Vashti’s progress: More than just another diamond night in San Francisco

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Vashti Bunyan is giving a concert at Great American Music Hall this week. To give an idea of how rare this event is, Bunyan has played fewer shows here than she has released albums, and she’s released exactly two long song collections: 1970’s justifiably adored Just Another Diamond Day and last year’s equally exquisite Lookaftering. With a little help from a calling card, I spoke with Bunyan recently about her not-so-hidden current bond with Devendra Banhart, her rather more secret past kinship with Francoise Hardy, the artistic leanings and pilgrim’s progress of the Bunyan family bloodline, the making of a Diamond Day movie, the cruelty beneath Swinging London’s fun, the wonders of home recording, and some friendly coincidences.

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Guardian: I just ran up a hill to buy a calling card. How are you?
Vashti Bunyan: I’m fine. I’m comfortably at home at Edinburgh, [Scotland].

G: Have you been living in the same place for many years?
VB: Yes, we’ve been here for 12 years, which is the longest I’ve been anywhere in my life. I keep thinking, “Maybe it’s time to go?” But yes, I’m back in the city after many years of country living.

G: Do you like it?
VB: I do. I was brought up in the city, so it was a bit like coming home. I love going out into the country. My daughter lives out there and I’ve just come back from visiting her, so I have the best of both worlds, really.

G: Is it your daughter Whyn [Lewis], who did the paintings that accompany your new album?
VB: Yes. She’s had two very good shows in London. The last one was a sell-out show in a beautiful little gallery called the Portal Gallery. I think they recognized something in her that went together with their other painters, who are all slightly strange. She’s had shows in Edinburgh, and she’s painting for another show in London right now. She takes about two or three weeks to do each one, so it’s a labor of love.

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G: As for the paintings on Lookaftering, did you ask her to do them for the album, or were those works she had done that you thought would work well with the music?
VB: I asked her to make the one with the little earring hanging from the necklace. We saw the one she did with the hare, and I thought it was so beautiful that I emailed it to the label, Fat Cat, saying, “Look what my wonderful daughter has done -- now isn’t that beautiful?”
They just leapt on it and thought that was the one to use on the front cover. I was a bit worried about it because I thought it was a bit too rural an image.
You call it a jackrabbit, don’t you? We call it a hare. I thought it might give people the idea that I do still live in the country, but on the other hand, I love it so much as a painting. They were very persuasive.

G: Do you feel that the different atmosphere of Edinburgh influences your music or lyricism at all?
VB: No. I think when I started out with this, I just assumed that any more new music I’d make would just be much more urban in feel and that the energy would have moved away from the pastoral. But I think it just went so deep, all of those years out in the wilderness, that that was what I drew on without thinking, really. It quite surprised me.

G: There might be an elemental thing happening there, in the sense that music is akin to nature.
VB: Certainly mine seems to be. Whatever I tried to do, that’s what came out, and in the end I stopped fighting it.

G: People who carry around an idea of you as this pastoral artist might be surprised to hear you have a fascination with the computer and music programs. Can you tell me a bit about that?
VB: Yes. When I started out [making music] at 18 or 19, what was most fascinating to me was the recording process. Because of the way things were then, a shy girl would never get access to the actual production method.

G: Recording was especially patriarchal.
VB: You know, I would look very longingly at all the faders and the buttons and the tape machines and think, “Oh, God, I’d love to get my hands on that!” When it came to having a virtual studio, when I finally saw what kind of computer programs were available, I think the visuals were what initially thrilled me: “Wow, there are faders on the screen!” When I finally got my own computer and I got the music program I could shut myself up in a little room in my house and play, and just find out all those things I’d been fascinated by when I was young – actually get to do it and figure it out by myself without anybody looking over my shoulder.
It was just as fascinating as I thought it would be, and I had a great time with it. All the demos I made were with electronic instruments. Because I can’t read music or write music, it’s very hard to communicate with other musicians. With the computer I can play something with one finger and it will score it for me. Or I can send something in a MP3 file to someone and they’ll know what I mean.

G: Like with Devendra Banhart on “Rejoicing in the Hands”?
VB: Yes.

G: Something surprising to me about that track is how thoroughly your voices mirror each other.
VB: I know. And yet he was on one side of the Atlantic and I was on the other. We hadn’t even met by then. He sent me a CD and I put it in my computer and did what I did and sent it back to him.

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G: Devendra has lived in SF, and there were a few times long before he’d released anything, like at a friend’s moving-away-from-SF-party, where I saw him sing some songs.
VB: I’m so pleased for him. And I’m so pleased with the world for embracing him and understanding him. He’s one of the most interesting and wonderful people I’ve ever met – an extraordinary human being.

G: On your new album, the song ‘Hidden” is beautiful. Can you tell me anything about it, such as what might have inspired the lyrics and melody?
VB: It’s funny. I wrote it for my boyfriend and it was probably one of the first songs that I did. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and showed it to him. He was quite upset by it and I couldn’t understand why. I thought it was a very loving and tender song, but he thought that I thought he didn’t understand me, or that I didn’t understand him.
He was a lawyer, and he’s not a lawyer anymore, now he’s traveling around with me. Whenever I sing that song – and I usually start the show with it – I think he’s really very pleased.

G: Another song from the new album that I want to ask about is “Lately.” Partly because I love the idea of starting your first album in so many years with that word. There’s such a gap between your new album and Diamond Day, and in another way, there isn’t. The song is dedicated to Jenny Wright – can you tell me about that?
VB: Jenny Wright, actually, is staying with me right now [laughs]. I’ve known her for years. She’s somebody I knew from Edinburgh when my children were very tiny, although she lives in Dublin now. I don’t see very much of her but she was very important in my young life. We have children of roughly the same age.
We really haven’t really seen each other at all over the last 30 years -- she just happens to be here in Edinburgh right now and staying with me!
That’s really, really lovely.
We have a mutual friend named Jenny Richardson who is a painter, and it was Jenny Wright who wrote to me when Jenny Richardson was about to have quite a nasty operation, saying that she wasn’t given to prayer but she was imploring the air to make Jenny better. I just completely loved what she wrote, and so I got her permission to use it in the song.
It had been in my mind, that idea of pleading with something rather than praying to any particular god. That idea of human beings pleading for someone to be alright. She just put it into words for me and I will be eternally grateful.

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G: You have a regarded historical lineage – have you read much about your descendants and would you consider them an influence?
VB: You mean John Bunyan? I was never made to read Pilgrim’s Progress when I was young -- thank goodness, because I would have rebelled.
Later in life I’ve come to read some of his prose and there’s something kind of recognizable in some of the lyricism I suppose, or even the rhythm of the way he writes that feels familiar to me. But I don’t know if that’s just because it was around when I was growing up.
I love the thought of him, long ago. The other thing I found out recently is that my mother’s grandfather was a Romany traveler. That was sort of hidden in the family for a long, long time. I was just so pleased to find out that on that side of the family it was just as significant.
I’m fascinated by generations. I love to see my children. The things that they are able to do completely boggle my mind sometimes. They’re so different from each other, so different to me, and yet blood links us all.

G: There’s an obscure early song of yours called “I Want to Be Alone.” The title makes me think of Francoise Hardy as much as Garbo – did you feel any kinship with her, or anyone else who was making acoustic music with an air of solitude?
VB: She was the only person with whom I felt any kinship at all. I never met her, I never came anywhere near her, but I had huge admiration for her because she seemed to just do what she did, never mind anybody else. She did it so beautifully and she had no artifice about her.
That song “I Want to Be Alone,” that was the B-side of my first single. I wanted it to be the A-side -- never mind the Rolling Stones, I wanted my song on the A-side!
Someone sent me a link to a little video on YouTube of a program I did for American TV in 1965, and I cannot believe the way that I look and how I thought that it was ever going to appeal to anybody. Such a sad little girl!

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G: It must have appealed to someone, because they’re digging it up on YouTube!
VB: It was in a program where there were teenyboppers – absolutely the wrong setting.

G: I suppose that’s what made me want to ask you about Francoise Hardy. With both of you, there’s a seriousness to what you’re doing that wasn’t easy for the times. Especially coming from a woman writing her own songs. There were a lot of svengalis trying to fit women into certain roles or types.
VB: Oh, yes. Fancy ball gowns were the thing they wanted to put me in – no way! [Laughs]

G: Diamond Day is often characterized as a road trip. Would you agree with that characterization?
VB: It was a road trip. I love what we did, I love that we just made everything up as we went along and that it was so unselfconscious. And in a way it was rather good that it remained hidden for such a long time. It kind of makes more sense in this age than it did in its own. I have no regrets about that at all, I’m just happy that it finally gotten heard by some people.
It’s been used in the UK for a T-Mobile ad. A lot of people have said “How can you let something so commercial use something so uncommercial?,” and I’ve said, “Well, that was the whole point.” It pleased me that someone in Saatchi & Saatchi might have sat down and listened to something like my music.

G: They’re learning, in a way – it’s sort of like how Volkswagen tapped into Nick Drake, or the recent ad campaign with Jose Gonzalez. To me, media is so disparate these days that I think it’s hard for music to be contaminated by “viral marketing.”
VB: I hope so. For me, it wasn’t bad at all, because of the way I feel about technology – it has so much potential to stop us killing each other.
I did desperately turn my back on the world and go off with a horse and wagon, but I didn’t stay there!

G: There’s definitely something to be said for doing it, though.
VB: I’m so pleased that I did. I learned the kind of things that I would not have learned any other way. But it certainly wasn’t somewhere that I wanted to stay.

G: I know some people who live off in nature, with horses and solar-powered domes. It can be great, but it can also be isolating.
VB: Exactly, I was talking with Jenny Wright about just that today. I said, that a small community you go a certain kind of mad, really, if you don’t have people to relate to -- I think human beings need lots and lots of different kinds of people to relate to and communicate with, and they finally find their own way. You can get focused on small things and make big dramas out of them.

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G: How would you say that the whole recording experience the second tiem around has differed from your earlier ones? The question can refer to any of your recent projects -- on your own, or with Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, and Piano Magic.
VB: The thing that has been most blinding to me really has been the difference in musician’s attitudes towards one another. I may have just been very lucky in the kinds of people I’ve come across. They seem to be so generous with each other and so pleased for each other if someone makes a success with something. There’s room for everybody.
I remember this feeling of intense competition. The openings were so few -- there were so many people racing towards these tiny little openings and very few got through. Now people feel a breadth of possibility and they don’t have to be so selfish.
What I’ve loved about Devendra and his friends is how they play in each other’s bands. Not just them, but Piano Magic as well have people drifting in and out all the time. They get so much from each other, instead of constantly watching over their shoulder to see if somebody’s taking something that’s rightfully theirs.
There’s such a wonderful sense of generosity and I find that very different.

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G: When you read books about the Stones and that time period, you get the sense that there was lot of seething animosity mixed with the love.
VB: Yes!

G: A lot of hate happening with the love.
VB: Lots of it [laughs].

G: Have people from that era reached out to you via email or phone or letters or through hearing your music in person?
VB: I was very isolated musically, so I didn’t play with other musicians, but one of the most pleasing things that’s happened over the last few years has been getting in touch with Andrew [Loog] Oldham again. Back in the time that we were working together I think we probably hardly exchanged two words, but now there’s so much to talk about and he’s so helpful and wise and just brilliant to remember things with.

G: What was it like to collaborate with Simon Raymonde?
VB: Simon is wonderful. I met him with Piano Magic when we were both playing on the same track. We did start making some recordings together but it didn’t work out well because I asked him to make it as unlike Diamond Day as possible, which he did. Of course, because it wasn’t really me, it didn’t come out right.

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G: It sounds like you did go through a process of shaking off the legacy before you went back to making music.
VB: Exactly, and he was a wonderful person to do that with, we’re still very good friends. One day I’ll probably put the recordings together, but at the time it didn’t gel. They were my songs but the way they were treated was quite electronic it was too much of a shock for people. Nobody liked it!

G: I’ve read about some of your unreleased early recordings being issued. Will that happen?
VB: It will happen, it’s just a matter of going through all the nightmares of licensing. It all belongs to so many different people that trying to figure out who owns one particular track is really difficult. Hopefully, they’ll be out in a collection at the beginning of next year. I also have some recordings that my brother did at the same time that have just never been released.

G: How do you and your voice figure within Saint Etienne’s Finisterre?
VB: That was a film they were doing about London. It was about people who came to London, and they were interviewing lots of people about what they felt about London. There were a lot of shots of different parts of London coupled with voice over. They wanted me to represent a person who had actually started off her life in London and had left it.
I was filmed, or the back of my head was filmed, sitting up on Primrose Hill looking out over London and saying how much I had missed it and how much I love it because I don’t live there anymore and yet it always draws me back. I very much love the city.
The movie is made by the same director [Kieran Evans] who is making a documentary about the journey of Diamond Day. I met him through that – he knew nothing about the story, and I told him an outline of it and he became interested. We’re getting towards the end of it -- we’ve been working on it for close to two-and-a-half years.

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G: Wow, I didn’t even know about it. It sounds amazing.
VB: We went up to the Hebrides to film the end of it. It’s been quite a revelation to me to see all those places again and have to think about it again.
We have 70 hours of film!

G: I write about movies a lot, and it’s the editing process with film that keeps me from wanting to make a movie.
VB: I can’t see how he can do it, but he can remember the shots in his head and find them very easily. I just think, “How?”

G: I have a tendency to micro-record everything, so I’d be so caught up in trying to re-record what I’d already recorded. The last thing I want to ask about is almost the opposite of that – what has the experience of performing both the old and the new song live been like for you? Has it been thrilling or scary or both?
VB: I was so frightened. I really didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I couldn’t even record an answering machine message. Actually, it was Devendra who helped. I saw him in Glasgow a year ago when I hadn’t done any live performances yet. I said to him and to Andy [Cabic] and others, “How do you do it?,” and they all said something different.
Devendra said, “You just have to do it – there’s no other way. You just have to do it until it becomes normal.” That’s certainly how it’s been for me. I was so frightened, I was so deeply terrified and shaking but the more I did it, after about ten shows I suppose I realized that my knees weren’t shaking anymore and I was actually enjoying it. I’m so grateful to Devendra for just saying the truth – you do what frightens you until you aren’t frightened anymore. It’s such a relief and freedom.

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