Vashti Bunyan’s album Just Another Diamond Day,
which came out in 1970 on Joe Boyd’s Witchseason label. The incredible
UK label (later merged with Island) that brought the world releases with flawless
sympathetic productions by Boyd of folks like: Nick Drake, the Incredible
String Band, the Fairport Convention and more. Vashti’s Diamond Day
is one of the most potently evocative documentations of late 1960’s
optimism and tangible magic. A sunny island of springtime and hope, buoyed
by invaluable musical assistance from members of Fairport Convention, and
the Incredible String Band as well, with string arrangements by Robert Kirby,
who would also provide the same for young Nick Drake. (This album has been
properly reissued on Spinney Records: www.tkkc.freeserve.co.uk/spinney/home.htm)
But, Vashti’s story didn’t start; nor does it end there, so I
thought I’d talk to Vashti by email and let her tell her own remarkable
story. I remain very grateful for her time, the use of the images. For evidence
of her unabated vitality listen to her recent work with Piano Magic.
G.P.: You got kicked out of Art School
in 1965; how does anyone get kicked out of Art School?
V.B.: Easy. Don’t go in for nearly a whole term. Then
when the Principal calls you in and asks you what you’ve been doing
and you say – er writing songs and art is art whatever the medium –
he says well go and do your art somewhere else.
G.P.: You were “discovered”
shortly thereafter; which led to your working with Andrew Loog Oldham, and
recording a single written by Jagger/ Richards, then what happened?
V.B.: Nothing. That was the hard part. After a very busy
time promoting the single with TV all over the country and interviews (I wasn’t
allowed to play live or tour in case it “spoiled” me or got me
into drugs which even then made me laugh) it all suddenly went quiet and I
was left spinning. Having a giant ego behind my quiet voice I assumed it was
because Andrew hadn’t let me use one of my own songs. Next he had me
record a song by one of the session musicians – and I sulked because
he had promised my second single would be one of my own songs. Oh dear the
writer was Jimmy Page. I made a right mess of the recording and it was scrapped.
It had the effect of turning me away from Andrew and all the glow and appeal
of his world.
G.P.: In 1966 you recorded a couple
more songs that were in a bit of a different mode than your first single,
were you still signed to Immediate at this time? And what were the songs like?
V.B.: More like what I had been doing before I met Andrew
Oldham. Quiet – and with little accompaniment. Immediate had not been
hatched as yet. I met a Canadian producer called Peter Snell who liked my
songs and so bought me out of my contract with Andrew. Alasdair Clayre –
a poet – gave me some words to put to music. I had a song called Seventeen
Pink Sugar Elephants which was written as a kind of protest against my own
endlessly sad love songs – but I never intended it to be heard. The
tune happened to fit Alasdair’s Train Song and so I recorded that with
Peter – with just guitar, bass and cello Train Song/ Love Song was released
on Columbia, played a couple of times on radio and then swiftly forgotten.
A bit of a bleak period followed.
G.P.: In 1967 you recorded another
song that Immediate chose not to release; what was the hang up?
V.B.: After the failure of Train Song I kept on writing and
a phone call from Tony Calder (who founded Immediate with Andrew Oldham) had
me into a studio to record some demos of the new songs. They liked Winter
is Blue, I loved the idea of an Independent label – I loved the whole
idea of Immediate. They bought me back from Peter Snell. Immediate was a good
name for the label. If something didn’t work immediately it would get
shelved and they would be on to the next thing leaving in their wake a trail
of disillusion. Winter is Blue was recorded with big backing by Art Greenslade,
Peter Whitehead filmed the session for his documentary Tonight Let’s
All Make Love In London, and I loved being back in amongst it again - although
I was hopelessly shy and stayed on the sidelines most of the time. Andrew
decided to re-record it – I can’t remember what he didn’t
like about the first one, but the second didn’t work. (This is the version
that is out on a couple of CDs but I have a battered acetate of the first
version which one day I will have cleaned up.) Tony Calder told me that Cliff
Richard wanted the song and so that was why they didn’t release it.
I didn’t believe him for a minute.
G.P.: You also recorded the song Coldest
Night of the Year for a single with Twice As Much, who were they, and what
happened to the song?
V.B.: Twice as Much were a boy duo that Andrew had given
a Stones song to, Sittin’ On A Fence and it had been a hit for Immediate.
Tony Calder tortured me with that saying that I could have had it if only
I hadn’t been fooling around with independence at the time. We were
put together to record Coldest Night Of The Year – with instructions
to get a Brian Wilson sound. I think we did it and I still love the track.
I thought it was shelved – I didn’t know why - but it later turned
up on their album when I was long gone. I only knew about it 30 years later.
G.P.: 1968 was a significant year for
you, could you describe some of what went on in your life during this time?
V.B.: Only if you have a good while but I’ll try to
In 1967 I had recorded I’d Like To Walk Around In Your Mind with Mike
Hurst producing for Immediate. I really liked it but Andrew thought it too
weak and that it needed strings and bulking out. We tried that but like the,second
go at Winter Is Blue - it didn’t work. This time the shelving broke
my heart a bit. So by 1968 I was so saddened by my experience of the music
business and fed up with myself for having been unable to deal with it –
that I decided to stop. It’s a long story as to how I came to take off
from London with a horse and a wagon, a dog, a mouse in a fruit basket and
a fellow traveller called Robert Lewis, but it started with him hitch-hiking
in the dead of night on a Suffolk road playing a harmonica - and me picking
him up. We lived together and had three children over 22 years.
G.P.: You wrote and recorded your album
Just Another Diamond Day in 1969 I believe; what inspired it? And how was
it working with produced Joe Boyd?
V.B.: The songs were written throughout 1968 and 9, recorded
at the end of ‘69 and released the end of 1970. Although I had given
up the music business in I kept on writing songs. Robert was full of ideas
and images of travelling the country with a band of friends, by horse and
cart, performing on village greens and making our way
independently. We did start off with some friends but really the main dream
was held by me and Robert – a bid for a place of our own. Donovan Leitch
had helped us to buy the wagon and Bess our horse and had invited us to his
newly acquired islands off the coast of Skye where he intended to form a community
of artists and musicians. We set off in early summer 1968 – and arrived
late summer 1969. By this time most of the people we had hoped to join had
been there for two
summers and a winter,
done the life, dug the ground, and gone back to the city. Some stayed however
– and they are still there. We carried on to the Outer Hebrides where
we found a place of our own. Didn’t stay long. Went to Ireland and then
back to mainland Scotland eventually. So the journey itself inspired the songs.
It was a magical ride but rough a lot of the time. We had very little, only
what we earned by digging gardens and painting farms. (Performing on village
greens turned out to be more than a little difficult as we were more likely
to have the police called to move us on than anything else.) The songs were
more about reaching the Hebrides and the kind of life I dreamed of than the
reality of mud rain and hostility towards travelling people that we experienced.
I had met Joe Boyd halfway through the journey and he had promised to make
an album of the songs at journey’s end – and so sent an occasional
emergency fiver to a post office ahead. He was an unusual person. He listened.
He looked after a big family of musicians. We all came to depend on him to
some degree. He was far too kind for his own good. As a producer he had very
firm ideas and since I was not familiar with his work with other people it
overwhelmed me a bit. Diamond Day came out a lot more folky and hand-made
than I had intended – but then left to my own devices it would never
have been recorded at all.
G.P.: How was it working with Robert
Kirby, did he do his thing after your recording or was there a collaborative
process to his string arrangements?
V.B.: I only remember arriving at the studio and finding
a recorder group and a violin quintet there. I guess I must have sung the
songs to Robert Kirby at some point beforehand, or even given him tapes but
I don’t remember. I do remember not approving of his chord changes for
the third verse of Rainbow River and making such a fuss that he had to scrap
it and repeat what he had arranged for the second verse. I had sung Rainbow
River by myself so many times that it was difficult to sing along with the
others - so there were a few hesitant gaps on my part. It was only when we
came to re-master the track for the CD that I got the chance to tighten it
up a little and that really pleased me. I do completely love his arrangement
of Swallow Song. It was a joy to sing to. Yes - we did record it all in one.
I apologised to Robert Kirby recently for having been such a brat (and also
for having upset the violinist who did the solo on Swallow Song without vibrato
at my footstamping insistence) and he was very nice about it. He played the
trumpet on the last verse of Timothy Grub – one of the best bits on
the album I think.
G.P.: How was it working with Robin
Williamson of Incredible String Band and Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol of
V.B.: It was humbling because they are such consummate musicians.
I didn’t know who they were – having been on the road for so long
and away from radio and music papers – and we didn’t speak at
all. I just played them the songs and we were away. Robin’s whistle
and harp in Rosehip November make it a small miracle I think. It could never
be repeated – or performed. It just happened in one take, and was a
piece of magic.
G.P.: Why do you think people treasure
this album so much?
V.B.: Every time I think about it I come up with a different
reason. Maybe people now are more able to listen and hear something for it’s
own sake rather than come to it with preconceptions about ditsy hippy folkie
stuff. (Me included by the way.) I was not a mystical hippy. I was not trying
to be a folksinger. I was not trying to make a statement. I was totally un-selfconscious
and unaligned with any movement or cult. What came to be recorded was a true
clear honest account of a piece of sixties optimism, and of a kind of life
and time that’s lost to most of us now.
G.P.: In 1970 you retired from the
music business, what ultimately led to this decision?
V.B.: This was to be my second retirement. Joe Boyd had persuaded
me out of the first one. I was pregnant when Diamond Day was recorded and
when my son Leif was born he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen
or heard and then my daughter Whyn –the most sunny child. They enchanted
me more than music, as did my Benito who was born when I was 41. My guitar
gathered much dust. Whenever I did play it the sound it made had me feel sad
for the deaf ears Diamond Day had fallen on, and over the years more and more
I could not bear to hear it. I had no copy of the album but a faded tape in
the back of a drawer. If anyone mentioned it I changed the subject. If anyone
dared to play it I turned it off.
G.P.: In 1997 you discovered that some
of your work was available on CDs, you had a long battle to get rights back
to legitimately re-release Diamond Day, didn’t you?
V.B.: Yes. When I first got onto the internet I typed my
name in as you do. Up came all kinds of references to various recordings,
including a bootleg of Diamond Day. I had thought it all long forgotten and
was hugely shocked. It was Paul Lambden at Ryko who pointed out to me that
the album was worth another listen and worked hard with me to regain the rights.
He eventually formed his Spinney label to re-issue the album and I think Spinney
will go on to become a great re-issue label.
G.P.: How important are dreams or dreaming
to your life or your work?
V.B.: Just that I believe in them. Making the dream. Make
it in your head first. Powerful stuff.
G.P.: I’ve heard you’ve
done some fairly recent recordings, who was involved and what’s going
to become of them?
V.B.: Through Paul Lambden I was contacted by Glen Johnson
(Piano Magic). He sent me a song and invited me to record it for their 4AD
album Writers Without Homes. The first time I’d been in a studio for
30 odd years. Made me want to do more. The good response to the re-issue of
Diamond Day took me completely by surprise. It had the effect of changing
the way my guitar now sounds to me and I have been writing again. Very different
kind of songs, not pastoral in any way as I live back in the city now. It
may take a while for me to let them go again but I’m going in to a studio
this summer to start recording what I hope will be another album.
G.P.: What did you think of Lush's
1996 cover of your I'd Like To Walk Around In Your Mind?
V.B.: I was happy when I discovered that someone had found
an old acetate of it and that it was included on a collection of “Pop-Syke
Obscurities” called Circus Days. The Lush version pleased me also –
that someone in this time should like one of my songs enough to record it
was wonderful to me. Their version makes mine sound even more fragile than
ever so for that alone I like it a lot. Always wanted to sound stronger.
G.P.: I sense some of this is still
painful; how are your feelings regarding your early career at this point?
V.B.: Not as sore as it was before I realised it was not
all lost and forgotten. I’m mad at my young self however for not having
made more of the chances given to me. I feel really grateful to Andrew Oldham
for trying to do something with this unworldly waif of a girl – about
the same age as he was - only he had been making his own inimitable way in
that world for years. I’m fond of the songs we did together. If I had
been less shy and reserved – if I had made friendships with the musicians
I met – if I had been a different kind of person altogether I might
have made it through and written and recorded more. But then maybe I wouldn’t
have made that horse journey which gave me a good few ideas to live the rest
of my life by.
G.P.: After your retirement from music
what did you do?
V.B.: When JADD was about to be released I had a young child
and nowhere to live - unless you count an ancient VW beetle - unlicensed,
uninsured and with the baby’s pram tied on top with string so the police
wouldn’t stop us. (It worked.) Joe Boyd offered me a choice. Stay in
London and promote the album with concerts interviews etc, or go to the Scottish
Borders where the Incredible String Band rented a row of eight cottages –
one of which was empty and awaiting me. I chose to leave London, the album,
(it was by then a year since it had been recorded and I instinctively knew
it had missed its small window of opportunity) and bring up my son away from
the city where I had grown up. That winter we heard about farmhouses on Ireland’s
west coast going for sale for next to nothing. Again we left by horse and
wagon and again by time we got there things had changed and the houses were
now around £600 – way beyond our reach. We had learned many tricks
from the travellers and Romanies on our journeys and over the next 20 years
or so became market stallholders, dealers and eventually found an old farm
in Scotland where we settled and built up a workshop making Scottish farm
furniture from old mellowed wood. A mile up a track it was wonderfully successful
for a while, full of unusual people, children, horses, dogs and the queen
of cats – and always a roaring trade. It resembled a scrapyard more
than anything at first, but we worked very hard on rebuilding the house and
barns. By time we left it was a beautiful place. Robert and I separated 12
years ago. He went to London and I later fell in love with - and came to Edinburgh
to be with - our erstwhile lawyer Al. I rediscovered music through him.
G.P.: Who or what made you want to
make your own music?
V.B.: Growing up in a house full of music from my father’s
collection of 78 rpm records – mostly classical. I wanted to be a choirboy
but Kathleen Ferrier’s voice still haunts me. Then the very young Cliff
Richard. There – I’ve dared to admit it. I was 13 and 14 and I
loved his and the Shadows’ early songs. Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers
too. I wanted piano lessons when I was young but it never happened so I learned
from others who did have lessons. I didn’t master reading music though
and learned to play by ear, which came in handy when I learned guitar from
a friend at art school. At first I wanted to write love songs that were about
how difficult and sad it can be sometimes – I thought there were either
“love is wonderful” songs or “you broke my heart”
songs, but not much about the bit in between. Finding the Freewheelin’
Bob Dylan LP when I went to New York for a few months aged 18 probably had
a big effect on me too.
G.P.: Do you have a ghost story?
V.B.: Yes I do. Not really something that I talk about much
– but the way I was by time I reached the Outer Hebrides after the JADD
journey – I was ready to believe anything. I was alone one afternoon
in the old thatched “blackhouse” that Robert and I bought for
£100 (a surprise insurance settlement from the time a fast car plunged
into the back of the wagon on the shores of Loch Ness) on an island called
Berneray. It was more or less a ruin with a leaky roof – but after having
lived in an old bakers van it was like heaven. Our elderly neighbour had told
us that long ago the house had been home to the Macaskills, famous musicians
and pipers. I had always wanted to be able to play a penny whistle and could
not.. I had one with me, and sometimes messed about trying to play it and
annoyed myself with my total lack of skill. This time however I seemed to
go into some other place (maybe I was fast asleep..) and found myself playing
a tune I had never heard before, and playing it like I really could. My fingers
were flying and I was ecstatically happy. If I was asleep I was sleeping standing
up. Otherwise I got the tune out of the walls. When Robert came home I was
wide-eyed and mildly spooked – and could not remember the tune or play
it ever again.
G.P.: Do you garden?
V.B.: Just now only pots and windowboxes. I did a lot though when I lived
in farmhouses, flowers mostly – but some really great potatoes. A deep
disbelief in weedkillers and pesticides made this more difficult.
G.P.: How many children did you have
and who; and how are they?
V.B.: I have three; Leif, Whyn and Benjamin. Leif and Whyn
grew up around farms, Ben in the city. Leif travelled in the wagon across
Ireland when he was little – naming the trucks and cars and falling
in love with a snowplough. He never liked horses much although at the age
of 3 he was able to lead them down the verges to eat the good things out of
the hedgerow. They were big horses too – one was a Clydesdale. He always
loved and understood mechanical things and related to the hills behind our
house with a motocross bike. He left home at 16 and joined a travelling show
– eventually joining up with Circus Archaos and flying his motorbike
fifteen feet up in the air through a circus ring. He has lived in Los Angeles
for 12 years now, keeps Arab horses, is an actor and also invents and builds
radio controlled special effects gadgets. Whyn is a beautiful painter. From
the start she knew that painting was to be her life and so it has been. She
is a bit like I was in that she is reserved and quiet – but she has
a deeper stubbornness than I had and she has worked much harder and gone much
further than I did. I was always admiring of her skill, but more than that
it’s the humour and wisdom in her paintings that I adore her for. Ben
is still just 16 and has no feel for country living whatsoever - “..but
what did you DO there??” He just can’t imagine it – or the
idea of living in a wagon with no water or electricity. I guess you have to
find these things out for yourself. He is a basketballer, plays for Scotland
and is working on going to college in the US and playing there. If he has
the same determination as his sister then that is what he will do. Something
for you George – when Leif was 5 we asked him what he thought the world
was made of - “The world is made of people” he replied. So we
asked him what he thought people were made of -”People are made of dreams”.
G.P.: What are your favorite things
V.B.: Irreverence. Forgiveness. And people who make me laugh
– and most people do – from a distance.