An Inspiring Rock & Roll Renaissance

Vashti Bunyan’s charmed new era

Text by Adam Pollock

Of all the rare ‘plucked from obscurity’ stories of recent memory, many of which feature a cameo by Devendra Banhart (interestingly), the tale of British pop chanteuse Vashti Bunyan is proving to have one of the happier second acts. Bunyan was the next-at-bat big thing in Andrew Loog Oldham’s star-making machine in the mid-’60s. However, after a fitful start, Bunyan’s disillusionment with the record business led her to quit the confines of London and embark on a two-year odyssey that involved a 700-mile walk to Scotland, a horse-drawn wagon, the singer Donovan and presumably enough weed to make the journey bearable.
As the ’60s came to an end, Bunyan made one more valiant attempt at musical recognition and released her first full-length album, Just Another Diamond Day. The songs on the record were quiet and thoughtful and full of subtle meaning and were delivered in Bunyan’s signature lilting alto. But 1970 was a time of turmoil and anger as the Vietnam War and Altamont generation woke up to the reality that the summer of love was over. The Nixon years would require more than subtle, quiet pop for its soundtrack, so when her album slipped from view, so did Bunyan.

When SOMA spoke to the singer in the summer of 2006, a remarkable renaissance had taken place in Bunyan’s life. In the 30 years since the release of Just Another Diamond Day, the album had taken on a life of its own and was becoming cherished as a lost classic. Banhart, on the cusp of becoming a hipster household name himself, lauded Bunyan as a major inspiration and the two formed an unlikely collaborative partnership. The two years since that interview have been increasingly kind to both artists and as Bunyan readies a new album to be recorded in early 2009, we placed a call to Scotland to hear firsthand about touring the world, gigging with Massive Attack and living the rock and roll dream after 30 years of (in her words), “tending the garden and being a mum.”

—Well, honestly it’s been a bit of a whirlwind ever since we did that San Francisco show in September 2006. My grandson was born in Los Angeles while we were on tour there (how R&R!) so that was a wonderful thing and at the beginning of 2007 we did a whole tour of the U.K. with Vetiver, among others, and then we did David Byrne’s show at Carnegie Hall [featuring Devendra, Cocorosie, Vetiver, Adem, etc.]—just to be invited to be part of that was such a highlight. And then we went to Australia and then we went to Japan, and finally I settled in LA for three months to start writing the new album.

 Thanks to the online revolution, toiling in obscurity is no longer an option if there is an audience for one’s art, and interest in Bunyan has prompted fans to post a plethora of videos, both live and in tribute online. A quick search of YouTube unveils an awesome clip from the ’60s show Shindig! of Bunyan miming the words to her track, “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind,” in glorious grainy black and white. “I never saw that footage until someone put it up online last year and it was quite a shock,” she says. Bunyan has also been thrust into the ‘unearthing the long-forgotten song for crass commercialism’ movement (see also Nick Drake), the results of which is a quite marvelous Reebok ad set to the Bunyan penned “Train Song.” Not be outdone, T-Mobile also jumped on the Bunyan bandwagon and used Just Another Diamond Day in a U.K. advert, which has prompted a number of send-up video responses—not to mention more exposure for Bunyan. “I thought the Reebok ad was beautiful, lovely. I’ve been asked to do ads that I’ve turned down, but my youngest son is a sportsman and I thought this would be something nice for him as well,” she says.

High-profile gigs, commercials, world tours. Not bad for a musician who had been out of the spotlight for three decades. Some artists might have called it quits after all that—content that the legacy has been rewarded and comfortable to sit back and take the occasional royalty check—but Bunyan has other plans. “It has been the most extraordinary two years for me and I’d love to do more but I really want to deserve it and I really want to make another album that I’m pleased with and then get out on the road,” she says.

—Is there a new direction to the new songs?
—I’m very happy as long as I can make something new, I don’t want to be always harking back to my past. I always think I’m going to have different new ideas, but when I sit down it does seem to come out quite the same as before and then I get discouraged, but then I give it a couple of weeks and come back to it and realize that I am happy with it. I’m working so much more with the computer and keyboards, I think I’ll do a lot more of that. I’ve got lots of ideas, the schedule for the rest of the year is to really put my head down and get to work.

In addition to all this activity, a documentary about Bunyan’s ’60s Scotland trek has been in the works for a few years. Considering the whirlwind that has been her life recently, Director Kieran Evans (Finisterre) is adding new footage to bring the story up to date. The finished product, From Here to Before, debuted at the BFI London Film Festival in October. “We’re hoping to get it in at South By Southwest next year, I’d be very happy if it takes off,” says Bunyan. If the film follows the trajectory that Bunyan’s career has taken of late, the singer might be shopping for red carpet outfits before long.