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Vashti Bunyan Finds Her Voice Again

Life got the better of Vashti Bunyan after her landmark Just Another Diamond Day was released, to little fanfare, in 1970. Mother of two children, country housewife, caretaker for the friends and lovers and animals that filled her home, she was consumed in what she calls "Lookaftering," the constant round of chores that filled the day-to-day. That term, with its dual meaning of caretaking and nostalgic remembrance, became the title to her second album. She explained in a recent phone interview that Lookaftering, released more than 30 years after her first album, was inspired and even made possible by the unexpected interest in Diamond Day when it was reissued in 2000.

"People wrote some lovely things about Diamond Day," she said. "It made me able to listen to my own voice again, and I hadn't been able to for all those years. It also made me able to play my guitar again, instead of just sticking it back up against the wall."

Bunyan, whose speaking voice is as shy, fragile and kind-sounding as her songs, said that while interest in Diamond Day gave her the courage to begin writing again, she returned not to the pastoral folk topics of that album, but to earlier, more personal material. "They're more like what's inside of me, rather than what's outside of me," she explained.

The folk chanteuse had written Diamond Day's songs on her fabled horse-cart ride through the north of England and to Donovan's utopian compound on the Isle of Skye. She had left behind a promising career, jump-started with a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-penned single and backed by the Stones' first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Yet as a woman and a singer in the late 1960s, she lacked the confidence to follow her own muse.

"When I first met Robert Lewis, who was the person I did the horse journey with, and he wrote some of the lyrics on Diamond Day, I clearly remember him saying, 'Why don't you stop writing all these little love songs and start writing about all the wonderful things that are going on around you?' So I did, and Diamond Day was much more about stories and the world around me and about the dreams that I had about the life we were living," she said.

"But once we'd done that, once we'd got to where we were going and once we started living that life, I no longer needed to write songs about it. Life kind of took over from the music. And also when Diamond Day was released and didn't go anywhere, I kind of gave up on it. I just didn't want to have anything more to do with music."

Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when Bunyan received an email from an unknown singer/songwriter named Devendra Banhart. "Devendra found Diamond Day when he was in Paris, and there was a Web site address and he wrote me an email," said Bunyan. "He told me what a horrible time he was having, and that he didn't know if he should carry on. Could he send me some of his music? And he did. He sent me a package of that and some of his drawings and paintings."

Bunyan knew immediately that she was dealing with a rare talent. "At first it was the drawings that completely enchanted me," she recalled. "I recognized something in them. And then when I put the tapes on, it was so wonderful, so inventive, so new, so alive and in the present and individual and every good word you could say about it. So I wrote back and said, yes. You must carry on. I absolutely love what you're doing. But whatever I said, nothing would have stopped Devendra. He's such a force."

Banhart became a vocal advocate for Bunyan's music, bringing an old vinyl copy of Diamond Day to radio appearances and talking enthusiastically about her whenever he was interviewed. A buzz began building around Bunyan, whose only album at the time, Just Another Diamond Day, was released in the UK in 2000, then in the U.S. in 2004. Adopted by the psyche-folk movement, her album had, without her knowing, become a kind of touchstone for artists as diverse as Banhart, Joanna Newsom and the members of Animal Collective. It received far more favorable publicity the second time around, and for the first time in decades, Bunyan began writing new material.

"The songs I'm writing now are much more like the ones I was writing before Diamond Day, more personal," she said. "And also, there was a whole lifetime's worth of things that happened. I think maybe because I hadn't written... because I hadn't continued to write... I think when I did go back to them, there must have been all this stuff waiting."

Indeed, the songs on Lookaftering, out now on DiCristina, are about intimate, closely felt subjects. In "Here Again" Bunyan sings about her two children, in "Brother" about a sibling who passed away; "Feet of Clay" is a touching tribute to a lover who is, as Bunyan says, "the most wonderful dancer... and I am definitely not." The song, she explained, is "about letting somebody be free, I guess, and not pinning them down."

Much has changed in the intervening years, yet Bunyan has the same, water-pure voice, as fresh and breathy and unaffected as in her younger years. Asked how she maintained her extraordinary voice, she laughed and answered, "Somebody said the other day, 'Well, you know, it's probably still the same because you haven't used it.' After the Diamond Day recording, I hardly ever sang.

"It surprised me as well when I went into the studio that any voice came out of me at all, she continued. "I was so completely unused to singing. I don't know... it is quite strange really, but it is pretty much the same."

Mischievously, she added, "Maybe it's going to change now."

For Lookaftering Bunyan worked with classical/electronic composer and fellow Edinburgh resident Max Richter, whom she described as "the most wonderful, patient, extraordinary musician." Enjoying a great deal more autonomy than in her 1960s and 1970s sessions, Bunyan said, "We never had any sticky moments. He was very, very patient, and even when he didn't agree with me about something, he would wait until I came around to his way of thinking or else he changed his mind, and we just worked together very well."

She added that she and Richter came from radically different backgrounds, he a classically trained graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and she an entirely self-taught musician. "I come from a really totally self-taught background, not knowing what chords are called. So I can't speak his language, but he was able to pick up what I meant in the most extraordinary way. I think maybe because we were so different, it really worked. It made the music... that we were both coming to it so fresh, from different directions. I think it added another layer."

Bunyan had purchased some composing and recording software with the royalties from the re-release of Diamond Day, teaching herself to recreate the layered, orchestral sounds that she heard in her head. "I brought those arrangements to Max and he was very faithful to my original arrangements, some of the first songs I wrote, and then he wrote the string parts to some of the songs," she said.

She added that he allowed her a great deal more creative control than she'd had on Diamond Day. For instance, she said, she felt that the songs needed to be orchestrated with no bass and no drums, since they mostly followed an organic, unstructured pace rather than a steady beat. "It took him a while to get used to that idea, but then he really understood what I meant and took all the bass off, and didn't mind. He wasn't upset," she said.

Lookaftering draws from some of the psyche-folk movement's brightest lights, with Banhart and Kevin Barnes (Currituck County) playing guitars on one song, Joanna Newsom adding harp to two, and appearances by members of Espers and Adem. Bunyan said she sees lots of commonality between their work and hers. "I think what they're doing is what I so wanted around me when I was doing Diamond Day," she ventured. "When I was in that world myself, I was very much alone back then. And they just seem to understand what I was trying to do then. I don't think it's what I'm trying to do now. But I love to see them and to hear what they're doing and to feel that they're taking it on into a whole new realm."

One of Bunyan's most striking collaborations occurs not on her own album, but on Animal Collective's Prospect Hummer EP, also out now on Fat Cat. Here her ethereal voice weaves in and among the Brooklyn foursome's trademark strummings and wordless vocals, creating a haunting and very moving combination of both these artists' strengths. Bunyan met Animal Collective through Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, who had played guitar at her Royal Albert Hall concert and was touring with the band in Europe.

On a stop in Scotland, Bunyan, Hebden and Animal Collective all went out to dinner, and Hebden said, "You know, all these guys have your album." "This was before Diamond Day came out again," Bunyan said . "I just couldn't believe it that people from Brooklyn would have my album. I was just astonished that anyone could know about it, and I still, even now, I find it hard to believe that anybody has ever heard of it. Because it was buried in my life for so many years."

Three days on a subsequent European tour were set aside to record, and Bunyan met the band at the studio. "I thought I was going to be doing sort of backing vocals, you know. They very gently pushed me further and further towards the front," she said. "I think it was a very special thing, and I don't think that we'll ever do anything again, but it was... it was like smoke out of a bottle. Its own thing that happened in that time, and never to be repeated."

Currently Bunyan is planning a few U.S. dates for the end of the year, and, with an eye towards shortening the gap between albums to something less than 30 years, writing some new songs. For confirmed dates, check her Web site — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, October 17, 2005]

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