Review by Christopher Hollow
Three albums in over forty years. That kind of rare output is just one of the intriguing aspects of Vashti Bunyan’s career. Her latest, Heartleap, the final in an elongated trilogy, comes with a colourful backstory.
Vashti Bunyan was an Andrew Loog Oldham protégé. Discovered as a teen by the Rolling Stones manager and Immediate Records impresario, Vashti had a shot at pop stardom in the mid-’60s with a song written by Jagger-Richards – “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind”. Unfortunately, it didn’t stick. A potential follow-up “Winter Is Blue” went unreleased and later showed up in Peter Whitehead’s 1967 heady depiction of Swinging London, Let’s All Make Love in London Tonite.
Moving to Columbia Records, Bunyan put out another 45 – the loping “Train Song” backed with another delicate offering “Love Song”. Once again, it failed to tickle fancies.
It was around this time that Bunyan chose to drop out from the music scene, traveling across Britain in a horse-drawn cart with her partner. Still keen to express herself, she wrote material that in 1970 resulted in her long-player debut, Just Another Diamond Day. Produced by Joe Boyd and featuring members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, it not only bombed but also got attacked in reviews for its vulnerable outlook.
Taking this as a sign of failure, Bunyan dropped her music aspirations, resumed a gypsy life and raised three children [including the artist Whyn Lewis, whose artwork graces the cover of Heartleap].
Unbeknownst to Bunyan, her music was slowly but surely being embraced by her kids generation. Just a Diamond Day was re-released at the turn of the millennium and its belated success allowed her to record a follow-up, Lookaftering, 35 years after her debut.
Going back and listening to these records, one thing that’s immediately obvious is Bunyan’s approach, her writing, her distinct phrasing and intent was suggested and cemented at a very young age.
The beauty of Heartleap is it sounds as alluring and timeless as those early sides. Her unique voice is still akin to misty rain. The type you have to squint to see. But there’s an unbending resolve in the songs, too. Three albums in over 40 years takes fortitude, a rare patience, and a certain sense of humour.
‘Across the Water’, the album opener, has her singing: “Lived on wit, got away with it,” which seems to sum up her attitude to her career.
‘Mother’ reads like a Raymond Carver-esque short story with a young Vashti overhearing her mother’s own secret music talents: “I was her only audience / She believed herself alone / My applause should have been rapturous / but I closed the door and turned, turned, turned away.”
‘Gunpowder’, a song directed at an old romantic partner, is filled with regret with Vashti admonishing herself for “lighting the gunpowder trails that you lay.”
Bunyan has intimated that this is to be her final album, and given her track record and the fact she’s set to turn 70, who’s going to argue with her? But, if it’s the case, she exits having produced a record that will hold up for another gentle generation to discover.