs – they never came again.  And they really, honestly, didn’t until my last child left home, two years before I made Lookaftering.

And you mentioned you were thinking of writing a book…

I had an offer from a publisher three years ago.  It was the person who published Joe Boyd’s book, and one of the editors that had worked with Joe, he’d read a bit that I had written on my website and he thought that I should do the whole thing.  And I would like to, I would really like to.  But I don’t know where I’d begin and where I’d end.

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One Response to The Far-out Folk Interviews: Vashti Bunyan

  1. Gregory Despain January 13, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    Hi from Ireland, good post, deserves a Digg.

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