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Vashti Bunyan's 'Day' Has Come Again

The reissue of her 1970 album reawakened Vashti Bunyan, who released her second CD in 2005.
The reissue of her 1970 album reawakened Vashti Bunyan, who released her second CD in 2005. (By Jason Evans)

Soon, Bunyan would embark on the long road to obscurity. Her boyfriend, fellow art student Robert Lewis, was pals with folk troubadour Donovan, who decided to found a utopian community of artists and musicians on an island he'd bought in the Outer Hebrides. They had no car, so Donovan lent them 100 British pounds to buy a horse and wagon, and in May 1968, Bunyan, Lewis, Bess the horse and Blue the dog set off "straight up the A6, which was just about the biggest road there was at the time," Bunyan recalls. "It was mostly because the back roads were very hilly and we didn't want to put the horse through that. And it was the quickest way to go."

Not exactly: The 700-mile journey took so long that by the time they got there in late summer 1969, Donovan had given up on the whole plan. "We had absolutely no idea how long it was going to take us," Bunyan giggles.

Along the way, Bunyan cheered herself up by writing songs, herself and Lewis the only intended audience. It was Lewis who encouraged her to document the journey, to capture her experience and surroundings. The results were fragile, ethereal snapshots. Producer Joe Boyd, a Bunyan fan from her early days in London, heard about them and persuaded Bunyan to come back to London for a short recording session. (She made that trip by car.)

Boyd, who had produced Drake, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, drafted the String Band's Robin Williamson and Fairport's Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol, as well as Drake's arranger, Robert Kirby, who crafted hushed string and recorder frames for Bunyan's songs.

"I thought if somebody wanted to do this, it would be nice to have a document of what we'd done," she says. "I never really had much faith that it would come out in album form. I thought it was way too personal. It was a silly dream, really, to think that anybody would want to listen to this. From then on, I never really gave it much thought."

Indeed, when "Just Another Diamond Day" came out a year later, it was to public indifference and scorn from critics, who ridiculed its hippie optimism and dismissed it as inconsequential. Between recording and release, Bunyan had settled on the island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides and started a family. It became a refuge from "what I felt was my terrible failure. I felt very rejected and hurt, though it's only now that I realize how hurt I must have been because it was my life; now that I'm back in it, I realize how much of my life it was. I really did want to leave it behind -- completely and totally," she says.

Bunyan didn't even sing for her three children, who had, she says, a very sketchy idea of her past. "I didn't have a copy of the original album, just an old dusty tape in the back of a drawer. My daughter told me the other day that they knew I didn't want them to listen. . . . So apparently they used to take it out to the car and put it on the tape player there and listen to it secretly. It's upsetting to me now that I didn't let them have music in their lives, certainly not my music.

"It was when I realized . . . that they knew nothing of why their lives had been the way they were" that she got a computer to write the story, Bunyan says of her late '90s reconsideration, by which time she'd split with Lewis and moved to Edinburgh.

Then, as computer users are wont to do, Bunyan typed her name into an Internet search engine. Here's what she discovered: "Just Another Diamond Day" had become a cult masterpiece with rare original copies selling for huge sums and bootleg tapes traded freely, and she was considered a lost icon in folk circles. Bunyan then spent a couple of years reacquiring rights to her original masters and reissued "Diamond Day" on CD with several unreleased acetates from 1966 and 1967. "We expected the CD to sell two or three hundred copies to people who were really interested in Incredible String Band," she admits.

"It was a huge surprise when the reviews started coming out saying things about it that I would have ached to have said about it back in its time, people really understanding that it wasn't nursery rhymes, that it wasn't for children, that it was about a time when people actually lived those dreams and had those ideas and how luminous they were, and at the time, how real they were. I was overwhelmed, really."

The reissue would sell more than 50,000 copies and reawakened a voice Bunyan wasn't sure existed anymore.

"I didn't know what was going to happen when I opened my mouth. I had not sung all of those years." To her surprise, it was the same, a little darker but still genteel.

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