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In Conversation

Changing Fortunes: Vashti Bunyan & James Yorkston In Conversation
The Quietus , December 12th, 2018 10:50

Ahead of a rare concert by Vashti Bunyan in Fife this weekend, she sits down with James Yorkston for a chat about nature and song and the nature of songs

Two artists, a generation and, though they didn’t realise it, just a couple of streets apart. The story of Vashti Bunyan’s return to music in the early years of this century is now a well known one, but when Scottish singer James Yorkston served a customer called “Vashti” in an Edinburgh bookshop shortly after hearing music from Just Another Diamond Day for the first time, little did he realise she was the singer who had left 60s London and the music business behind to wander the land by horse and cart. Ahead of an incredibly rare Vashti Bunyan concert this weekend at the Tae Sup Wi’ night at the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkaldy, she sits down with Yorkston to discuss how they met, living among nature, spirit animals, the peril of bad reviews... and whether Vashti will ever record again.

James Yorkston: So this is beautiful. You’ve got squirrels here, right outside, looking into the gardens. And there’s lots of foliage and general signs of nature. I lived in Edinburgh for 15 years and I always found it a beautiful city, especially when I was travelling.

Vashti Bunyan: It is. I’ve here for about 26 years now, having lived previously 25 years in the country. And I have loved being back in the city, because I grew up in the city. It is the most beautiful city. When I lived in the countryside – I lived in the west of Scotland above Glasgow – it was just wet all the time, and the light was completely different. But when I came here… it’s a completely different light. My daughter is a painter and she just loves it here, for the light. I think we’re really lucky. There’s magpies in this tree. I’m sure there are foxes out there. I haven’t seen them but there must be.

JY: There must be. I lived around the corner from you for five years or so, when I first met you. I remember one time when I was in America doing some shows and my partner at the time was saying, she’d been awoken by this horrendous noise outside, and it was the foxes who had decided to mate outside her bedroom window. It sounded like some kind of demon or something.

VB: [Laughs]. They sound like children in terrible distress!

JY: I first met you when I was working in the James Thin bookshop, which is now closed. I had played in bands in my 20s and gotten nowhere, and this was just the stage when people were beginning to take an interest in my solo music. So I was going down to London and doing wee shows and things. But I hadn’t signed, so I was still free. Just Another Diamond Day had just been reissued, and Verity Sharp had just played three or four tracks in a row on The Late Junction, and I remember thinking “this is incredible, what is this music!” It seemed so disconnected from what was going on at the time. It seemed so naïve and personal, without any worry or thought about how it was going to be received – obviously it was coming out 30 years later. And then you came into the shop! You were paying for something – I must say I remember you as nothing other than a polite customer, and your card said Vashti or V, and I remember thinking “gosh, is this her?” I wish that I had started whistling ‘Diamond Day’ or something.

VB: Gosh I would have been thrilled to bits!

JY: And then we met three or four months later through a mutual friend – Simon Raymonde [former member of Cocteau Twins, who produced James’s debut album Moving Up Country]. That part of your life when Just Another Diamond Day was just getting reissued [in 2000], how was that feeling to you?

VB: It was totally magical, because when ‘Diamond Day’ first came out in 1970, nobody took any notice of it at all. My neighbours, my friends, my family, nobody took any notice of it. it just wandered out and disappeared. And so did I, from music. So when it came to the reissue, I was pretty much convinced that the same thing would happen – that it would be dismissed as nursery rhymes for children, that it was so lightweight and so fragile and so nothing that it would get completely demolished again by reviewers, that it would never get played on the radio. So when I started reading reviews that understood it and understood where it came from, and when the CD started being bought by people, I was completely overwhelmed. Because it was everything that I had longed for all those years before, 30-years-ago. It was the most incredible feeling that people who were the age I was when I made that album actually liked it, enjoyed it, understood it for what it was. It was a document of a journey and of a time. And it wasn’t just dismissed out of hand this time. It was really the most extraordinary thing.

JB: You went on and had a different life – children, which is all great. But were you looking back on Diamond Day throughout those years as being a missed opportunity. Did you have a lot of regret?

VB: (With a sigh) Oh yes, terribly. But I didn’t realise how much regret it was until it came out again and it was listened to for its own sake. Then I realised how much I had missed it. Because I had turned my back on music altogether. I didn’t even sing to my children.

JB: Is that because it was too painful to thinking about?

VB: It must have been. There’s a different kind of pain – it’s the pain of [laughs], abject failure. Because you were saying that you had tried in your 20s and tried and tried and tried. For the age of 18 I had tried and tried and tried, singles came out, it all looked as if it was about to happen and then it fizzled away again. Nobody seemed to understand my quietness at the time. It might have been alright when the songs were written in 1967 to ‘68, but by the time it came out – it was recorded at the end of ’69, came out at the end of ’70 – by which time I had a baby and didn’t even bother to promote it. But even just reading the few reviews that there were completely broke my spirit as music went. I shouldn’t have read them of course, but I did. And they were dismissive. Actually one of them said that it made him feel depressed. And I thought – I did that whole journey to get away from all of that. It’s a joyous album to me.

JB: It’s a horrible thing getting reviews like that because they’re the ones that one you remember.

VB: It is. It had a huge effect on me. I remember reading it and closing that music paper – I think it was Disc.

JB: You remember the page number don’t you!

VB: (Laughs) I probably do. I can see it! I closed it and I remember thinking “that’s it, I’m never picking up my guitar again”. And I didn’t. And so that’s the power of the written word and the power of written criticism. You can’t get away from it, and you have to have it in your life. But you can’t – I can’t – let it affect the rest of my life so much that it did. It really did.

VB: I remember when I first met you, I think it was Simon Raymonde said that we should meet, and I came down to the pub down the road here in Edinburgh, and you were sitting there, and you were really nervous. You had your phone by the side of you and you were waiting to hear about a record deal.

JB: That was incredible times. I had fallen in with this record company in London, and they were getting me down to play these shows in front of super models and loads of artists – people like Banksy were there, before he was hidden away and stuff. It took a year, then when a contract came through, it was so bad my lawyer wouldn’t let me sign it! Then I bumped into Laurence Bell at a gig – the main guy at Domino Records – we got on so well, we sent each other music, and he sent me a much better record deal three days later. I had waited a whole year for this one that I wasn’t allowed to sign, and then Laurence sent me one three days later that was perfect.

VB: That’s so lovely. I had one from an American label, way back when the Another Diamond Day reissue came out – I didn’t have anyone in America for it. It was really funny because it was looked over by Paul Lambden who had put out Diamond Day here on his tiny little label Spinney, which he made just for Diamond Day in the year 2000. He looked over this contract – I won’t say who it was from but it was quite a big label – and he said “you’re gonna end up paying them”. It was so complicated, it was about 20 pages long. It was such a disappointment because it was a big powerful label.

JB: How was Just Another Diamond Day responded to, around the world? You talk about shutting it out of your mind for 30 years – it must have been an incredible inpouring and feeling of justification when you found yourself playing shows around the world and receiving this great press?

VB: After the Barbican show in London, I put a band together and we toured all over the world. Knowing that so many people now knew about the albums and the songs was a very new feeling for me. From being completely unknown a mile up a track in the hills to visiting so many different places and playing to people who listened – a whole different life. How very fortunate I have been.

JB: When we first met, all those years ago, I remember you telling me this story about how you’d once met Nick Drake, albeit briefly, and recently you’ve done a cover of one of his old songs [‘Which Will’] – can you tell me anymore about the meeting? You seem to be categorised alongside him a fair bit nowadays, so I’m curious what your memories are of it.

VB: Yes – we were kind of siblings in Joe Boyd’s Witchseason family. Joe thought it would be an idea to have us write something together and I was sent to Nick’s house. This was in 1970. By that time I had a young son who cried whenever I picked up my guitar – and Nick was sitting hunched at his piano with his back to me. His shoulders went higher and higher and it was clear to both of us that Joe’s idea was not going to work. I saw him a couple of times in Joe’s office after that but we never spoke. I just assumed he disliked me and maybe he did, but later I understood how hard things were for him at that time. His turning to the wall rather than speak was quite likely part of his illness. I think of him often – that he knew he was a genius writer and musician – and so the pain in his voice in this song of his breaks my heart. “Why leave me hanging on a star?
When you deem me so high.” On the other hand I always knew I was not any kind of genius and so comparisons to Nick don’t fly with me.

JB: It’s a funny thing, the “folk” thing. I know you dislike being put in that bracket. I’ve been classed as a “folk” musician all my career, when for me it’s abundantly clear that I am not a folk musician – because for me, again, I’ve always considered folk music to be traditional music, and that’s less than 5% of my output.

VB: I loved pop music growing up. I also loved carols and the folk tunes being taught in school and I’m sure those melodies are in my songs. However I never considered myself a folk-singer, like you don’t think of yourself as one. You said that the word “folk” really means traditional – and that is something that you and I are definitely not. It still annoys me. I think my first shock was seeing the re-issue of Just Another Diamond Day in the “folk” racks at HMV. I was mortified. I still feel the same.

JB: But there is the argument, that if there’s 100 people in a room and 99 of them say I’m folk, with me the only one saying “Oh no I’m not…” Well, maybe those 99 have a point? But again, folk for me is traditional music, not some old buzzard from Fife writing about his navel.

VB: (Laughs) Yes, and the person who did my press in USA said “well, if you sit there with a guitar what do you expect?” Hmm. Sigh.

JB: And leading from that, who would you say your influences are? Back in the day, when you were writing Just Another Diamond Day, and now?

VB: When I was growing up a mix of classical music played by my father from his large collection of 78 rpm records and the pop music of the day. And yes – carols, simple melodies. Then Bob Dylan was a huge influence – not so much on the music but on my life. His songs taught me a lot – and the dream of being a traveling musician appealed to me. The Diamond Day songs were in part influenced by Donovan too as his was the last music I heard before taking off on the Just Another Diamond Day journey – we stayed with him when preparing the wagon for the journey. After that I had no access to record players or radio for a long time – so I was out on my own. More recently I have no idea where it all comes from. Maybe still the same influences as ever there were.

JB: And if, like me, you find you find the everyday influences you more than a particular writer or musician, who do you listen to nowadays?

VB: You are right – it is everyday influences, life itself and the people around me – and the people who are now gone. I’ve been listening a lot recently to The Band again. No idea why!

JB: Of the three albums of “new” material you’ve done, not including the compilation – Heartleap really stands out for me – I mean, they’re all beautiful albums, of course, but Heartleap has an intimacy to it that makes it sound very much as though it has been mostly crafted by one person, which is something I personally love. It also feels very relaxed and confident – in a way that albums that are not “follow up” albums can do – did you feel freer with Heartleap – although that is me presuming that you felt pressure with Lookaftering... How do you feel about the three albums now there is time to look back and reflect?

VB: For the recordings I made with Andrew Loog Oldham in 65/66 – I had no say in any of it. For Just Another Diamond Day I had a bit more input but it was a Joe Boyd production – his portrait of me which I hardly recognised – and so I abandoned it for years. When it came to recording Lookaftering with Max Richter it was all so different. We worked out the arrangements together in his studio – I watched as he edited the tracks on screen, he encouraged me and worked with me in a way I’d have longed for when I was young. He didn’t want to use the electronic sounds I had recorded for my demos – insisting that everything had to be played by live musicians – which I agreed with, he was right. Then for Heartleap I was able to use all I had learned from Max and mess around for nine years with music programmes and synthesised instruments and I could make as many horrible mistakes as I wanted without wasting anyone else’s time. It was an amazing liberation really, to record by myself and explore and experiment. Maybe that comes across in Heartleap – that I was learning something new all the time, and loving it.

JB: I feel I have to ask this – when Heartleap came out, you mentioned how it may well be your last album. Has there been any further thought on that? Are you still writing? You must be?

VB: I became so self-involved and inward looking when working on Heartleap that I vowed at the end of the mastering days that I would never do that again. Making an album is all consuming and also I became a terrible control freak. I think I need to let more time pass and settle down some more before trying to record songs again.

JB: Okay Vashti, I’ve had a couple of questions come in for this via Twitter – first up: what is your spirit animal and where did you meet it?

VB: I’m not sure that is my way of thinking, but I would maybe say a horse. Not horses but one horse – Bess who I traveled the length of Britain with in 1968 and ‘69. She was my savior in many ways, sometimes rebellious but always a great spirit who I had to admire and eventually love more than I thought possible. I’m writing the story of the horse-drawn journey that Just Another Diamond Day is about – as I want to tell the truth of it rather than the romanticised version that comes across in articles written about it by others.

JB: Second Twitter question – how did you feel being name checked by Half-Man Half-Biscuit?

VB: (Laughs) It’s too easy to take yourself seriously as a musician – better to be brought down to earth occasionally and see yourself as others see. Like being called a folk singer.

Ticket details for Vashti Bunyan’s Tae Sup Wi’ gig (alongside Ed Dowie) this weekend are available here. She appears on the forthcoming Mercury Rev-helmed tribute to Bobby Gentry, out in 2019, and James Yorkston’s next album 'The Route to the Harmonium' is out on Domino on February 22nd 2019