Clear as Folk

The Declaration – scene – February 1, 2007

By John Ruscher

Vashti Bunyan is a singer-songwriter from England. She released her first record, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970 and followed up 35 years later with Lookaftering. Lookaftering includes arrangements by Robert Kirby, who also worked with legendary songwriter Nick Drake. Bunyan kindly answered some questions about her music, life and the people she has met along the way. She and her band will play at Satellite Ballroom on Sunday, February 4th. Doors open at 8pm. Vetiver and Meredith Bragg will open.

The Declaration: Your two albums were released thirty-five years apart. In your mind are they very different records due to this gap in time? Are there ways in which they are very similar?

Vashti Bunyan: They both sound like me I guess. Both are about landscape but one was looking forward and the other is looking back.

Dec: How different is your life now that you are making music again and touring the world?

VB: Completely different. No more looking out of the window and wishing I could fly across the rooftops to anywhere else.

Dec: In 2001 Devendra Banhart wrote you a letter. What did he say? How did you respond?

VB: He said ‘hi­—I’m a little tick from San Francisco’ and told me he was playing in horrible places and having a hard time and didn’t know if he should continue and could he send me some of his music. I wrote back to say that he shouldn’t call himself a little tick because anyone who could get up on a stage and sing their songs in front of people had my greatest admiration.

Dec: What songwriters and musicians have had the biggest influence on your life and music?

VB: Bob Dylan is the most obvious maybe —but before him it was Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson. Before that Kathleen Ferrier – a classical singer.

Dec: What was it like to be in New York City in 1965?

VB: Overwhelming. Sadly I didn’t meet any other musicians at that time but finding the Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan in a village record store was enough for me.

Dec: How would you compare contemporary folk musicians to those you met and played with in the ‘60s?

VB: I played with very few other musicians in the sixties – I was a bit of a loner. I certainly didn’t align myself with folk musicians nor did I ever play in folk clubs. I don’t think of the other musicians I have worked with recently as ‘folk’ – far from it. They are forward looking and inventive, use both acoustic and electronic instruments and have a generosity of spirit and an inclusivity that I have not experienced ever in my life before.

Dec: In an interview you mentioned that you don’t really consider yourself a folk singer. How would you describe yourself?

VB: That’s the problem. I say I’m not a folksinger and so the next question is inevitably—‘well what are you then?’ My musical background is classical and chamber music, hymns and carols, pop music and definitely not traditional folk. So what am I? I just say I’m a musician. And then the next question is ‘what kind?’ I sing and play with a guitar. ‘Oh a folksinger then.’ No I’m not a folksinger. ‘So what are you then?’ So it goes.

Dec: What was it like to work with arranger Robert Kirby?

VB: Magical. His take on my songs was much truer to what I had in mind than the more folky treatments on some of the others. He understood what I was trying to do and wrote some beautiful arrangements that took my breath away. It was wonderful to have thought up a song and then have someone write out a score for strings and recorders. Hearing the string quartet play my songs was the most wonderful feeling. Still is.

Dec: You’ve worked in collaboration with various artists on both your own record and on their records. What was it like to work with Devendra Banhart?

VB: He sent me a CD of a song he’d written —I put it in my computer and recorded a vocal part over the top – sent it back to him in New York and it ended up on Rejoicing in the Hands complete with the floorboard creaks from my room. We met a few months later.

Dec: With Joanna Newsom?

VB: She very graciously came to record harp for two of my songs when she was playing in Glasgow the night before and had to be miles away in Manchester that afternoon. I liked her immediately and continue to be stunned by her musicianship and vision.

Dec: With Animal Collective?

VB: I learned a lot from them, about recording, about my voice, about how much I had yet to learn. They were so inventive, full of ideas, so clever.

Dec: If you could collaborate with anyone, whom would you pick?

VB: So far I have not had to pick—collaborations happen in their own good time.

Dec: Does it feel good to be touring with a band?

VB: Very very good. For the first time in a long time I am not aching to be doing something else. I’m doing what I want to do.

Dec: What has been your favorite show to play?

VB: All of them really but the Roundhouse in London was brilliant for the links back to my own day. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall was a standout—as was the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Names I had only ever dreamed of.

Dec: Do you have plans for another record? Other future plans?

VB: I am just now putting ideas together in my head. It will come about in a while, hopefully not too long but then I do have 30 years to play with. Maybe.

John Ruscher is a fourth-year English major who scours Satellite Ballroom for the most obscure acts possible.

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