By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007
John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," the classic 17th-century allegory of man's religious journey in search of salvation, follows pilgrim Christian as he travels an obstacle-filled road to reach the Celestial City.
Vashti Bunyan's two albums, 1970's "Just Another Diamond Day" and 2005's "Lookaftering," trace another journey, some traveled in a horse-drawn wagon along a road filled with modern obstacles.
Although "The Pilgrim's Progress" is one of the most famous and best-selling books of all time, "Just Another Diamond Day" was barely noticed on release, condemned to obscurity, only to be declared a lost masterpiece when it was reissued on CD in 2000. It's a pastoral gem, psychedelic folk somehow sweetly innocent and un-self-conscious, full of lily ponds, fireflies, glowworms, laughing streams and rainbow rivers, "the land of peat and seabirds and silver sand." It sounds as if it were recorded at a campfire deep in the woods, Bunyan's soft strum wrapped in feather-light arrangements, her whispered vocals at the edge of evanescence.
It's the sound of dusk and dawn.
It's also a sound that no one heard in 1970: Perhaps 100 copies sold back then.
"Indifference is the coldest hand / It is the wave that clears the sand / of castles built by baby hands / before the gulls come in to land."
Those words, from a recent Bunyan song, "Turning Backs," go a long way to explaining the 35-year gap between albums. Except they're less about Bunyan than about a friend whose sad and quiet songs went similarly unattended in that era.
"When I was writing that song, I wasn't really thinking so much of me as I was thinking about Nick Drake and the indifference to his wonderful, luminous, magical music, which was so profound at the time," explains Bunyan, who will perform Friday at the Rock and Roll Hotel. "I think I expected people to be indifferent to me, but I didn't expect them to be indifferent to him."
Drake killed himself in 1974. Bunyan, now 60, simply disappeared for three decades. Ironically, that's what she was on her way to doing before"Just Another Diamond Day."
London bred (and a direct descendant of John Bunyan), Bunyan had been asked to leave Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in 1964 when she refused to choose between art and music. She was playing quiet love songs in Soho clubs when she caught the ear and, thanks to her pristine Nico/Marianne Faithfull-like beauty, the eye of Rolling Stone manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Hoping to replicate his success of a year earlier with Faithfull's "As Tears Go By," Oldham gave Bunyan a Jagger-Richards song, "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind," but the pop-ish, string-fueled single went nowhere, and a trio of follow-ups never made it to release.
"The myth is that I was this little folk singer that Andrew Oldham got a hold of and tried to make into a pop singer," Bunyan recalls. "I wanted desperately to be a pop singer."
Bunyan simply wasn't built for swinging London in the '60s. "I really wasn't the right kind of material at all," she laughs.
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.
She guested on albums by folk and experimental artists, including anti-folk icon Devendra Banhart, who had years earlier tracked down Bunyan by mail. She had encouraged him to keep following his own eccentric path; he invited her to sing on a track on his 2004 "Rejoicing in the Hands" album. Bunyan also offered a three-song performance at a 2003 Stephen Malkmus-curated concert in London -- her first public appearance in more than three decades.
Two years ago, Bunyan teamed with Scottish musician and composer Max Richter to record "Lookaftering," a soft-spun chamber-folk sequel to "Diamond Day," with help from Banhart, Adem, harpist Joanna Newsom and original collaborator Robert Kirby, who added trumpet and fluegelhorn to several tracks. Melancholy meditations such as "Here Before," "Same but Different" and "Turning Backs" address choices made, including domesticity and retreat from the world.
"The first album was all optimism, dreams and imagination," Bunyan says. "The second one was looking back over what had actually happened. The 'Diamond Day' songs were very much descriptive of the outside of my life and the landscape I was experiencing. The second album was more about the internal landscape. One looking forward, one looking back -- they're like bookends."
Thirty-five years apart?
"I know," she sighs. "I still can't quite get to grips with that."
Vashti Bunyan with Vetiver and Vandaveer
Appearing Friday at the Rock and Roll Hotel
Sounds like: A more innocent time. For her Washington date, part of her first American tour, Bunyan will be accompanied by Jo Mango (piano, flute, kalimba, concertina), guitarists Gareth Dickson and Kevin Barker, cellist Helena Espvall (of Espers) and violinist Kat Hernandez.