At the end of her memoir, Vashti Bunyan quotes the lyric from which the book’s title is taken. ‘Wayward’ (the song) considers the life that she didn’t want to live and the one that she did.
The lyric seemed to encapsulate ‘Wayward’ (the book), which followed Bunyan as someone who could only live a life that was true to them. Unfulfilled by 1960s London music scene, Bunyan abandoned city life and took to the road with a horse, wagon, dog, guitar and her partner, decamping to the Outer Hebrides. A challenging journey that Vashti now makes sense of and comprehends with a self-awareness that is a rare in the memoirs of musicians.
Producing her debut LP (‘Just Another Diamond Day’ - 1970), Vashti notes, was a fraught experience and when the record was met with an eerie silence, Bunyan turned her back on music entirely, only returning to it after the album gained a huge cult following almost thirty years later. Even then, only deciding to record just further albums (‘Lookaftering’ -2005, and ‘Heartleap’ - 2014). One feels that having seen and experienced the harshness of the music industry in the 1960s, Bunyan was unwilling to become a part of it again.
Although I wanted to touch on whether she was still certain that she would never record again, there was so much relating to the tales that she had told in ‘Wayward’ that I felt that I needed to hear more about, starting with how her family feel about the book...
Outsideleft: You've said elsewhere that you wrote 'Wayward' for your children. That you wanted to get your story right for them. Have they now read the book and, if so, have they told you their thoughts about it?
Vashti Bunyan: Yes, they all read it as I was writing it, and they have loved the final version. I think the book has done what I wanted it to do, and to explain a few things to them. They’ve maybe learned more about my own childhood compared to theirs, and how different the post-war years were.
OL: In writing 'Wayward' what did you learn about yourself, about the journey that you went on, and about who you are now?
VB: As I was writing ‘Wayward’ I came to feel more proud of my young self, and to see that I was quite brave in a lot of ways. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think about that journey. It was only a couple of years out of my life but it had a huge effect on me. It made me always grateful for the home I have now and for the insight it gave me into the lives of others, the marginalised and the ‘different’.
OL: Early on, your father responds to your concern about having to sing something not written by you by, uncharacteristically, saying 'compromise my dear'. Did you find it difficult to walk away from the 'loud gale' of London in the '60's!
VB: No, it was all I could do at the time. I had not achieved my ambition to bring my own quiet guitar-led songs into mainstream pop, and so after trying as much as I could I decided I just wasn’t good enough. So I ran away from my hometown of London, with my dog, boyfriend, horse and a cart, heading for the wild and northern reaches of the United Kingdom where we thought we might find freedom and a different way of life. We did!
OL: The journey to the Outer Hebrides, seemed like a rejection of the modern world. In the Lake District you were building fires, washing your clothes in a zinc tub, getting milk from the farm etc. Was this a liberating experience or did you ever crave 'mod cons'?
VB: The only thing I really craved was warmth and shelter from the rain! I was teaching myself how to live with very little money, without electricity, running water, or the internal combustion engine. I walked miles, I made fires on the ground for cooking, washed clothes in a tub and rinsed them in rivers, and found all that I needed throughout the journey from London to the north-west of Scotland, not just in the Lake District. I became quite good at it, and proud that I didn’t find it hard.
OL: When 'Just Another Diamond Day' was released in 1970, you weren't keen on Joe Boyd's 'vision' of you and the album he had put together. Over the years have you been able to warm to the record?
VB: I did find it difficult to accept Joe’s ideas for the album. I had been on the road for a long while without access to music papers, radio or TV before recording the album and so had no idea who the musicians from Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band were, nor what their own music was like. I wasn’t happy with the ‘folky’ treatment of some of the songs but I loved the string and recorder arrangements by Robert Kirby (who arranged much of Nick Drake’s music). I couldn’t listen to ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ for thirty years and wouldn’t even let my children hear it. When it was re-issued in 2000 and the response was so different to the complete silence there had been when it first came out in 1970 – I did have to re-assess it myself. I have forgiven it now for being so much a document of its time, and yes, I have warmed to it, and I’m very grateful to Joe for having made such a beautiful job of producing it.
OL: I'm a huge fan of Nick Drake, but when I read your account of trying to write songs with someone who wouldn't even turn to face you, I found it rather disturbing. What are your memories of that meeting?
VB: Memories of that meeting and others in Joe Boyd’s office are the same really as Nick was clearly already quite unwell. I’m sure he just didn’t want to be there any more than I did! I didn’t find it hurtful or upsetting. I just seemed to know and understand. I wasn’t in a great place myself and so maybe had some sympathy. We were both uncommunicative people and so Joe Boyd’s asking of us that we should try to write something together was just never going to work. Also I had a young baby with me who cried every time I picked up my guitar – so that didn’t really help.
OL: The one review you read of ‘Just Another Diamond Day’, where the writer felt depressed by what they were listening to, had a great effect on you. You totally turned your back on music. Do you regret making such a drastic move?
VB: I have no regrets for myself really, only that I didn’t sing to my children and that I deprived them of a musical childhood. After ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ came out in 2000 to a better response, I found it easier to listen to music again and then to find my way to writing and recording once more, and even performing. Only when I came back to music did I realise how much I had missed it, but I still don’t regret walking away from the music industry when I did.
OL: I'm in total agreement with you regarding that you're not a folk singer. Because, to me, folk songs are old traditional numbers. But how would you describe the music that you made?
VB. Well this is a great difficulty. I say “I’m NOT a folk singer.” The response is nearly always ‘well what ARE you then?” I have no answer. Yes, ‘folk’ to me does mean traditional, and I don’t think my songs are that. Maybe there is no way to describe what I do as there isn’t much I can compare it to – and that would seem to be the easiest way to describe music.
OL: After 'Heartleap' in 2014 you decided that you were not going to record again. In the years since though, have you had any desire to write, record or perform again?
VB: I was adamant back then that I would not make another album as ‘Heartleap’ had taken up so much of my time and my life. I wanted to get back to not sitting at my computers and keyboards and guitars and look outwards again. So then I spent time before and then through Lockdown writing Wayward – at my laptop for hours, days and months. Now I have done that I might just get back to writing songs again. It could happen. I never have any way of knowing what might appear, but there is always hope. Meantime outwards is a lovely place to be in.
Thank you and bye for now. VB.
Wayward' by Vashti Bunyan is available now in hardback with a paperback edition scheduled for later in 2023.
Outsideleft's review of 'Wayward' is available to read here
'Wayward' by Vashti Bunyan is available now in hardback with a paperback edition scheduled for later in 2023. Order online, right here⇒
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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