Back from the country

Pub date September 5, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

At the end of our transatlantic phone conversation, I tell Vashti Bunyan to have a good night, and she tells me to have a good day. She’s relaxed at home in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her friend Jenny Wright — whom the first track on the new album Lookaftering (Dicristina Stair) is dedicated to — is staying for a visit. “We really haven’t seen each other at all over the last 30 years,” Bunyan says when I first ask about Wright, not knowing that she’s in fact sitting nearby. “She just happens to be staying with me right now! That’s really, really lovely.”
Reunions that span over 30 years — and ones that are really, really lovely — are something Bunyan’s devoted admirers fully understand. Defined by the forest flute-and-vocal duet of its singular title track, her first and for a long time only full-length recording, the Joe Boyd–produced 1970 Just Another Diamond Day (Dicristina Stair), is the rare kind of cult recording that deserves its cherished status. In essence, it’s an aural document of a horse-drawn journey to the Isle of Skye — a trip that she recently made once again for a film project by Kieran Evans, who first directed her in the real-life role of a native Londoner in Saint Etienne’s 2003 film Finisterre. “We went up to the Hebrides to film the end,” she says in a warm, soft-spoken tone of voice not unrelated to her singing. “It’s been quite a revelation to see all those places and have to think about that time again.”
Even Bunyan’s fans can’t be blamed for mistakenly thinking that she’s still living the magic-tinged pastoral life conjured by Just Another Diamond Day, her famed collaboration with members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. The cover of Bunyan’s Lookaftering features a profile of a regal-looking hare (“You call it a jackrabbit, don’t you?” she says) painted by her daughter, the artist Whyn Lewis. It begins with the Wright-inspired composition “Lately,” which down to its very title suggests little has changed in Bunyan’s world of sound except some subtle alterations for the better: the new album’s pace is a bit more relaxed, the already unique dedication to exploring thought and feeling even deeper.
Lookaftering’s most gorgeous melody might be the one within “Hidden.” “I wrote it for my boyfriend,” Bunyan says when asked about the song’s roots. “When I showed it to him, he was quite upset by it, and I couldn’t understand why. I thought it was a very loving and tender song, but he thought it meant he didn’t understand me or I didn’t understand him. But now, whenever I sing that song — and I usually start the show with it — I think he’s really pleased.”
Some of that pleasure is partly thanks to Devendra Banhart, who is only the most dedicated and high profile of Bunyan’s current-day admirers, who also include Animal Collective and Piano Magic. “I was so frightened of performing live,” she admits when asked about her return to the public eye (if it is indeed that, considering her reclusive nature the first time around). “I couldn’t even record an answering machine message. I asked Devendra how he could do it, and he said, ‘You just have to do it — there’s no other way. You have to do it until it becomes normal.’ After 10 shows or so I realized that my knees weren’t shaking anymore and I was actually enjoying it. I’m so grateful to Devendra for just saying the truth — you do what frightens you until you aren’t frightened anymore.”
For Bunyan, both the advice and support from Banhart and his associates have been a revelation. As a young artist she felt an unspoken bond with French singer-songwriter Françoise Hardy (“She was the only person with whom I felt any kinship at all”) and oft silently bristled against the patriarchal aspects of Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones, and the overall competitiveness of her then-peers from swinging London. “Fancy ball gowns were the things they wanted to put me in — no way!” she remembers with a laugh. “When I started out at 18 or 19, the recording process was fascinating to me. But because of the way things were then, a shy girl could never get access to the actual production method.”
Today, Bunyan’s using her home computer to perform mirror-perfect duets across the ocean with Banhart and to make her own music without interference. The descendant of John Bunyan (“I was never made to read Pilgrim’s Progress when I was young — thank goodness, because I would have rebelled”) has even discovered a certain rhythmic and lyrical connection within the writing of her famed family member. She’s also made peace with her traveling past: “Back in the time [Loog Oldham and I] were working together, I think we hardly exchanged two words. But now there’s so much to talk about, and he’s so helpful and wise and just brilliant to remember things with.”
The shy country girl of musical myth is a city woman with grown kids now — and all the wiser for it. “I was talking with Jenny Wright about that just today,” Bunyan says. “In a small community you can go a certain kind of mad, really — I think human beings need lots and lots of different kinds of people to relate to and communicate with, and they finally find their own way.”
“I did desperately turn my back on the world and go off with a horse and wagon,” she says. “But I didn’t stay there!” SFBG
Thurs/7, 9 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
$20–$24 ($39.95 with dinner)
(415) 885-0750
For the complete interview with Vashti Bunyan, visit Noise at