Folk star Vashti Bunyan: “My voice made me think of grief. I didn’t even sing for my children’ | Folk music
OOn paper, what Vashti Bunyan did in the late 1960s looks like the ultimate hippie dream. A young singer-songwriter leaves London for the Outer Hebrides with her boyfriend, traveling in a black horse-drawn carriage called Bess. The 650 mile journey takes two years; she makes an album out of it, 1970s Just another diamond dayfull of precise, quietly sung songs such as Glow Worms and Rainbow River, evoking atmospheres of innocence and wonder.
Only a few hundred copies were pressed before almost immediately disappearing into obscurity. Thirty years later, it was rediscovered, reissued, and Bunyan’s career was revived. Two new albums, international tours and a 2008 documentary followed, as well as collaborations with young artists she had inspired: Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Max Richter among them. Now comes Wayward, a book Bunyan started in 1994 “to explain to my children why they had lived less ordinary lives – even though I later sent my synopsis to silence.” Returning to it during the first Covid lockdown, a story steeped in trauma, grief and poverty emerged – not just a dream.
Those who have called his style “fragile” or “vulnerable” may be surprised by the stronger character of these pages. “I hate those words,” says Bunyan, 76, her accent belying the many years she has spent in Scotland since growing up in London. “And twee.” She pronounces the word with bite.
I meet Bunyan not in the thatched Berneray barn where her journey ended in 1970 – she only lived there for six months – but on a busy staircase in Edinburgh’s main station, in jeans, blouse, bracelets and sneakers, with her partner of almost 30 years, Al Campbell. They accompany me to their neighboring Georgian flat: music magazines and posters of Bunyan’s 21st-century tours line the bathroom, while pretty crockery sets, porcelain dogs, drawings and ephemera invade shelves and cupboards. “I wonder if the feeling that I couldn’t keep things when I was younger made me keep so much,” Bunyan says, settling down, pouring the tea. “Because the wagon couldn’t be too heavy. We had to leave so many things behind.
Born in 1945, by far the youngest of three children after a brother, John, and a sister, Susan, Bunyan learned that she was named after a boat owned by her father, John (a dentist “and a little thug”, she adds – he would sell his instruments to passing scrap metal dealers). Vashti had also been a nickname for her mother, Helen, inspired by the Old Testament queen who refused to show her beauty in front of her husband’s cronies, before being banished; Bunyan remembers seeing her mother dance and sing in secret when she was a child.
She compares her to Molly Drake, Nick’s talented mother, whose sweet songs remained unheard during her lifetime. “Molly couldn’t bring that talent into the world in her lifetime, any more than my mother could have. And once you were married, that was it – and I didn’t want that.
So the teenager threw herself into music. In her book, she recalls a 1961 Cliff Richard concert in Blackpool, where she felt “incandescent” with joy. A few years later, after being expelled from the Ruskin School of Art (where she befriended Michael Palin and Terry Jones), she knocked on the doors of Tin Pan Alley, knowing that her tender songs could be tubing. An agent introduces her to Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who begins grooming her to become the next Marianne Faithfull, much to her disgust. He admitted in the 2008 documentary that his song I Want To Be Alone should have been the A-side of his debut single. Instead, he was given a Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composition, Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, for which Jimmy Page played guitar.
Bunyan enjoyed performing on pop television shows. “It was as if young people like us seized the moment. But it was also as if I was looking at him from the outside. She struggled with her mental health during those years, her book reveals; prescription drugs made it worse. One day Bunyan cried out to his mother for not understanding his agonies, and moments later his mother collapsed from a stroke. A rare heart condition and cancer were also diagnosed at the hospital; his mother was never the same again. “I was terrified, terrified,” Bunyan recalled. “And as guilty as hell.”
Soon after, Bunyan reconnected with Robert Lewis, a rebellious art student she had met the previous year as a hitchhiker. One day he said he put a spell on her and she would never leave him. They briefly lived in a field, then Donovan – a famous friend of a friend – said he was setting up a commune in Skye. He would get into his Land Rover. Bunyan and Lewis only had a grandfather clock for sale. It got them their cart and horse, but the trip “wasn’t a statement of any kind” for Bunyan, she says. She began the journey barefoot, wearing only her late aunt’s 1930s nightgown, as bus drivers in Islington High Street looked on.
It was a way to escape distress. “It was fleeting, but with a purpose: we didn’t know where we were going to be tomorrow, but it would be somewhere down the road. What saved me was that I didn’t have to think too much about anything other than wood for the fire, water for the horse. Immediate things.
Lewis’ appearances in the book are edgy but lighthearted. “I could have said so much, but I wanted it to be my story,” Bunyan says; they have three adult children together – Leif, Whyn and Benjamin – and you sense that she still wants to protect them. Later in the book, she writes that their relationship was open but one-sided: “I instinctively realized that only one of us, in the kind of couple that Robert and I were, could be the one who had other people.” She also mentions “trying not to get hurt… [to] don’t let caustic jealousy overwhelm my days.
She would never have initiated the trip herself, she says, but she wouldn’t have missed it for the world. “When we met, we met well in our ambition to shape our lives differently, in a rejection of the world where we felt so disapproved of by others.” They learned to be self-reliant by finding things and selling them; this continued into parenthood, when they started a furniture restoration business, stripping pine and waxing wood. They also learned a lot about kindness from strangers, and Bunyan’s portraits of older women are particularly tender – like the islander Wally Dix, named for his daily walrus-like swims in the freezing sea, who invented stories to tell to Scottish collectors of folklore. . Women like Wally were “rebellious undercover and utterly irreverent,” smiles Bunyan. “Values that have stayed with me.”
When Bunyan and Lewis finally arrived in Skye, there was no room for them or their horse in the township. Some were gone; the school was also deliberately empty, reserved for Donovan’s return, having “gone around the world and filled the stadiums”, writes Bunyan, mischievously. Settling instead on the island of Berneray, many inhabitants were hostile to them. She recorded her album in London soon after and found out she was pregnant. she realized she didn’t want to live so far away.
She now squeaks at her naivety. “I had wanted to go back and find out what it was like before the internal combustion engine, without thinking about how hard life could be.” She remembers the arrival of the electric poles, a man “having the first television, so proud, lining up all the chairs in his living room”, and also a woman “throwing her beautiful Victorian oil lamp on the rocks , this overwhelming pink glass”.
She now knows what she aspired to then. “I wanted to recapture that sense of childlike wonder, to remember what it was like to find the extraordinary world, that there was so much to learn.” She tried to convey this in her lyrics and drawings, she says, both of which feature in Wayward. Later, she shows me the lyric book she made on the trip, held together by colorful dots, her perfect schoolgirl handwriting inside, her young dreams still intact.
But she couldn’t listen to her album for decades after what she saw as her failure. “My voice made me think of grief and confusion. I didn’t even sing for my children. But in the late 1990s – separated from Lewis, and now with Campbell – she discovered the growing interest for his rare record on his new Internet connection at home. This interest continues: the original copies are selling an average of £1,200 on Discogs.
A reissue was released in 2000; Bunyan read his four-star review in the Guardian to his beloved, dying brother, who “burst into tears”. In 2002, she sang on a track called Crown of the Lost by post-rock/ambient band Piano Magic; it was “like opening a closet that has been closed for 30 years”. This voice has been widely heard since – when the Avalanches sampled Glow Worms on 2020s Reflecting LightBunyan “was amazed to hear my voice from 50 years ago among their music”.
She got creative in other ways too, producing Heartleap herself in 2014. “The place where I learned music production said I was too old when I applied.” She smiles. “But I wasn’t.”
Writing a book has been his most difficult task yet, but Bunyan wanted people to know that his journey “was not just a beautiful journey through daffodils and daisies. But again” – she corrects herself – “I didn’t want to spoil the dream either.”
She’s nervous about the book coming out, she quickly adds. She still wants to run away sometimes. “A bit of that dream is still me.”