Vashti Bunyan: Controlling the Uncontrollable

Music Features Vashti Bunyan
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Vashti Bunyan recorded Heartleap, her third album in nearly 45 years, in her stepdaughter’s bedroom. “When she moved away, I took over her room,” Bunyan says with a sly laugh, “but there are plenty other places she can sleep when she comes back.” She set up a few microphones, guitar stands and a keyboard, but insists it’s not a very complicated studio. “It doesn’t have any proper soundproofing or anything, but I’m very lucky to have a place where I can shut the door and get to work.”

Bunyan spent years sequestered in this makeshift home studio painstakingly piecing together Heartsleap, a quietly experimental album defined by her gentle vocals, spry guitar playing, tender string arrangements and prismatic piano playing. It’s a solitary album, purposefully piecemeal, the sound of a woman in her 60s not only writing incredible songs but teaching herself the techniques to record them the way she hears them in her head. If her previous albums established Bunyan as an intuitive folk musician with an ear for lovely melodies and naturalistic imagery, then Heartsleap establishes her as an innovative producer, albeit one with a methodology that some might find tedious and others too involved.

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Bunyan’s world moves slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully. In 1970, she recorded an album called Just Another Diamond Day with producer Joe Boyd and arranger Robert Kirby. The story behind the record was almost as compelling as the music itself: Bunyan was an up-and-coming London pop singer at the tail end of the Swinging ‘60s, comparable to Lulu or Marianne Faithfull, but she very suddenly absented herself from the industry, took a horse-drawn cart out into the Scottish wilderness and lived off the land for a few years. Diamond Day was inspired by her new life, but it barely saw release at the time—not that Bunyan minded too much.

Over the decades, however, her lone album became a holy grail for folk-minded cratediggers, many of whom were paying hundreds of dollars for a copy. When it was finally reissued in 2004, Bunyan had already been established as a spiritual forebear for the nascent freak folk scene, recording with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic among others. Bunyan, however, was no longer the earth mother she had been when she recorded Diamond Day: “The first royalties I got [from the reissue] went toward a new Mac, a little keyboard, and a little mixer,” she says.

After recording a follow-up, 2005’s Lookaftering, with producer/composter Max Richter, Bunyan wanted to learn the basics of music production. “I tried to enroll in the local technical college and take a music technology course, but they wouldn’t have me. They said I was too old. That was a red flag to a bull. How could they say that?” The rejection only steeled her resolve, and she determined to teach herself whatever a class might offer. “I furiously taught myself. It took me a while, but I think I learned way more than if someone had just told me what to do.”

Heartsleap is, to some degree, a thesis paper: a summary of what she has learned throughout this process. “I really don’t want to give the impression that I was anything but happy with the other producers that I’ve worked with,” she says, “but I had to see what I could do by myself, when I wasn’t depending on somebody else to say whether something was right or wrong. I had to go with my feeling about it.” What emerged was a production style as personal and as idiosyncratic as her musical style. These new songs are quiet and thus seem initially simple, primarily because her innovations aren’t ostentatious. Rather, they are sewn into the delicate fabric of these songs. For example, “Mother” is a ruminative song about Bunyan’s memories of her mother’s piano playing, which she describes as beautifully rough. The adolescent Bunyan, however, would have nothing to do with it, and it is with crushing regret that she sings the final lines, “I closed the door, and turned, turned, turned away.”

A piano dances gingerly underneath the melody—actually, several pianos, all at once, as though Bunyan were conflating every memory of her mother into one piece of music. “I wanted to make it sound a bit like the way my mother played, because she didn’t play very well and her piano was slightly out of tune.” However, Bunyan cannot play the piano, nor can she read music, which presented some challenges when it came to recording such a complex piece of music. Her solution was to record each note separately, then arrange them individually within the piece of music. “I can only play one finger at a time, but with the help of a computer, I could make up a piano part that would take three hands to play live.”

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Perhaps her dogged mastery of the technology is a response to the mystifying serendipity of the creative process, a means of exerting some control over something that is uncontrollable. For Bunyan, the wiring of the human brain is infinitely more complicated than that of a home studio, albeit just as fascinating. “Brains are amazing. Things carry on underneath the surface, and every once in a while they just pop up—often when you least expect it. Where did that come from? A few minutes ago that song wasn’t there, and suddenly her it is.”

Bunyan’s songs come as they will, emerging from her subconscious each in its own time. “Some of the songs I can work on them and work on them, and they just won’t come. And then suddenly, in the middle of the night, the right word will drop into place and everything will be fine. And then some come all in a rush. Wherever I am—and sometimes I can be in the car or at the shops—I have to rush home and write it all down.”

The songs come in an instant, but she takes months, even years to record them—to arrange them and rearrange them, to cajole and perfect them. Much of the creative process is anchored to her computer and most of the music is created in post-production, which Bunyan finds upsets some of her longtime fans who discovered her via Just Another Diamond Day. “I seem to be thought of as this earth mother kind of person who still wears long dresses and has a horse hitched up to the telegraph pole outside. That was such a small part of my life, but there are quite a few people who think I should be more spontaneous and much more natural in how I make music. But I’m not. I think it doesn’t really matter how you arrive as something, as long as you arrive.”

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