NPR

Vashti Bunyan: 40 Years Later, A Musical Rebirth

Back in the mid-'60s, Andrew Oldham, manager of The Rolling Stones, saw something promising in a quiet young singer-songwriter named Vashti Bunyan. So he brought her into the studio to record a single called "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind," written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Oldham himself presided over the session.

"Oh, yeah, he was there," Bunyan says. "Mick Jagger was there. Everybody was there. But nobody really spoke to me, and I certainly didn't speak to anybody. I was way too shy."

Bunyan says she's always been shy.

"Though I had a huge ego about my songs," she says. "I thought these were great and everybody should listen to these. But as a person, I had no way of persuading anybody. I was just way too shy and pretty much merged with the wallpaper, I think."

Bunyan's shyness comes through in her soft, tentative singing. She says that, despite years spent trying to overcome it, singing more strongly just doesn't suit her.

She spent three years recording demos and singles with Oldham and others, but in spite of her own great expectations, she made little headway. In 1967, she says, she decided that she'd had enough.

But if Bunyan's arrival on the London music scene had caused little fanfare, the method of her departure three years later did raise some eyebrows — if only those of her parents. Bunyan had been living with her boyfriend in the woods behind his art school, but they were kicked out. So they decided to move to Scotland, via an antiquated form of transport.

As she and her boyfriend made their slow pilgrimage to Scotland by horse and cart — "Horses don't need petrol," she says — Bunyan says she decided she was done with recording, though she continued to write new songs.

But a chance meeting with the well-known folk-music producer Joe Boyd convinced her to go back into the studio once more, if only to document her journey and record her new songs.

The result was Just Another Diamond Day — an album that, much like her earlier efforts, hardly caused a ripple in the pop-music marketplace.

"People dismissed it as nursery rhymes for children and being very insignificant," Bunyan says. "And I just thought, 'Oh, well, I've made another mistake. They must be right. It must be rubbish. I'll never pick up a guitar again. So I didn't."

And she didn't.

"It was like taking a whole part of myself and putting it in a cupboard and putting a padlock on it," she says. "It was painful."

Instead, Bunyan spent the next 30 years raising a family and farm animals in rural Scotland.

Then, a few years ago, while surfing the Web, Bunyan says she was amazed to find that the music she'd given up for good was actually alive and well. In fact, Just Another Diamond Day and other early recordings were becoming cult classics to a new generation of musicians, and in 2004, that album was reissued. In 2005, Bunyan released her first batch of new songs in 35 years on a thoughtful, bittersweet album called Lookaftering.

"When I first got on the Internet and realized that Diamond Day hadn't just disappeared off the face of the earth and that people were still listening to the songs, it made me able to pick up my guitar again and get some kind of meaning back from it for myself," she says.

Bunyan says she's still shy and still bedeviled by issues of self-confidence. But, more than 40 years after she took her first tentative steps down the path toward a musical life, she's now finally leading it. She set up a small home studio, and, with no more children in the house, is hard at work on her next batch of quiet, carefully crafted little folk-pop poems.

"I'm writing about more particular things: more particular emotions and relationships," she says. "I'm just trying to dig a little deeper, maybe? But I've only got five songs so far. So it's kind of hard to tell."

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Transcript

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day.

(Soundbite of song "Winter Is Blue")

CHADWICK: Vashti Bunyan was a shy, teenage Londoner back in 1964 when she decided to try becoming a folk-pop singer. It didn't work out too well, and after several years, Vashti gave up on music only to discover 40 years later that, in fact, she does have some kind of musical career. She told her story to music journalist Christian Bordal.

(Soundbite of song "Winter Is Blue")

Ms. VASHTI BUNYAN: (Singing) Winter is blue. Living is gone. Some are just sleeping...

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Back in the mid-1960s, Andrew Oldham, manager of The Rolling Stones, saw something promising in a quiet, young singer-songwriter named Vashti Bunyan. And he brought her into the studio to record a single called "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind," written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Oldham himself presided over the session.

Ms. BUNYAN (Singer/Songwriter, "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind: Singles and Demos 1964 to 1967"): Oh, yeah, he was there. Mick Jagger was there. Woody was there. But nobody really spoke to me, and I didn't - I certainly didn't speak to anybody. I was way too shy, though I had a huge ego about my songs, and I thought many of these were - these were great and everybody should listen to these. But as a person, I had no way of persuading anybody. I was just way too shy and pretty much merged with the wallpaper, I think.

BORDAL: You can hear Bunyan's shyness in her soft, tentative singing. She says that, despite years of trying to overcome it, singing more forcefully just doesn't suit her.

(Soundbite of song "Train Song")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Traveling north, traveling north to find you. Train wheels beating, the wind in my eyes...

BORDAL: Bunyan spent three years recording demos and singles with Oldham and others, but despite her own great expectations, she made little headway. And in 1967, she decided she'd had enough. But if Bunyan's arrival on the London music scene had caused little fanfare, her departure three years later did raise some eyebrows, if only those of her parents. Bunyan had been living with her boyfriend in the woods behind his art school.

Ms. BUNYAN: But we got thrown out there and that's what gave us the idea. Well, if we're always going to be thrown out of places, what we need is something that we could move around in. But we haven't got any money. And so, we thought, well, we need a horse, a horse to pull our cart, because horses don't need petrol. And so, with ideas like this, and we were so, so innocent and yet we carried out these ideas. And we did get a horse. And we did a cart. And we did take to the road to travel to the northern part of Scotland.

(Soundbite of song "Some Things Stick in Your Mind")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) I don't know why it is, but I sometimes feel, That I have to get away...

BORDAL: As she made her slow pilgrimage to Scotland by horse and cart, Bunyan thought she was done with recording, though she continued to write new songs. But a chance meeting with the well-known folk-music producer Joe Boyd convinced her to go back into the studio once more to document her journey and record her new songs.

(Soundbite of song "Just Another Diamond Day")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Just another diamond day, Just a blade of grass, Just another bale of hay, And the horses pass..

BORDAL: The result was "Just Another Diamond Day" an album that, much like her earlier efforts, came and went causing hardly a ripple in the pop-music firmament.

Ms. BUNYAN: People dismissed it as nursery rhymes for children, as just being very insignificant. I think in its own day it was really totally dismissed. And I just thought, oh, well, I've made another mistake. They must be right. It must be rubbish. And so, I'm never going to pick up a guitar again. So, I didn't.

(Soundbite of song "Come Wind, Come Rain")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Come wind, come rain. We're off again, Our muddy boots plod down the lane...

BORDAL: Bunyan made good on her promise.

Ms. BUNYAN: It was like taking a whole part of myself and putting it in a big cupboard and putting a padlock on it. It was painful.

BORDAL: Instead, she spent the next 30 years raising a family and farm animals in rural Scotland.

Ms. BUNYAN: I didn't play or sing to my children. I did teach my oldest son to play guitar, but apart from that, I just didn't touch it.

(Soundbite of song "Wayward")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Didn't want to be the one, The one who's left behind...

BORDAL: Then, a few years ago, while surfing the web, Bunyan was amazed to find that the music she'd given up for good was actually alive and well. In fact, "Just Another Diamond Day" and other of her early recordings were becoming underground cult classics to a new generation of indie artists.

Ms. BUNYAN: It is extraordinary that people understand that album so much more now than it was ever understood in its own day.

(Soundbite of song "Wayward")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Days going by in clouds of flour and white washing, Life getting lost in a world without end...

BORDAL: In 2004, "Diamond Day" was released. And in 2005, Bunyan put out her first batch of new songs in 35 years on a thoughtful, bittersweet album called "Lookaftering."

Ms. BUNYAN: When I first got on the Internet and realized that "Diamond Day" hadn't just disappeared off the face of the Earth and that people were still listening to the songs still, it made me able to pick up my guitar again and get some kind of meaning back from it for myself.

(Soundbite of song "Feet of Clay")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Don't waste this dance on me, my love. Step and glide the way you do, And let me watch the turns and move...

BORDAL: Bunyan is still shy, still bedeviled by issues of self-confidence. But more than 40 years after she made her first tentative steps down the path towards a musical life, she's now finally leading it. She set up a small home studio, and with no more children in the house, she's happily hard at work on her next batch of quiet, carefully crafted, little folk-pop poems.

Ms. BUNYAN: I'm writing about more particular things, more particular feelings and emotions and relationships. I'm just trying to dig a little deeper, maybe. But I've only got five songs so far. So, it's kind of hard to tell.

BORDAL: Oh, hurry up.

Ms. BUNYAN: I don't know. Oh, come on. I've got 30 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "Feet of Clay")

Ms. BUNYAN: (Singing) Where was I when grace was given...

BORDAL: For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.

(Soundbite of song "Feet of Clay")

CHADWICK: Vashti Bunyan's latest release is called "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind: Singles and Demos 1964 to 1967." You can hear her songs from Vashti Bunyan's new CD at nprmusic.org. And Christian Bordal is a music journalist and producer at member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Day to Day is production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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