Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Vashti Bunyan Rachel Lipsitz

Vashti Bunyan's Personal Best

17 April 2024, 08:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Rachel Lipsitz

As she makes a rare return to the stage this week, Vashti Bunyan talks to Alan Pedder about Joni Mitchell, her treasure trove of demos, and the five songs she’s most proud of.

Vashti Bunyan knew she wanted to be a songwriter and musician from the moment she fell in love with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on a trip to New York when she was 18 years old.

Returning to Oxford, where she was studying at the university’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, she took to learning guitar and writing songs – at the expense of learning anything much about art – and, in 1964, was finally expelled. Moving back to London, where she had grown up in a World War II bomb-damaged house close to Marble Arch, Bunyan began to find an audience for her gentle, acoustic pop songs. Yet, despite major-label support, her first few recordings sank without a trace upon release, and others were shelved indefinitely.

Suffering from poor mental health and in thrall to the idea of a dream life in Scotland, Bunyan and her then-boyfriend sold their grandfather clock to buy a horse and wagon, making the 650-mile trip from London to the Isle of Skye over a period of almost two years. Along the way, Bunyan wrote the songs for an album that she’d end up recording back in London with in-demand producer Joe Boyd. That album was Just Another Diamond Day, which went on to achieve near-mythical status among collectors despite tanking with almost no fanfare on its original release in 1970. For Bunyan, the record’s failure was the last straw and she withdrew from music entirely, not even singing to her children because it made her too sad.

Fast forward to the turn of the millennium and the Bunyanaissance was in full flow. Word-of-mouth had kept Just Another Diamond Day alive, and its reissue in 2000 through the newly formed Spinney Records was timed perfectly to position her as some kind of godmother of freak-folk. Not that Bunyan considers herself to be a folk singer – a fact she makes clear in her recent memoir Wayward, which covers everything from her life-changing journey to Scotland through to her Lazarus-like resurrection with 2005’s Max Richter-helmed Lookaftering and 2014’s self-produced Heartleap.


Speaking to Best Fit from Edinburgh – the city she’s called home for the past 30 years – Bunyan is in the middle of preparing for a rare live performance. Two, actually. On Thursday she’ll take part in a Joni Mitchell tribute show curated by singer/songwriter Lail Arad, and on Saturday she’ll play a full band show of her own songs for the first time in two years. Both shows are being held at The Roundhouse in London, as part of this year’s In the Round Festival. Bunyan confesses that she’s spent the whole morning practicing just one line of a Mitchell song – she’ll perform both “River” and “Little Green” from Blue – trying to hit the high notes. “To be honest, those just seemed to be the only two songs of Joni’s that I could even attempt because of her amazing range,” she says modestly. “And I’m still finding it hard!”

By the time Blue was released in the summer of 1971, Bunyan had already checked out of the music industry and only became aware of the album much later, but she did know of the Canadian artist’s earlier work. She tells me how, as a young girl, she would compare herself unfavourably to Mitchell, saying, “I remember seeing her on an old black and white TV in ’69 or ’69, sitting at a piano and singing – probably ‘Both Sides Now’ – and thinking, ‘No, I just can’t compete with that. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do what she does.’ That feeling kind of stayed with me, so it does feel quite strange to be singing her songs at The Roundhouse. I just hope I can remember all her words.”

Bunyan admits that she’s quite nervous about performing her own show in addition to the Mitchell tribute (“I thought, ‘Well, if I’ve said yes to one, I can’t say no to the other,” she quips), but perhaps the most difficult part is choosing a balanced setlist that keeps all the players busy.

There won’t be any new material, she confirms. She hasn’t written a song since finishing the title track from Heartleap ten years ago. “I don’t know where my songs came from, and I don’t seem to be able to get back to that place,” she says. “It’s very strange to me. Some people can just keep on finding songs, finding music, finding things to write about. I wrote a book instead.”

Young Vashti Bunyan

Asked to choose the five songs from her catalogue that she’s most proud of, Bunyan returns with six – unable to settle on her final pick between “Against the Sky” from Lookaftering and “Mother” from Heartleap. In the end, we decide on the former, but the story behind “Mother” is also worth sharing. At 79, Bunyan is 20 years older than her mum was when she passed away in 1969, and the song is a heartbreaking retelling of a memory from Bunyan’s childhood. “It’s a memory of watching her through a slightly open door when she didn’t think anyone was there,” she says. “I saw her playing an old out-of-tune piano and singing in this beautiful voice that I didn’t know she had. I didn’t even know she could play piano.”

“That memory made me think of other women of her generation who, in many cases, had to give up their own artistry and creativity to be a wife and a mother. Women like Molly Drake, Nick Drake’s mother, who wrote and recorded all these beautiful songs but was a wife and mother first and foremost. That’s what she had to be, and that’s what my mother had to be. Yet she had this beautiful voice and she danced so beautifully, it broke my heart to think she was never able to have that in her life. I do regret that, because I should have told her how beautiful I thought she was and I never did.”

It's even more poignant, then, that Bunyan herself did eventually get her flowers and a taste of the recognition she’d worked so hard for in the early days. In some other timeline, she could still be living in the shadow of her perceived failure, only playing in secrecy, if she plays at all. “Goodness gracious,” she exclaims, “I guess I’m pretty lucky.”

"Train Song" (1966)

BEST FIT: “Train Song” was released as your second single, after your first which was a track written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

VASHTI BUNYAN: That’s right. My first single, “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind” didn’t really make any headway, despite that connection. It was an extraordinary experience making that single with Andrew Loog Oldham, with all these incredible orchestrations, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I wanted something simpler. When I met Peter Snell, a Canadian producer, he agreed with me that my songs needed a much lighter touch and he bought me out of my contract with Andrew.

When we recorded “Train Song”, we did it with just two guitars, double bass and a cello, and I was really so very pleased with it. But then it came out, on Columbia Records, and it barely got any radio play. Nothing happened to it at all. The only radio play it got was on Radio Caroline, which was a pirate radio station, and that was given away as a prize.

“Train Song” started out as a song called “17 Pink Sugar Elephants” that I wrote with a woman called Jenny Lewis, who was my roommate at art school in Oxford. Neither of us can really remember how we wrote the song, but I really like it still. She’s actually going to re-record it, which I’m looking forward to.

The lyrics come from a poet called Alasdair Clayre, who was also at Oxford. He used to write poems to me, then roll them up and leave them in a milk bottle at the door of where I was living. I did love his poems, and I was really happy to discover that one of them, “Train Song”, fitted the tune of “17 Pink Sugar Elephants”. When I met Peter Snell, he really liked the two together so we decided to record it that way.

It's funny, because when I listen to “Train Song” now, I can’t remember why I only recorded two of the verses. There’s a version that Feist and Ben Gibbard recorded [for the 2009 compilation, Dark Was the Night] which has three verses and I’ve often wondered where they managed to find it. I’d love to actually be able to ask them that, because I really like their version – and when I play “Train Song” live these days, of course I sing it with the third verse.

You’ve recorded several of Alasdair’s poems as songs. Did he ever publish them?

I don’t actually know. I don’t think so, no, but he did record “Train Song” in a completely different way. Maybe that’s where the extra verse comes from.

The other thing I love about “Train Song” is that even though it really just disappeared in its day, it got picked up for a TV ad in 2011 and I’ve been asked so many times since for it to be used in other ads and in film soundtracks. It’s probably the one song of mine that has been listened to, or at least streamed, more than any other. I think it’s so great to have that kind of success now, at this time in my life, and I just love how this song has really made its own journey in the world.

Alasdair himself died quite a long time ago but after much detective work I found his nephew, who had inherited his music rights, so now he, Jenny and I share the royalties for the song. I think it’s really lovely that the song has given somebody else something, after all this time.

Was “Train Song” one of the songs that you played when Joe Boyd first heard you playing live at the ICA in London, which led to him producing on Just Another Diamond Day?

Oh! It must have been, because it was Alasdair who was the one who introduced me to Joe Boyd at that show. I think I only played it one other time at a festival, to an audience of around five people [laughs].

I was really sad when “Train Song” was a failure. When Andrew Loog Oldham and Tony Calder started up their Immediate label – the UK's first independent label, really – I went back. I’d missed the kind of energy that they had, but it was a terrible mistake again. I recorded two more songs for them, which didn’t work, and one of those is the song that we’re going to talk about next.

Vashti Bunyan Train Song

"I'd Like to Walk Around in Your Mind" (1967)

BEST FIT: I’m really happy that you chose this one because it’s one of my favourites of yours too. So, as you were saying, you recorded this for Immediate in 1967 but it was never released...

VASHTI BUNYAN: That’s right, it never got released at the time. It was actually my third try recording something for Andrew. I wrote about this in my book but I hope you don’t mind me retelling it now. I remember that he put me in a room in his offices, with a piano, a record player, and three LPs, which were by Tim Hardin, The Mamas & The Papas and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. He wanted me to write a song that was somewhere in between those three records. Well, I don’t play piano, and the whole time I was sitting there listening to the records I was just thinking, ‘Why am I even here?’ [laughs]. Eventually, I just took the records – okay, I kind of stole them – and went home and wrote “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind”.

I recorded this song with Mike Hurst, who was working as a producer for Immediate at the time. I thought the arrangement was wonderful, just perfect. I loved it then and I love it now, although I have to confess I don’t know who wrote it. I’m grateful to them, whoever it was, because it is really good. What happened was, when we took the song and played it for Andrew, after the first recording session, he thought it needed strings. We then went back and recorded it again, with strings, but we didn’t particularly like it, and neither did Andrew.

The thing is, with Immediate in those days, if something didn’t work for them immediately, they just kind of backed away and songs would get lost in the tide. The recording just disappeared, and I never made another attempt to record a pop song that I’d written myself. After this song failed, I simply ran away.

Which, as we know now, is a great story in itself.

[nods] Well, the next part of the “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind” story is that when I got to the Hebrides, I had quite a few acetate demos with me and that was one of them. I ended up giving it to a woman there who had been incredibly helpful in times that were quite troubling for me, and of course I never heard it again. Until someone told me that it had turned up on a collection of psychedelic pop obscurities called Circus Days, put together by a guy called Phil Smee.

When I heard it again for the first time, after all those years… well, I can’t even tell you how magical that was. Listening back to this version of me at 20 or 21 years old, I thought ‘Wow, I was actually a really good songwriter.’ It was quite an extraordinary discovery, and I just love that it turned up again. I also discovered that the band Lush had covered it, after having heard it on Circus Days, and that was the first time I ever, ever received royalties on a song. When Just Another Diamond Day was reissued, of course we had to put it on there as a bonus track.

There’s a line in the song that I like that goes “You see the end before the beginning has ever begun,” which tells you that I wrote this song about a man who was what you would now call ‘commitment phobic’ – and he was commitment phobic for a very long time [laughs]. Actually, most of the songs that I was writing at that time were about him, like “Winter is Blue” and “I Don’t Know What Love Is”. Maybe all of them, actually, and I think he knew it at the time.

You mentioned the Lush version, which I remember hearing as a B-side to one of their best singles, released in 1996, but had no idea it was a cover. Was that around the same time that you first accessed the internet and realised that your music had carried on without you?

Yes, that’s about right. That was when I first got a computer and first got on to the internet. I put my name into the AltaVista search bar – this was before Google – and up came all these references to songs that I thought were long gone, long forgotten. Through that, I got in contact with a collector in Sacramento who had bought Just Another Diamond Day in 1970 when it came out, and then that led me to discover “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind” on Circus Days and all these others things that I’d thought I’d lost decades before.

Vashti Bunyan Some Things

"Rose Hip November" (1970)

VASHTI BUNYAN: When “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind” wasn’t released, I went into a huge nosedive and ran away from London with a horse, a dog, a boyfriend and a wagon, making for some islands off the west coast of Scotland where my partner’s friend Donovan had bought a fantastic amount of land with a lot of ruined cottages.

Donovan had wanted people of a like mind to his – writers, painters, musicians – to relocate there. To us, at the time, it seemed like the only thing we could do was to go there, but we had no money. Donovan and his friends had driven up there in a Land Rover, whereas we took two summers and a winter to get there by horse and wagon. By that time, Donovan had become an incredibly successful musician, and while he did just happen to be there when we arrived it became quite clear that there was no longer a place for us.

But to get back to “Rose Hip November”, that’s a song I wrote about halfway through the journey, in the Lake District. We had been given a house to stay in for the winter by some incredibly kind people. The weather was getting pretty bad and I just felt so lucky to be indoors for a while. At the time I wrote the song, I was still quite romantic about farms and farming. Although I grew up in central London, I had relatives who had farms and I had all these wonderfully romantic ideas about that. As a kid, I loved my grandmother’s farm kitchen. I loved everything about the farm. Hay bales, combine harvesters, happy shepherds and all that stuff.

These days I’m sometimes quite embarrassed singing this song, but at the time I really did believe in the beauty of pastoral life. Then, between leaving the Lake District and reaching the Hebrides, travelling through the north of England and into Scotland, I changed my mind. I suddenly understood what farming actually involves, with all the animal cruelty and killing, and I became a very different person.

For me, “Rose Hip November” represents the last of my innocence. The true nature of it had just never crossed my mind. To be honest, the whole journey from London changed me completely. It was the education that I’d missed growing up in post-war London, in a very protected environment. The journey taught me what I needed to know.

I can see why some people thought of the songs on Just Another Diamond Day as being like nursery rhymes, because they do have a childlike feel to them. But to me, that’s really how I was and how I felt about the world, as if the trees, the hills, the road and everything had sentience and inner lives. I know, I was slightly bonkers at the time [laughs]. Then, on the journey, when we were on the road with just a tiny little bag, not much in the way of shelter, and a lot of rain, I started to feel very differently about the world. I had a different way of relating to it, and that’s something that I think about all the time even now.

Another thing that changed me, and was a big lesson, was discovering the way that travellers were treated. It was such a huge eye opener, because the traveller community were so good to us. They really accepted us and enjoyed what we were doing – even though they thought that we were crazy because they all had cars, not horse-drawn wagons – and they were kind to us, in ways that a lot of settled people weren’t.

I recall reading somewhere that one of your relatives was actually descended from Romany travellers, is that right?

Yes. It turns out that my mother's grandmother's father was a traveller, although that fact was kept very quiet. It took me a long time to dig that up, from an elderly cousin. He was always thought to be from farming stock, but my cousin told me that he was a Romany traveller who’d originally come over to Kent to do the hop picking.

Now it seems incredible that such a thing would be thought of as something to be kept quiet within the family. For me, it was an incredibly exciting discovery, because I had such romantic notions of beautiful wagons and beautiful people with all their flowing robes and gold coins. I would see travellers at the side of the road when I was growing up and they seemed to be such wonderful, defiant people, and that really appealed to me.

They have their own beautiful music as well. I was talking to Shirley Collins about that last year, in another Personal Best interview.

Yes. So wonderful. Such wonderful, heartbreaking people. I made some good friends among them and we stayed in touch, for a while.

Vashti Bunyan Diamond Day

"If I Were" demo version (2019)

BEST FIT: The next song you’ve chosen is the demo version of “If I Were”, which is a song from Lookaftering. As I understand it, this demo version basically captures the first time that you had tried to write and record a song after a 30-year break. How did you get to that point where you felt you wanted to write again?

VASHTI BUNYAN: When Just Another Diamond Day was re-released in 2000 and found a more welcoming audience who understood it, for the first time in its life, it sold well enough for me to get some really lovely royalties. With that money, I bought a Mac, a keyboard, a mixer, a microphone and all I needed to start writing again. The first recording software I got was just a programme that was given away free on a CD on the front of a magazine, and – oh my goodness – that just opened the door for me.

It was incredible to have, on my computer screen right in front of me, all the levers, buttons, lights and everything that had been denied to me when I was recording with Andrew Loog-Oldham, Peter Snell, or whoever I’d been recording with. You know, I was just the singer. I came into the studio, I sang, and then I went away again, but what I had really wanted to do was to get to understand how it all worked. Music technology had always interested me, even as a young child, because my brother was very interested in it. So, to have it there on my screen, and to actually be able to learn how to do the work myself, was really magical to me.

“If I Were” was the first song I came up with. It’s about my daughter, and about her relationship at the time. It was a relationship where they clearly absolutely adored each other but they couldn’t communicate. She’s probably not pleased about me telling people it’s about her, but it was inspired by her.

For me, it was such fun to get to grips with fake piano, fake guitar, fake accordion, and to put them all together in a way that I would never have been able to imagine how to do with real people. It was incredible to be able to just do it by myself, with nobody around me to hear all the terrible messes I was making, and eventually bringing it all together into something that I liked.

For the version that Max Richter produced for Lookaftering, he had Joanna Newsom come and play harp on “If I Were”, and I really love that version too – but I’m particularly fond of my demo version.

It was such a milestone for you.

It really was. More recently, Devendra Banhart put the demo on a collection called Fragments du Monde Flottant, and I’m so grateful to him for doing that because, so far, it’s the only way that the demo version has actually come out into the world. Devendra has been such a fantastic friend for a long, long time, and it was really a lovely, kind thing for him to do.

I love that collection, because it’s all demos done by different artists. I do find that a lot of artists have a very special relationship with their demos, and that notion of capturing lightning in a bottle with your first ideas.

Yeah, and that’s something I wrote about at the end of my book because I do really love demos. They are so direct and they haven’t been messed around with. I wrote that I should have stayed in art school instead of getting thrown out. I should have paid more attention and become a painter instead, because your paintings don’t get changed. Well, when they get printed they do sometimes get printed in the wrong colours. But that’s how I feel about songs as well – that they get printed in the wrong colours, or at least in different colours to the demos.

Even though I self-produced my last album, Heartleap, it still had to go through a lot of processes and different forms before it actually met its audience. But, even when the album was done, I remember thinking back on how much I really loved the demos of all those songs. It’s very difficult to shake that feeling. I love the rest of the Lookaftering demos, besides “If I Were”, as well. They’re much more direct than the album versions.

Now for the obvious question: why don’t you release those demos?

Well, I don’t know if they are still going to do it, but FatCat Records were at one time planning to re-release Lookaftering as a double album, with the original plus the demos. That’s been in the making for three or four years now.

Oh, right! Well, next year is the 20th anniversary of the album so maybe it will happen then.

I really hope so, because we spent a lot of time figuring it out and getting the demos mastered even though some of them are pretty rough. There's just something special about them, I think.

Vashti Bunyan If I Were demo

"Against the Sky" (2005)

VASHTI BUNYAN: This song is about when I left my life in the hills of Scotland and came to live here in the city, and it’s about missing that life but not wanting to go back to it. I’ve been quite happy here, although the chimney pots don’t wave against the sky like trees do.

The idea for this song was inspired by an old, illustrated map that I’d seen. One of the illustrations was of a little cherub pulling the wind over his shoulder, and I thought, ‘That’s right, the wind is pulled. It’s not pushed.’ That’s why the first line of the song goes “Whatever pulled the wind that night,” which probably is quite a strange thought but it makes sense to me. I just think of that little guy, pulling and pulling.

The last lines of the song are “Some evening skies are yellow / And over my head they’re blue / What happened to the green between / It happened to me / Too.” As you may be able to guess, that verse was inspired by watching a sunset one night. The sun had gone down but the sky was still yellow and above the rest was blue. Well, when we are kids, we’re all taught that yellow and blue make green, so I was wondering where the green was. Then I thought, well, what happened to the green was what happened to me as well. I disappeared, just like the green.

Even now, when I look at a sunset, I still look for a faint bit of green between the yellow and blue, but I have never seen it.

BEST FIT: That’s such an interesting insight, and now it seems even more fitting that you are going to sing Joni’s “Little Green”, which was her name for the daughter she gave up for adoption, who disappeared from her life for so long.

Wow, yes, absolutely. What a lovely connection. Yeah, she did disappear. She came back eventually though.

And so did you.

[beams] Yes!

Vashti Bunyan Lookaftering

The 2024 edition of In The Round Festival takes place at The Roundhouse in London 18–27 April. The Songs of Joni Mitchell, with Vashti Bunyan, Emeli Sandé, This is the Kit and more, takes place on Thursday 18 April. Vashti Bunyan headlines on Saturday 20 April. Tickets for all shows are still available.

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