A Pilgrim’s Progress 

Vashti Bunyan on the Road Back to Neo-Folk

Folk singer Vashti Bunyan is about to release her second album, 35 years after her first. Her fairy-tale history is so unusual and enchanting that it has become a myth in certain circles. Her story overshadows her music — almost.

She got her start in 1960s London when Rolling Stones guru Andrew Loog-Oldham recruited her to record a mediocre single written by Jagger and Richards. She was labeled the “female Bob Dylan,” but her subsequent attempts at singles went nowhere. So in 1968, when she heard that singer Donovan was founding an artists’ colony in Scotland, she accepted his loan of a few hundred dollars, purchased a horse and cart, and set off with her boyfriend for the Isle of Skye.

When they arrived nearly two years later, they found Donovan and the others had grown bored of farm life and moved back to the city. But the journey wasn’t a waste — along the way she had begun composing what would become her first record, Just Another Diamond Day.

Diamond Day is a haunting whisper of an album. Bunyan’s voice is air-spun, floating over melodies that sound like decades-old folk songs, with subject matter to match. Tales about roaming the countryside, rescuing stray dogs and horses and forlorn fishermen bobbing on the sea would be laughable if they weren’t delivered with such innocence and sincerity.

But even with the fantastic work of Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd, the few copies that were issued in 1969 landed with a colossal thud. Very little publicity was done, and Bunyan retired to a farmhouse with her children and partner. As she tells it now, the failure was so painful that she decided to abandon music for good.

“Diamond Day was so ignored in its day — and ridiculed when it wasn’t being ignored — that I couldn’t bear to listen to it because it just made me very sad,” she says. “I couldn’t listen to my own voice. I couldn’t even do an answering machine message.” She gave away all her copies of the LP, hung her guitar up on the wall and focused on raising her children, caring for the farm, and restoring furniture. She never talked about her music, even with her family. “If anybody mentioned it I used to just clam up or talk about something else,” she says.

She would have faded into obscurity like so many other musical curiosities, were it not for a few tenacious record collectors who sought out Diamond Day as a lost British classic. In the late 1990s, Vashti typed her name into a search engine and discovered the underground interest in her music — remaining copies of her record were being sold for hundreds of dollars. Surprised and touched by the praise she had hoped for 30 years earlier, she decided to track down the rights to her album and try to re-release it. Just Another Diamond Day was re-issued in the U.S. in October 2004 to great acclaim. The notoriously fastidious music web site Pitchfork gave it a 9.0 rating and proclaimed it to be “nearly a thing of perfection.”

By this time Bunyan had developed cachet with the neo-folk scene led by singer-songwriters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Since many of these folk artists, and others like Stephen Malkmus, had known of her prior to the re-issue, they were her earliest supporters.

Bunyan found the sudden attention puzzling (“For me they were the really successful musicians and I was just some old person!”) but she has theories about why her album appeals to the 20-something set. “The people who understand it now are at the age that I was when I wrote the songs. It’s come around in a circle,” she muses. “Maybe it’s because the world is in a similar state as it was in the 60s. Everywhere you look it’s really desperate. Maybe one of the ways to deal with it is to make your own prettier world.”

Fellow nomad Banhart had even contacted her before he’d made a name for himself. “He wrote me saying, ‘Hello, I’m a little tick from San Francisco and I’m having this horrible time and I don’t know if I should carry on. Can I send you some of my music?’” She replied with encouragement and the two have carried on a correspondence ever since. They sang together on the title track of his 2004 album Rejoicing in the Hands.

Soon, more offers were pouring in. Bunyan sang on Prospect Hummer, a high-profile collaboration with Animal Collective released in May 2005. The band knew they’d have to coax her into contributing to the EP. “I thought I was going to be doing backing vocals, and when I arrived I found that I was doing all the vocals,” she laughs. “If they’d told me, I might not have shown up!” The resulting songs made brilliant use of Bunyan’s delicate voice while displaying a keen focus rarely seen on other Animal Collective recordings.

Eventually word got out that she was working on a full-length album of her own, with instrumental appearances by Banhart, Newsom, Adem and others. But Bunyan had not sung or picked up a guitar in 30 years, and the pressure was overwhelming. “Whatever I did, it was going to be a follow-up to Diamond Day even though there’s such a gap between them,” she says. “It took three or four months for me to be able to use my voice again.”

Her voice sounds as pure as ever on Lookaftering, but unfortunately, the back-story prevents the record from standing on its own or living up to the towering expectations. At times it nearly meanders into adult contemporary territory, but a few of the songs are remarkable. Bunyan’s songwriting is riskiest on ‘Here Before’, with a chorus of spoken whispers and a vocal roundelay that suggests she’s learned something from her young admirers.

With the release of Lookaftering, Bunyan is understandably eager to shift attention away from her life and onto her music, but she says she understands the tale’s appeal. “It holds a lot of people’s imaginations,” she says. “But I would like the attention to be on the music rather than on my old story. What I’m trying to say,” she laughs, “ is that I’d like to make a new story.”

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