Swinging Modern Sounds #59: Not a Folk Singer

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By now the Vashti Bunyan story is well-known: A recording artist from forty years ago, who made only one full-length album (Just Another Diamond Day, 1970) and sold very few copies of it, was suddenly rediscovered in the oughts by the record-collector set, the lovers of obscurities, who bestowed upon Bunyan a career that she’d never quite had in the first place. A re-release of the original album followed, and then an album of every scrap and b-side from the original recording period. This, in turn, was followed by an album of new songs (Lookaftering, 2007), completely unsuspected and rapturously reviewed, after which there was a successful tour, and a surfeit of credibility, a documentary, and so on. These rediscoveries, however, have a time stamp on them, in which, in a way, the artist gets frozen in an instant—in this case as a strikingly beautiful Swinging London icon, who set out with horse and buggy like a tinker for the country, a true archetype of the traditional in the countercultural moment. But woe to those who fiddle with the original expectations. Woe to the rediscovery which intends to grow and change and develop.

And yet, in open defiance of this time stamp, Vashti Bunyan has now released a third album, Heartleap (DiCristina), which took many years to record, and on which there were some false starts and frustrating dead ends. Unlike any other work by Bunyan, on Heartleap she assumed the role of arranger and producer, making some of the recordings at home, and then at a number of studios, near and far, but always in pursuit of the thing never previously accomplished in forty years of a career abandoned and resumed: the sound she heard in her head.

The results have marked experimental flavor, but an experimental flavor that is subtle, quiet, and enormously sophisticated. There are lovely string arrangements, washes of synthesizer, piano parts that seem, as in the songs of Brian Eno, at once childlike and uniquely strange. Indeed, if one were finally to give Bunyan the genre designation that best describes her work now, on Heartleap, it would be art song, so surprising and slippery are these compositions. The guitar parts interleave, and clash against one another in ways that are more like African music than traditional acoustic music, and the keyboards pluck out their odd and impulsive clusters of left hand and right as if played more by player piano than by human hands, and, as always, there are the words that depart from domestic life, finding in the appearances of domestic life much deeper and more oneiric resonances. Heartleap, which in the press is being referred to as the last Vashti Bunyan album, therefore represents a decided turn of the screw on the narrative of rediscovery, and something much more like human expression of the exalted sort, than a record by a gal from Swinging London who had her first pop single written for her by Jagger and Richards. As such, it is something in which the fervent listener can take real delight.

This interview was conducted by Skype in October, after Bunyan had gotten home to Scotland from a tour in the UK. She was, as you might expect, incredibly warm, unpretentious, kind, inquisitive, and very funny. As in the songs she has written for this album, she exudes feelings first, she lives in a world of pathos, in a way that she trusts, and which feels genuine and true. There is a lot to learn from Vashti Bunyan, therefore, about how to live a self-designed life, and how to be unapologetic and decisive about the habit of songwriting. And because of how much there is to learn this was one of the most enjoyable interviews I have ever done for this music column.

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The Rumpus: I want to talk a little about the arrangements on Heartleap, because you’ve said in public repeatedly how you did it all yourself. And you’re said that the album represents the music you hear in your head. Can you give me an example of a song you worked through in this way? For example, “Mother,” which has that beautiful piano part. How did it happen; how did you fashion those arrangements?

Vashti Bunyan: One hand at a time (laughs) because I can’t play the piano. But I can put down a track that I think would be one hand and then a track that I think would be the other hand. In fact, on “Mother,” there are three hands and that’s what I really loved about this process, doing things that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. And, yes, I actually think “Mother” started out not as a piano part at all; it started out on another instrument and thenHeartleap cover I changed it into the piano; that seemed to work better and then I added the other parts to it. The string parts: I played those on the keyboard and changed them into strings and then this wonderful violin player called Fiona Brice came to see me and I gave her all my files and she transcribed the string parts so that we could take them into a studio and have two violins and a cello play those parts.

That happened in London and I brought these recordings back to my home here and I realized that my synthetic strings were actually what was in my head and, when compared to real ones, they didn’t sound the same. I took some of the real ones and some of the synthesized ones and, where I thought the real ones didn’t work, I put in the synthesized ones and, where the real ones worked, I took out the synthesized ones and I just had a lovely time doing that. It made me feel all powerful where I had always felt so powerless.

Rumpus: Is there a feminist dimension to that, your finally being able to produce yourself and sort of do the parts yourself?

Bunyan: That wasn’t feminist at all. I’m often asked if my early failures were because I was a girl in a male-dominated business/industry and I’ve never wanted to blame my failures on that, that I was a girl. My failures were my own and I would not blame anybody else but me. I don’t want to blame anybody else, man or woman.

Rumpus: Let me go back to the song “Mother” just for a second. When you wrote the song, did it already have a melody and words and so on or are the parts themselves generating the song a little bit?

Bunyan: For that song there was certainly the melody and all the parts that came to me first. Actually, it was the piano part that came to me first. Then the melody at the same time as the words, I think. Probably the words came even a few years after I had found that piano part.

Rumpus: Were all the songs made that way? So, it was sort of like a field of things happening and you would sort of go back and tweak the piano part on one song and then work on the string arrangement on another song?

Bunyan: Exactly. That’s exactly how it was, apart from the last song, which came all at once. The others were all piecemeal; they were all worked on for a long time—years, in some cases.

Rumpus: The album took like eight years, right—all told?

Bunyan: Seven years. Yes, it was seven years exactly. From the time I wrote the first song, which was “Gunpowder,” it was seven years. But I wasn’t working on it all of those seven years; I came and went. I don’t think it wasn’t until I came to meet Robert Kirby again who had written all the string arrangements for my first album. We were both involved in a Nick Drake tribute show that was organized by Joe Boyd and I hadn’t seen Robert for a long time but he asked me what I was doing and I said “Well, I’ve got these songs; I don’t know what to do with them.” And he said, “Next time you’re down, bring them to me” and I did. And he just completely understood straightaway what I wanted to do. And he had just been working with the Royal Artillery Band so he knew that he could get the tuba player to come. And two weeks later, he died. He was such a lovely guy, just great.

Rumpus: Oh my God.

Bunyan: His wife called me to say “The master has died” and I, oh my goodness, it was so unexpected. He had been so enthusiastic and so I had been walking on air when I came from his house and, two weeks later, that dream was gone. And it took me a while. It was another two years before I got back on because I had made up my mind, rather than looking for somebody else, I should try to do it for myself, try to think of what he might have come up with. Well, obviously, I couldn’t have come up with anything like he would’ve but, just to keep him in mind and try to think what he might’ve made for the album. Certainly with the strings on “Mother,” I very much had him in mind. They’re very different to how he would’ve done it because he just wrote at the piano; he didn’t do anything like I do. He wrote his arrangements on manuscript paper at a piano so he never heard what his arrangements were until they were being played live. It’s totally different but I still had him in mind, certainly, when I was writing the strings for “Mother.”

Rumpus: Maybe his death was oddly empowering in a way. Maybe he gave you a gift.

Bunyan: After a while, yes. He sure did, in lots of ways.

Rumpus: Was there no song on this record you just had the guitar in hand and you sort of made up some chords and the melody in one fell swoop?

Bunyan: Just the last one; that’s called “Heartleap.” That’s the only one that came to me like that and, because it came so easily, after all the other fiddling around that I’d been doing, I thought “Where have I heard this before? Have I already written this song a long time ago and I’m just remembering it or what is it?” It all just seemed very familiar as if I’d heard it before but I guess I hadn’t. That song was ready and it came to me all at once.

Rumpus: It occupies a really special place on the record because it’s the last song and, because you’ve said that this is the last album. I’m wondering if the song, in some way, has a sort of valedictory quality to it. Does it feel that way to you?

Bunyan: It really, really does. When I’d finished it, I realized that it was another whole song. It really does feel like the end of something; it feels as if that’s the song I’ve been trying to write ever since I was eighteen and that maybe that’s the one and I don’t really want to do anymore. That was a very strong feeling I had at the end of recording. Whether it will change or not, I really don’t know. But it was certainly a very strong feeling.

Rumpus: The lyric is amazing on that song, to me; it really feels like James Joyce a little bit. And it caused me to think about the lyrics generally and to wonder about how you deal with lyrics, if you have specific sort of literary precedent or poetical precedent for how you approach what you do as a lyricist or not.

Bunyan: No, I am not well-read; I am not well literarily educated in that I turned my back on it so young. I think my teachers, when I was very young, put me off poetry all together; I never really came back to it and everything that I write comes from whatever I see around me. I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t have any formula to follow, I don’t even know what kind of lyrics I write.

I enjoy the pictures of the words. I enjoy the way they fit together. I enjoy finding concise ways of saying things and I think a lot of that comes from early pop songs that I really loved when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen: the simplicity of Buddy Holly lyrics for instance, which can say so much with a few lines. And that’s what I’m always seeking, a kind of simplicity that says something, that says a lot if I can manage it. I don’t actually know what I’m doing (laughs). I like the shape of words.

Rumpus: Does that mean then that you aren’t interested in consciously interrogating what you mean but you trust entirely in the subconscious ability to make meanings?

Bunyan: Yes, because it’s very strange sometimes where—where did they come from?—when I’ve finished a song and, where did that come from? And, if I knew, I could go find some more instead of just ten songs in seven years.

It is very mysterious to me how, suddenly, there is another whole song, um, and where did it come from? And other people can write twenty songs in a day. Yeah, I’m just very slow at finding them, or they’re very slow at finding me. I don’t know how it happens and I would love to, but it does feel like they are there,  they are there under the surface making themselves, fitting themselves together, fitting those words together. There’s one song on my last album, Lookaftering, called “The Same but Different” and that honestly came to me while I was in a supermarket starting at a row of something. It suddenly came to me all at once. Where had that been all that time, you know? I had to run home and put it down. Other times, I can be really struggling to find the right word and it’ll come to me in the middle of the night and I have to get up and put it down.

Rumpus: “Heartleap,” the song, has no chorus which is a situation that’s not unusual on the record—an absence of sort of traditional choruses—but, in this particular song the way the syllable “heart” works in the song entire is so like a refrain. It’s such a repetition, you know, with these minor variations of suffixes over the course that it’s sort of like a replacement for the chorus. The words have a hypnotic quality that makes a chorus or a conventional hook unnecessary. Do you ever think of things in this way like “oh, I’ve written a verse, I should have a chorus” or is this, again, something where you just allow the song to come and propose itself to you?

Bunyan: I did consciously think, with that song, “I don’t need anything else in the middle to join them together” because the last word will join to the first word in the next verse and it needs a bit of a thinking space between, I think. And, with “Mother,” there was a whole other line that I took out: I didn’t think it was necessary. There’s been an awful lot that I’ve taken out and I think that is just the process of condensing. And I think, certainly, the gap between those verses in “Heartleap” was quite a conscious decision. And I have thought about it a lot since that, even when I’m trying to perform it live—and it is quite a different thing without the piano and without the synths in it—that maybe I should take those gaps out and put those first two verses together and then put the second two verses together. It needs the breathing space, I think, between all those words, because there’s a lot of words, because you need time to process what’s been said, I think. Is that terribly self-conscious, all of that?

Rumpus: It’s fascinating. You were just performing, right? Didn’t you just get back from playing?

Bunyan: Yes, we did—just me and my guitarist, Gareth Dickson. Trying to do the new songs with just two guitars was quite a challenge but I think the songs stood up okay with a different treatment. I was really scared going out again because we hadn’t been out on the road for four years; it’s four years since we played together. And then I had a much bigger band; it wasn’t just me and Gareth. Actually it was really good. Again, it let the songs breathe a bit.

Rumpus: One thing that really interests me on the record is the way the guitar parts interlock, like on the first song, “Across the Water.” There’s something fascinating about how the rhythm works with the guitar parts. I mean, I think they’re in different time signatures—am I right about that?

Bunyan: Yes, there are three songs like that are in different time signatures like you’ve been noticing; that’s great!

Rumpus: Is that possible to reproduce in the live setting, the way those guitar parts interlock?

Bunyan: Certainly, on the first one, “Across the Water,” the tumbling guitars was a complete accident, playing one guitar part and then recording another guitar part over it. And I realized that it sounded like many notes being played by the same person but, it’s actually two different guitarists playing them in different places. And with “Gunpowder,” that is definitely two different time signatures but we can do it with the two guitarists. We have worked it out. Which is the other one that does it—? Oh, “Shell” definitely. There are several in there. And, of course, it’s another thing I don’t really realize until I go back to listen that “Oh, there’s quite a lot in there,” and I’m really pleased that you heard it. Thank you.

Vashti_Bunyan_rainbow_pc_Whyn_LewisRumpus: For me, especially in this era of canned, synthesized music with four-on-the-floor drum beats all the time, rhythmic complexity is the thing that makes my brain light up, you know. It’s so exciting to me. In America there’s a term for Old Time-y music that has rhythmical peculiarities—like, you know, some old Blues guy who would throw in an extra measure every couple minutes just for the fun of it—they refer to it as “country time” and, in a way, this album has that provocative country time aspect to it in these guitar parts which I find different from your last record, too. It’s very singular.

Bunyan: I’m just writing that down: “Country Time.” Thank you. That’s why when people say, “Why don’t you ever use any percussion, why don’t you have a drum track, why don’t you have bass?” and I think it’s because I concentrate on that little part, putting the percussion and the rhythm into those few instruments that I do use. I want them to set the pace; I want them not to be undermined by an endless drum track that just doesn’t mean anything to me. I want the instruments themselves, and the vocal, to decide the pace and to set the picture.

A lot of the things I listen to, I think, “If only they’d take that drum track out.” But it seems that a lot of people think that it’s necessary, it’s required to put percussion in there. I’m still quite fascinated with, like, what you were saying about counter rhythms; I’ve always liked that and I did try to have that in some of the songs on Lookaftering but it didn’t work because I wasn’t able to put the time in and try to work it in like that. So, I’ve been lucky to have the time to work finally.

Rumpus: One more song that I want to ask you about, because it was really arresting to me, is the song called “Jellyfish.” It’s got the little section at the end that’s its own thing, the guitar part. And, then the lyric, to me, is very unusual on the record because it’s symbolically so much more complex than some of the other songs. So, can you tell me a little bit about how that one developed and where it was situated and how the album came about and so on?

Bunyan: It started quite early on. I’ve got a whole lot of old notebooks and I did come across one the other day about a girl jumping into the sea in a flouncing, dancing dress and I got that idea, and the person above her, looking down, and she was wanting to be rescued because she was drowning. This person was looking down and frowning and I put it all together and that was the song at first. And then I was on a beach not far from here, in Edinburgh, and there was a huge jellyfish on the sand that had just drifted into the shore. I’d never seen a jellyfish so big and I thought, “I wonder if that’s the Portuguese Man of War.”

Now I realized that that would be the next part of the song: of course, he didn’t see a lovely girl in a pale blue, flouncing, dancing dress; he saw a danger in her asking for help. He saw it as danger, he saw it as a Portuguese Man of War, and that was what I was trying to say, that sometimes when you ask for help, a person you are asking can see it as a lurking danger. And so I made it into a dream. I dreamt that I jumped in the sea and I dreamt that I drowned in the sea but then I came to my senses and I realized I didn’t have to have that person frowning at me and disapproving of me; I could swim off. And the song itself, the music of the song, I wanted to try and make it sound like a jellyfish swimming from side to side but I didn’t want to do it obviously by panning it all the way, so I panned some of them and had them cross over. I had the vocal cross over in places and it is a song that I enjoy looking back on the making of. I felt like I built it from the ground upwards and it took a long time. It was almost like a painting. In fact, the person who did the mixing and the mastering at the end said, “All your songs are like paintings to me and they all have layers and that one particularly.” If I’m proud of anything, it’s that song because I really worked on it and tried to get the details right in it.

Rumpus: The image of the jellyfish and the way you’re talking about it reminds me of the song, “The Shed.” I think what you’re saying to me, and it’s important to say it out loud, is that the emotional field in these songs is not simplistic; it’s always complex. So, the jellyfish is slightly dark, an unsettling image in the context of the song. And the same way in “The Shed,” I mean, it has a little haiku-like simplicity to it—the story of the song—but, the image of the shed is a lot darker than its apparently simplistic surface.

Bunyan: That was a poem I wrote a long time ago, even before I made Lookaftering—I’ve actually got it stuck to a speaker here—when the house was full of kids, full of teenagers and basketball-ing boys running up and down the stairs while I was trying to write (laughs). And, at the time, my nephew (who built my website), he has a blue shed at the bottom of his garden and I’ve always been very envious of it. That’s when I started writing the poem: “I wish I had a blue shed with nobody in it, none of these people.” But then I might regret that because they might all go away and, of course, the kids have now.

At that time, I couldn’t even foresee a time when there wouldn’t be thundering kids up and down the stairs. I did know that I was going to be a little unsettled by the fact that they might all go away. I actually found the music for it (I had written the music a long, long time ago) on an old computer. So, that song was written quite a long time ago but I did rejigger it quite a lot and I re-recorded the vocal just this year. So, that is a song that has taken a long time. The blue shed: loneliness, being left. Although, it’s actually wonderfully quiet now.

Rumpus: So, the rumor is that you have a resistance to being called an artist of folk music. This is not a word I would use to describe this record in any way so I agree with you about that. But I actually feel, with respect to you, that the term “psych-folk” is more ugly than “folk” alone so, I was surprised that you had any preliminary resistance to folk especially in view of the Incredible String Band guys, with whom you recorded, and all that stuff. I wondered, therefore, for the interview, if you would mind just digesting that feeling that you have about folk because I don’t think it’s been in print really.

Bunyan: The main thing that happens to me is, if I say, “I am not a folk singer; this is not folk music,” the next question is, “Well, what is it, then?” and I don’t have an answer. I didn’t start out my musical life as a folk singer. I started it off writing pop songs and wanting to get my songs into mainstream pop; it never occurred to me to be a folk singer. I never went to folk clubs; I wasn’t interested in traditional music. But then my early musical career didn’t take off in the way that I had wanted and I left London in a sulk, you know, horse and buggy. I was never going to set foot in the city, in a recording studio; I was just going to dump the whole lot and go off and live this wonderful life of freedom in the north of Scotland.

Well, it took me a year and a half to get there, during which time I wrote these songs about the journey and I met Joe Boyd halfway through the journey. He wanted to make an album as a document of the journey and said “When you finish the journey, come back to London and we’ll make a recording of these songs.” So, a year later I came back down to London; we recorded the songs in three days. I had been away from music, away from music papers, away from radio for a year and a half. I knew nothing about what was going on so I didn’t know who the Incredible String Band were, I didn’t know who Fairport Convention were, I really didn’t know who Nick Drake was. I didn’t know who Joe Boyd was, really… except that he was an incredibly kind person who kept his word about recording. I didn’t hear the result of those recordings for another year after that.

Then I realized, apart from the songs that Robert Kirby arranged violins and recorders for, the others were given a very folky treatment. But I hadn’t understood that these were musicians who would’ve called themselves folk musicians at that time and it just didn’t feel like my music anymore, especially the ones that Robin Williamson was playing fiddle on. It just seemed wrong to me and it was part of the reason that I abandoned it all; it didn’t feel like me. And then what happened, thirty years later, the album suddenly is out again and it’s in the folk department in the record store. It’s under “folk.” It is a folk record and there’s nothing I can say about it (laughs). And I’ve been fighting this battle ever since.

I thought Lookaftering would speak for itself as not being a folk record but, still, I’m folk so it was put in the folk department everywhere and I’m called a folk singer every time I hear anybody speaking or read anything: I’m a “folk” this and a “folk” that. It drives me nuts. So, this record, I thought, “really, surely this one can’t be called a folk record” but it is. About two months ago I was at a festival in Wales where a film was being shown that’s a film about the journey that I’d made and Joe Boyd was there. We were asked to do a Q&A afterwards. So on this stage in front of all these people, Joe Boyd turns me to and says, “I have to apologize to you; I know that it’s my fault entirely that you’ve been labeled a folk singer for all these years because I brought in people from the Incredible String Band, from Fairport. That’s what I thought you were because I came to visit you in a field with a horse and dogs and a boyfriend and you were living the most folky life of any folk singer I’ve ever met.” (Laughs) So, that’s his defense and I have to accept that: yes, I did live that life. It was a small part of my life as I look back now but, what can I do about it?

I did say to Howard, my publicist, the other day, “Please, could you tell people that you get it in the neck every time this woman hears of herself being called a folk singer” so, he has agreed. But actually, when I said this to him a few months ago, he said “Well, you sit there with a guitar, what do you expect?” It’s true: what can I say, what can I call myself, what can I call the music? And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many people who write music can’t be categorized; I find that very difficult. Do you know of the Argentinian singer, Juana Molina?

Rumpus: Yeah, I love her records.

Bunyan: An absolutely wonderful musician. She gets put in the “world music” category and I complain about “folk.” I think that, for her, it’s even worse.

Rumpus: Is it really conceivable to you, at this point, that this is it and you’re not going to record again?

Bunyan: What happened was, when we had finished the mastering, and Dave Hull from the Fat Cat label was there, and they all started talking about the next one. And we had just finished that one after seven years! I thought “Hang on a minute, I’m not doing this again.” And, of course that found its way into the press release that this is my last album, that I’m adamant this is my last. But, thinking about it since then, if I do come up with any more songs, if they appear to me in the middle of the night, do I have to wait until I have a collection of ten of them or twelve of them before putting anything else out? Or, could I just put them out one by one, as they happen? If I were to wait another eight, nine, ten years, will there be such a thing as the format of an album, collections of songs like that? So, I can’t answer that question completely yes or no but I think it’s unlikely that I will come up with another collection of songs. I would quite like to leave it at those three and, maybe if there are some other stragglers, I’ll deal with them as they come but I can’t imagine making another.

The other thing is that the writing and recording makes me very self-absorbed, it makes me very self-centered to shut myself away from everybody. That’s what it took, to be completely on my own in my blue shed and I don’t think I really want to do that again. I do want to write the story and not in musical form; I want to write it down for my kids. But, music—I can’t think I’ll never write anymore but an album is quite a creature and it kind of takes over your life. It must be like writing a book.

Rumpus: You’re talking like a novelist right now, or a memoirist, you know, which is a whole other can of worms. But there is a storytelling aspect to what you do; I could see how it might appeal to be a writer of the story a little bit as opposed to the songwriter.

Bunyan: I don’t think it’ll be any easier; you could tell me that. And maybe, yes, just as absorbing.

Rumpus: So, are you going to perform if shows come up?

Bunyan: I think so. Well, we’ve got another three to do in Europe in November in slightly bigger places so we’ll see how it goes. I may have to bring in more band members if I do bigger shows next year. And then there’s the whole visa thing, which is more difficult now than it was. So, I would love to come over and do some more shows there and I’ve said to everybody that I will make up my mind at the beginning of next year, what to do next.

Rumpus: Well, this was so much fun and I admire your work and this is what I will say to you about the lyrics just so you know: you write like an imagist poet. You should read H.D. or William Carlos Williams and you should just, for the fun of it, see how they are absolutely consonant with what you do as a lyricist.

Bunyan: Thank you. I’ve written that down.

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Photos of Vashti Bunyan © Whyn Lewis.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →