Living on Wit: An Interview with Vashti Bunyan

[11 August 2014]

By Mike Pursley

There is something inexplicable about Vashti Bunyan. Her music appears and disappears, alternates between sudden illumination and lengthy hiatus, and follows its own sort of time table. Her story cannot be called typical: A mid-‘60s next-Marianne-Faithful pop career that didn’t happen. A now-mythic horse and cart journey from London to the Outer Hebrides, where Donovan had supposedly established an artists’ colony. A collection of songs written during the journey that sold so poorly she gave up on music entirely. And that might have been it, until that neglected album of pastoral traveler’s songs, Just Another Diamond Day (1970), slowly found its audience. The album’s 2000 reissue brought a surprised Vashti out of a 30-year musical retirement. Remarkably, her gentle singing remained intact during the long creative hibernation. This vocal endurance revealed a core of iron behind the feather-light lilt of her voice. A diamond may be small and precisely set, but there’s also nothing stronger.

A new album followed from her rediscovery. 2005’s Lookafteringproved to be a wondrous record, dispelling any questions of sophomore slump (if the term even applies when over three decades pass between albums). However, aside from a collection of early demos released in 2007, not much has been heard from her. In 2010s, there seemed little activity. Had she retired again? It turns out Vashti has spent the last seven years working on a new album. The songs came slowly. One here. One there. Like her other records, the new material remains deeply personal while touching on universal concerns. The new songs are carefully crafted miniatures that contemplate people encountered in life or convey emotional resonances just beyond the reach of words. The new album is called Heartleap.

“It’s taken me seven years to make this album,” Vasthi admits, “and, very often, throughout those years, I’ve thought Diamond Day looked forward, Lookaftering looked back. and I should leave them as bookends and just not do another one. But then these songs kept coming to me and I became more and more interested in the actual process of recording and editing. And then, all of a sudden, I had enough for an album and I had to make a decision. Did I want to put something else out or did I want to just leave the others as they were? And in the end I thought ‘Yes, I will put them together.’ They seemed to all match each other. They seemed to be a cohesive collection.”

The long gap between albums makes sense when hearing the music. There is nothing hurried about the new record. The songs are calming, projecting a sense of stillness. The instrumentation is precise yet delicate, an intricate watchworks. You’ll hear no drums. Unlike her other albums, Heartleap was recorded in a home studio, with the production and arrangements done primarily by Vashti herself. “This time I wanted to see what I could do on my own,” she explains. “Over the years I have learned a lot more about technicalities of recording music and editing and I wanted to see what I could do by myself. In no way ever having any negative thought about what went before. I just wanted to see what I could carry on. It was like emerging from shelter. I wanted to stand out on my own and see what would happen.”

This sense of independence has contributed to Heartleap‘s intimate, introspective spirit. On working in her home studio, Vashti says she has “loved just experimenting with what is possible to do by somebody who can’t read or write music or play keyboard. I can still compose. I can still make the sounds as I want them, which I may not be able to get a real person to do. I was always fascinated by electronic music, by synthesizers. And now to be able to just get a little, to be able to experiment with it, has been a great joy.”

Electronic music? Synthesizers? These approaches complicate the usual consensus that Vashti is strictly a folk artist, be it of a chamber-, freak-, or traditional cast. Recall that her earliest ambitions were to become a pop singer, and all her material, from the earliest pop demos to Diamond Day and beyond, shares the sweetness and brevity of pop. This is not to suggest a synth-pop album will be arriving. Synthesizer or no, the songs sound lush and natural. But, her body of work (and these new songs specifically) highlights the limitations of playing the genre match game. What if traditional music is just pop from time immemorial? For what other artist could the expression “everything old is new again” be more fitting?

In another parallel with pop, the ease of Vashti’s lyrics belies their depth. “Lived on wit, got away with it,” she sings on album opener “Across the Water”, a gentle meditation on the seasons of life. She laughs when asked to elaborate on the lyric: “I just got by. For instance, I never held down any particular job. I lived many years on very very very little and I just got by and that’s what I call living on wit and getting away with it. Boy did I get away with it!”

The lyrics on Heartleap often reference people and natural spaces, at times with a touch of magical realism. On “Holy Smoke” elemental images of smoke, trees, and fog are used to convey a feeling of yearning. More autobiographical is “Mother”, a bittersweet memory flash of her mother at the piano: “My mother played and sang sometimes / Believing herself alone / But through a slightly open door / I could see her face upturned / Songs long learned / So long untuned.” Album closer “Heartleap” is a meditation on the head and the heart that nests a patiently unfolding melody within graceful ripples of guitar and synthesizer. “It’s about the cycle really, of loving and loosing and loving again,” she says.

While Vashti is glad to talk about the ideas behind individual songs, the meaning of Heartleap as a whole has yet to be fully determined. “I didn’t have any idea of any theme at all,” she says. “The songs just came one by one and they were what they were. Certainly the ones that are about particular people, they are about particular people. They were people who affected me, their stories affected me.” She continues, “I never thought that Lookaftering had any kind of a theme until we were mastering it and then I realized that actually it did, because it was so much about looking back. And this one, I think maybe it’s half and half. Half is about actual people and the other half is about how I feel.”

Like Lookaftering, the cover of Heartleap is taken from a painting by the singer’s daughter, Whyn Lewis. The painting proved to be the inspiration for the album’s title. As Vashti puts it, “the painting on the cover was done by my daughter about five years ago and it’s called Hart’s Leap. I was gazing at it one day because I think it’s such a beautiful painting. Suddenly it occurred to me that actually, Heartleap, all one word, would follow on from Lookaftering, which was a made-up word. It relates to the hart that is leaping and escaping. My daughter’s description of the painting is that a hart, when it’s being chased, if it knows that it’s escaping, it will do this leap of joy. And that’s what it felt like to me. That Heartleap is just a leap of joy.”

Could this record be her last musical leap? The album has been reported to be her last. Her take on Heartleap being the final word? “How can I possibly be that adamant? I can’t imagine that I won’t keep writing music or thinking up songs or that they won’t suddenly occur to me in the middle of the night anymore. But the idea of making another album at the moment seems very very far off. But I could never say never of course. I certainly can’t think that I would never have anything more to do with music.”

If this will be her last release, what does Vashti see when looking back on her music and her story? “I see somebody who’s been very fortunate. As for a legacy, I think I can’t possibly say. If I knew what I was doing, I’d do more of it. I don’t. I live on wit and get away with it and stumble through. I don’t know what I’ve done. It’s very hard to see from here what I’ve done. But I hope it would give some people the idea that it’s never too late to do something. That you can do anything you want whenever you want, that you don’t have to think that anything’s too late.”

While it remains to be seen if further albums will follow, Vashti will play a few shows when Heartleap is released and possibly tour in 2015. Her musical journey from obscurity to popular rediscovery has been so rare, so surprising and unpredictable, that looking too far into the future might be missing the point entirely. For now, she is overjoyed to have a new album to share. “I wake up in the morning and I can’t believe that I actually did it,” she enthuses.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/184341-living-on-wit-an-interview-with-vashti-bunyan/