Vashti Bunyan releases her new album Heartleap today (6 October). Out a mere nine years after her last record, Lookaftering – there was a 35 year gap between that and her debut, Just Another Diamond Day – the singer-songwriter largely self-produced the new album. In a Guest Column for Q she explains why she took control.
What does it take to go from hiding in the hills to having the nerve to put out an album without a producer or a recording engineer or an arranger? It took being told I couldn’t do it.
I had always been entranced by recorded music – starting at five years-old when my older brother returned from a year in USA with the makings of a player for the new 33rpm records. Turntable and delicate glass valves, tangles of wires and bakelite knobs – all strewn about my mother’s pristine living room – making her crazy and me enraptured and determined to know how it all worked. Later – when first venturing into recording studios around 1964 – I yearned to learn about that huge desk full of faders and lights and buttons – all so mysterious but quite out of reach for me – the lowly singer who just came in, sang in a little glass box and went away again. But I heard reverb for the first time, and the whirring rewind of tapes, and enviously watched an apprentice engineer stopping the tape at the exact place where it could be cut at an angle with a razor blade and joined up to another take – with a bit of sticky tape. And there was producer Andrew Loog Oldham along with Glyn Johns, then a couple of years later Joe Boyd with Jerry Boys – all so remote to me with their unfathomable skills.
A lifetime later in 2000 – after my 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day was reissued to more notice than it had achieved in its own days – I received royalties for the first time ever. I got a Mac G4, a Roland XP10 keyboard, a mixer and some music software. I called my local college to enrol in a technical music course but was not accepted even though there was a place. I was not acceptable. I was told I was too old; that someone of my generation wouldn’t be able to understand it and it would be wasted on me. The place was given to a boy.
Furious frustration again overwhelmed me of course – but this time it narrowed my eyes and spurred me to finding out for myself how to do it. How could this screen full of faders and lights and buttons – and a language I could not speak – possibly help me to make demos of the new songs that were slowly appearing in my head along with arrangements for strings and flutes and celestas and tubas and flugel horns.
A faltering beginning and many distress calls to those that knew what they were doing quickly developed into a burning need to learn and make more of it all. I worked with Max Richter as the producer for my album Lookaftering in 2005 and this was a wonderful and enlightening experience. He showed me what he was doing every step of the way and included me in decision-making. Best of all he taught me not to over-decorate just because I could. Then it was time to put all my learning to the test, to emerge from a producer’s shelter, to stand out in the open, to trust my own judgement and my own abilities – and to make Heartleap. It has taken seven years – all the while drowning out that small voice ringing in my ear telling me I couldn’t do it.
I have loved feeling able to play an instrument that I couldn’t play. I had wanted piano lessons when young, but it didn’t happen, just violin lessons – which did at least lead me to the guitar. I still don’t play the piano or read or write music – but I can create a three-handed piano part, a layered string part, a dark tuba part. I can choose to mix up the endless possibilities of synthethised sounds to find something that is not like any instrument any human ever made – and put it together with a recording of a real person playing a real violin or flute. And now I know that a fraction of a decibel can change everything.
All this on a computer screen. No razor blades and tape, no whirring rewind, just wavy lines and mouse clicks. One thing though – it can become a bit too visual after a while. The best advice I have been given these last years – “Remember to listen with your ears – don’t just listen with your eyes”.
For more head to Fat-cat.co.uk.