The Repository #1: Vashti Bunyan

The first dive into the Foxy Digitalis archives: an interview with Vashti Bunyan from 2004.

Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day continues as one of my desert island albums. I couldn’t believe I got to do this interview back in 2004, barely a year after Foxy Digitalis relaunched.

In my world, Vashti Bunyan is royalty. Just Another Diamond Day, recently reissued in the US by DiCristina, stands as one of my five favorite albums of all time. Its mystic beauty is only matched by Bunyan’s lullaby-voice and impressive lyrics. On the surface, one might think her music is childlike and simple, but this is far from the truth. Further investigation reveals layer-upon-layer of meaning and magic. Bunyan was out of music for 30 years, but thanks to the work of artists like Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, her fire has been relit. As work progresses on new material, the magnificence of Just Another Diamond Day has been discovered by a new generation.

How does it feel to suddenly have a lot of interest in your music once again, 30 years after your album was recorded?

It feels so good that it makes me realise how much I must have ached for it in the first place.. all those years ago.

The reason I left London with a horse and wagon (to embark on the journey that the Diamond Day songs are about) was that I thought I had failed with my songs and my singing. I’d had two singles out and recorded for Andrew Loog Oldham but made no real progress. I wanted to leave the city and the music business behind for good.

I kept writing songs though and it was Joe Boyd who asked me back into the studio to record Diamond Day at the end of the journey.

The album’s lack of any positive response from anyone must have convinced me that I had been right to leave music – as I stopped writing and singing completely after that.

So now – yes – I feel so lucky that Diamond Day has had a second chance.

How did the collaborations with Devendra Banhart, Piano Magic, and Animal Collective come together?

Piano Magic share the same publisher as the Diamond Day songs and found me through them.. asked if I’d record a song and I was delighted to get back into a studio after so long. I remembered how much I’d loved it. Glen Johnson is a wonderful songwriter and musician.

Devendra wrote to me a while back and sent me some of his songs and drawings and asked if I thought he should carry on. I was immediately and utterly captivated by his style and invention and nomadic spirit, and so wrote back to say yes, please keep going. Then later on he sent me the “Rejoicing In The Hands” track. I added my voice to it and was so pleased to hear it on his album. In turn he has been my songs’ most loyal advocate and I’ll love him forever.

Animal Collective I met through Kieran Hebden who had them support him on his Four Tet “Rounds” tour. They asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on some songs of theirs and this year we spent three days in a studio in London. Extraordinary musicians. And they had me singing like I didn’t know I could.

2004 has seen you and Simon Finn both garner a great deal of attention after many years out of the spotlight. Why do you think there has suddenly been a great deal of interest in you and your music again?

Wish I knew. So many theories but really maybe it’s because there’s a lot in people’s lives now that isn’t so simple.

If you have a player on random play and one of these quiet songs comes on – it’s hard to slow to the feel of the song sometimes – easier to go on to something else. Something louder, something faster, something more like life is.

But lives have become tangled up and confused – maybe the only way is back a bit before going forward. Like my own life when I was young – I had to go back and find out about simple realities before I could rebuild the mess I thought I’d made of it.

I don’t know.

In Diamond Day‘s own time, no-one wanted to go back.

Just Another Diamond Day has finally been reissued in America on DiCristina. How did that all come about?

Through Devendra. He knew Gary Held and kept telling me what a wonderful guy he is – and I did go down some other roads for JADD in USA – but they were the wrong ones and eventually I listened to Devendra and I’m glad I did. He’s right about Gary.
Just Another Diamond Day is truly one of my favorite albums of all time. It is such a magical and almost spiritual listening experience. What kinds of things inspired you when it was written and recorded?

Leaving the city I’d grown up in, leaving the rejection behind for good I hoped – making myself believe that I didn’t care about fame and fortune and that what mattered were the straightforward necessities of life like food and water and shelter (I was homeless and penniless) and making the most of what can be found if only you have the eyes to see.

What I found mostly was that having nothing doesn’t have to be frightening or bad, and that if you can keep moving (even in your head) it isn’t long before you find all you need.

I have my own idea of what a diamond day is, and I’m sure most people do too. I’m curious what the phrase means to you?

It was one of those calm moments – looking out at some fields and feeling I was doing the right thing, and that it was ok for things to be simple and I just felt lucky.

Just another diamond day.. taken so for granted but they do faithfully come around again if you’re lucky.

Another way of saying that all you need is love.

What role do you think your environment and where you live has played in your music over the years?

The Diamond Day music was completely influenced by my living outside and close to the ground, getting muddy and cold and wet, missing my mother and trying to keep myself going by finding something beautiful in it all. I did find a lot beautiful.

When the album sort of vanished off into obscurity I was quite determined to go with it. I didn’t value it – I don’t have one now as I gave them all away back then. I stopped singing, stopped playing. I had children instead of songs.

When Diamond Day was re-issued 4 years ago I was terrified of the same old rejection feelings again – and so when it was all of a sudden getting kind reviews and at last an understanding that it wasn’t nursery rhymes, that it wasn’t mannered, that it was just a personal account of a sixties dream – I was able to pick up a guitar again and play. Soon some new songs appeared.

I live in the city now. I wonder if the new songs will be of any sense to anyone who only knows me for the pastoral ones.

I still feel the same though about most things.

What are you currently working on as far as new music goes?

Trying to figure out a way to put the new songs together that feels right. I’ve had many offers of help and songs and I’ve tried many avenues, some lovely, some that don’t work. I’m taking time now to find out for myself what I can do of my own. I always wanted to be more in control of the recordings and so I’m teaching myself, and having a very good time recording in a cupboard at home. In amongst it I think I’ll find some songs I’ll be ok with seeing the light of day eventually.

Meantime I’ve found a lot of old recordings from before Diamond Day days…. The days before I left London and what I saw as my failed singing career.

Spinney is putting together a collection of these which should be out in 2005 sometime.

Another instance of going back before going forward maybe.

One thing that strikes me about many of your songs is how, on the surface, there is this almost naive simplicity. But the more I listen, the more I digest them, the more depth there is to them. It’s almost like they pull you in with their simple beauty, but once they’ve got you, something more profound takes place. Was this is a conscious decision or one of those things that just naturally happened?

I think it just happened.

I didn’t think about it then but from here I can see that part of living the way I did (and I risk sounding hippie here) it was like being in a different layer of consciousness – awareness of my surroundings.

So when I wrote about hills or trees it was as if they were sentient.

So maybe that’s what you’re hearing – and what very few people heard in the songs then. Nursery rhymes seemed to be the only thing people could hear. They weren’t.

When do you feel most free?

When I was walking along with the horse and wagon it felt good knowing that I had everything I needed to survive right there in that house on wheels.

Being able to keep moving is a freedom.

But maybe singing some note that I know is right where it should be too. I’m not a religious person but singing in a cathedral – that can work. I guess it’s meant to.

How do you feel like your children have influenced you and changed your approach to songwriting?

Like I said before – it felt to me that they were my songs. Or at least that the songs I had written had been a substitute for the children I’d wanted so badly.

They didn’t know of my music years when they were young. I kept it all away from them.

They’ve only changed my approach to writing in that now they make me do it. They say – so what have you done today – accusingly.

You said something that really struck a chord with me… that Diamond Day is just another way of saying ‘that all you need is love.’ Thinking about the state of affairs in the world today, simple messages like that can hold a lot of power. Do you think music is still a relevant political medium?

Yes – enormously so. I’m not sure it changes what is not already changing, but it sure disseminates ideas.

Looking back, what is the most memorable experience you’ve had with your music?

Probably the most brightly memorable were the days with Andrew Oldham in his world of extravagance and vision, big orchestras and long studio hours. His kicking down of corporate doors. And swanning through them.

Or – quite different – moments playing “Rosehip November” with just a few other musicians. The song was written without a thought to recording. When we did record it – and the arrangement was a complete improvisation – I think it was in just one take and so felt magical.

Any closing comments?

Just thank you.