Introducing her signature song under the gentle lights of London’s St. Pancras Old Church, Vashti Bunyan explains why she cleared “Diamond Day” for use in that T-Mobile advert back in 2006. “I was 18 or 19, writing songs, walking around Soho trying to find a manager,” recalls the 69 year-old. “Nobody was interested. They used to say, ‘You’re just not commercial.’ So all those years later, I said yes to a commercial.” Bunyan gives a wry smirk as the audience bursts into laughter.
It’s a rare moment of valedictory triumphalism that belies decades of quiet bitterness and disappointment. Bunyan’s debut album, the psych-folk touchstone Just Another Diamond Day, was released in 1970 to warm reviews but thoroughly disappointing sales. So crushed was the singer-songwriter with the album’s failure – and the success of the people around her - that she abandoned music, focusing instead on raising a family for the next 30 years.
In 2000, the album was finally rescued and reissued on CD to the rapturous reception it deserved. Suitably encouraged, Bunyan was coaxed back into the studio by the likes of Devendra Banhart and another album, Lookaftering, eventually surfaced in 2005. Earlier this month, she released what is reputedly her last full-length, Heartleap.
If there is an air of finality about tonight, it’s hard not to have mixed emotions. On the one hand, it would have been lovely to have had more than a meagre three albums and handful of gigs from the doyenne of freak folk by now. On the other, Bunyan’s performance this evening is of such delicate poise and beauty that you feel an even more profound sense of privilege for bearing witness to it.
Past and present are intertwined, with Bunyan culling more or less evenly from her three LPs along with a rarity in “Wishwanderer.” She takes the time to whisper an introduction for each one, oscillating between the youthful naivety of songs like “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind” and the worldly weariness of “Wayward” (“Much as I loved children, sometimes I really wanted to leave them behind,” she says, to muffled mirth in the crowd). These are all deeply personal songs and their emotional counterweight is intensified by the lengthy gaps between when they were recorded.
Bunyan’s fragile voice is inflected with a slight quaver nowadays but it’s otherwise pitch-perfect. Songs like “Rose Hip November” (a personal favourite) sound much as they always did, albeit stripped down to two acoustic guitars (Bunyan is accompanied on stage by long-time collaborator Gareth Dickson). Occasionally the absence of embellishment is more keenly felt (especially on the more sonically adventurous Heartleap tracks) but the church’s intimate environs lend themselves well to the instrumental simplicity.
As she closes her hour-long set with new song “Heartleap,” Bunyan manages to paradoxically both justify her retirement and dismiss any such possibility out of hand. Approaching her eighth decade, she might not sound this transcendentally beautiful for much longer. Equally though, who can begrudge Bunyan the form of her life?