Jana Hunter (Lower Dens) Talks Vashti Bunyan’s Heartleap

The new album by the elder stateswoman of early '70s British pastoral-pop is a quietly defiant rebuke to a lot of things.

My reviewer’s copy of Vashti Bunyan’s Heartleap arrived late. I had run out of the time I’d allotted to spend with it, and tried to work it into a laughably overcrowded schedule. I loaded the songs into my phone and listened while I cooked, while I commuted to work, while I worked on my own project, and while packing for the trip to NYC that led me to be on this couch, writing this piece on the day after I promised to submit it. Like all of her recordings before it, Heartleap is quiet, delicate, intimate and patient. I’ve been cursing my circumstances for the frenetic context they’d put me and this record in as I tried to form a relationship with it, but this is unexceptional — modern life leaves little time for reflection. Against that backdrop, Heartleap seems downright defiant.

Ms. Bunyan and I have no direct connection but, just to be straight, we have mutual acquaintances of both the professional and personal kind. I met her once backstage at a SXSW showcase and another time on the dance floor after Devendra Banhart’s curated schedule day at ATP. Both of these took place years ago. I’m impressively inept in social settings and was more so then and my only clear memory of our interaction in England is literally turning and walking away from her as she offered me a compliment.

I didn’t know much about her. She was tall and had the kind of calm about her that only makes an anxious person more nervous. I liked her debut album. I like this one as well, but it’s not the “artist at her peak” kind of work that its press materials claim. I’ve heard the album half a dozen times now and granted, I’ve been busy and I’m exhausted, but the melodies aren’t yet lingering. The production is clean but flat. Parts of songs are very good, excerpts of lyrics are inspired, but it’s no magnum opus. But, of course, it doesn’t need to be: Vashti Bunyan already made one of those. Add that to the fact that she ditched the record industry in favor of the Hebrides as soon as her now legendary 1970 debut album Just Another Diamond Day was completed, and then try to deny that this person’s self-described final album deserves more than formulaic reviews and canned pablum.

While I waited for my copy of Heartleap to arrive, I read other people’s accounts of the record. I started my career when 2005’s Lookaftering came out and I remember its press leaning heavily on the backstory of Just Another Diamond Day and Bunyan’s “disappearance.” To hear tell of it, you’d think Vashti Bunyan went covert ops. Similarly, reviews of Heartleap contextualize it as the ending of a story largely written by the time Bunyan “re-surfaced” in 2000. The story is different now; it’s lost its knife’s-edge of mystery. The context we’re given is often a monotonous presentation of something like historical highway markers, life events made uniform. Writer after writer pares down Bunyan’s past five decades into their review’s opening paragraph. It takes no special talent to reduce an entire life to colorless fact-queues. You can, if you must, extrapolate something like, “Vashti Bunyan’s first record flopped so she became a mom instead but then 20-something years later googled herself and then here is her second record since then.” Throw the word “fragile” in alongside several of its synonyms and bloviate on genre. Voilá! You have your Tumblr post. Whether you’re a fan or a critic, it’s tempting, when an artist has an intriguing bio and it seems like their descriptors have been pegged, to commit these sketches to memory and reiterate them as needed. After all, you will sound like you know what you’re talking about — but only as long as nobody is really listening. So it’s probably a safe bet. After all, we, all of us, have got a lot of shit on our plates. We barely have time for our current to-do lists, let alone trying to figure out things’ contexts. Somebody, please give us a Vashti Bunyan Cliff’s Notes:

“There are times when it’s a relief that she manages to get through a song.”
—Robin Denselow in the Guardian

I read about her. I found a particularly helpful interview originally printed in Ptolemaic Terrascope, conducted by Tony Dale in 2001. (A pdf is here.)  Vashti grew up in London. She was kicked out of art school. Her parents disapproved and tried to get her brother to turn her around. She’s stubborn and went to the U.S. instead. She wanted to be a pop star. The music she wrote was sparse and quiet, simple melodies with little adornment. She made no attempt to disguise her general frustration with the world around her. She was incredibly sure of herself and her music until a friend sent her to Andrew Loog Oldham, famous for putting the Rolling Stones on their path. Oldham put her music on the back burner and had her covering Stones songs. Any woman in the music industry could relate; she tolerated several years of attempted cooperation with, and ambition in, the music industry before she became discouraged and left. She wrote most of her seminal album, Just Another Diamond Day, while traveling for two years in a horse and carriage in search of a “’60s dream.” She recorded her album but had lost any faith in the music industry and went back to the dream. She did become a mom. She forgot about being a pop star for almost 30 years. Then, thanks to the internet, Vashti Bunyan figured out people had found and treasured her music. She got her album re-released. Devendra reached out and connected. She toured. She put out a new record. People call this the second stage of her career. They talk about the first stage and the second stage as if the intervening 30 years were something stuck to the bottom of Bunyan’s shoe.

I wondered at this point, like you do, what it is about uncelebrated lives that make them seem to us like prison sentences. Vashti Bunyan isn’t a celebrity but she might be famous, depending on whom you ask. She is certainly known. She is celebrated but not a celebrity. While on the one hand, it is gross and pathetic that because Vashti Bunyan wouldn’t play vapid, her first and still best album clung to existence in the record-collector hinterland until the internet could be invented, on the other hand Vashti Bunyan herself seems to have lived a rich, quiet life in real-world hinterlands.

Heartleap is a record of reflective vignettes. Each song seems to document a real-life relationship, some zeroing in on particularly vivid moments. It’s important to be reminded what’s good for you, as opposed to what might be suggested to you as “saporific,” or taste-making, like celebrity. It’s important merely to reflect, to be quiet, to listen. If we’re lucky, we realize this and have the resources to achieve it. Some of us realize it too late. Some of us (yrs truly) have to realize it over and over ’cause we’re easily distracted by shiny things or because we have certain ideas drilled into us since birth.

Nearly every piece I read about this album mentioned “Mother,” Bunyan’s recollection of watching her mother dance uninhibited, unaware of her observer. In an interview, Vashti said, “Instead of telling her how lovely she was, I stole away. I feel for her that she never had the chance to be a dancer or a singer but was always a dutiful wife and mother.” I don’t want to dissect that — it’s a very personal statement — but I do (apart from the antiquated and barbaric notion of a woman’s place in the home drilled into people such as Bunyan’s seemingly unfortunate mother) wonder if, given these options, being a wife and mother isn’t the much better one in our society, or being a dancer and a singer in a way that doesn’t subject you or your work to the industries that will commodify you in a heartbeat. I think this is part of why, in 2000, people flocked not just to her music but to Bunyan herself, because she’d had the dream of capitalism at her fingertips and she’d rejected it for a better one.

In her earliest demos, collected in Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind: Singles and Demos 1964-1967, Vashti is in her late teens and early twenties. It’s just her voice, her guitar in the near distance. She sings in a whisper but full of a young person’s cocksure vigor. It’s the last time for nearly 50 years that she’d get to have her songs presented the way she heard them; this is her stated personal triumph in making and releasing Heartleap. It is quite a luxury, bearing witness.

Jana Hunter is a member of Lower Dens. You can follow Lower Dens on Twitter here.