“Heartleap,” the title track on Vashti Bunyan’s newest album (released last week), was the last she wrote, the last she recorded. And since she announced that this album may be her final musical endeavor in a sporadic career spanning 44 years, it may be the last song she ever writes, the last she ever records. On Drowned in Sound, she described this song’s rare process: on an album that was all about careful deliberation — a care that took seven years to administer and turn into an album — this was an atypical piece of music, in that it came to Bunyan almost immediately. Simply: she was staring at a painting by her daughter, acclaimed artist Whyn Lewis, then she picked up her guitar.
While her lyrics often look to soft bucolic imagery to draw on the tensions between the strength of desire and the fragility that comes with acknowledging impermanence, this song is lyrically straightforward, a new, perhaps final, and undeniably powerful evocation of frail longing. It’s a litany of the actions the English language has ascribed to the heart and head — clichés, really, like “heartbreak,” “heartfelt,” and “headstrong” — that, when strung together, overwhelm with their display of our many attempts at personifying these parts, attempts at pinpointing and poetizing the strange things inside of us that cause us to love. The painting by Bunyan’s daughter became the album’s cover.
The thing about any Vashti Bunyan album is that, since the very beginning of her career, each has potentially been her last. Every Vashti Bunyan album is an ending. Nobody expected that, in the 30-year gap between Just Another Diamond Day and Lookaftering, a gap during which Bunyan swore off of music entirely, anyone would ever hear from her again. And then, when she announced Lookaftering after being rediscovered and lionized within the early-2000’s experimental folk boom, she suggested that that second album would be her last. Not too dissimilar to Richard Linklater’s Before series, the temporal distance between each of her albums automatically cues the listener into a heightened, “last words” sense of purpose, one that is, perhaps, unintentional.
The songs might be lulling, they might sound like a stroll along an infinity of ponds, but because of the empty space between albums, and because of the constant possibility of finality, there’s an underlying urgency to our approach to her music; each time we hear about the release of a Vashti Bunyan album it’s met with excitement, but Bunyan beats that excitement into submission with unwavering tranquility.
In greeting our anxiety about time running out, about endings, with an unyielding flair for calm and with a consistent assertion that “this could be the end, and so what?” Bunyan has crafted her own form of protest music. She said this could be the end. Perhaps it will be. Perhaps it won’t. If Heartleap is the last album and the last song we hear from her, these last musical words aren’t desperate or conclusive, but rather a slow, ruminative list of the curious ways we try to understand our bonds to others. If and when she resurfaces, however, it’s almost certain that it’ll be in quite a while, and that she’ll be approaching ephemerality with the same strange, singular resistance to exigency.
I spoke with Bunyan over email about the people, places and work that have influenced her many beginnings and endings.
Flavorwire: I find that most people I talk to have listened to your music alone. How do you feel knowing that you’ve been a part of so many people’s experiences with solitude?
Vashti Bunyan: It would make sense to me as my songs are written when I am completely alone — I am not a good musical collaborator. Also these last recordings have been made mostly alone — certainly my guitar parts and vocals I would only record when I knew the house was empty.
I’ve often heard people describing your music as contemplative and even fragile. Have you ever tried writing aggression or anger? Have you ever wanted to scream in a song?
It’s funny as my oldest son gets quite annoyed with me sometimes and asks why I don’t sing louder — or at least have some percussion in my recordings. I have tried and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t the way for me. When I lived out in the hills there was a large white rock above the house where I would go sometimes, stand on the top of it and scream at the sky… but I have never managed to scream in a song… in music or lyrics.
You said you initially intended Lookaftering to be your last album, as it was your “looking back” album and Diamond Day was a “looking forward album.” But now there’s Heartleap. Where do you feel this album is looking, and why did you decide to make it your last album?
Just now I feel I have said what I wanted to say and done all I ever wanted to do by producing and recording and editing my own album. But I am only just finished with it and so I don’t know what might happen next. I feel it is my “now” album.
Your music gives such a blissful portrait of isolation. How do you bring collaborators into this world?
Well, I am a selfish kind of musician. The other people on the album are musicians who have played live with me over the last few years. We recorded their contributions in London and Los Angeles and New York, and some tracks were sent to me. So then I was able to piece it all together on my own with the synthesized sounds I already had — and choose what to keep and what not to keep. I couldn’t expect anyone else to work as slowly and precisely as I have done on this album and not lose patience with me. The very idea of trying to work with someone else on writing or recording makes me panic a bit — so I can’t say who would be able to help me out of that… I don’t think I myself could do it any other way — but I so admire those who work together and make something different to each of them individually.
What was the writing process on the song “Jellyfish?” The instrumentals seem so much to imitate the movements of a swimming jellyfish — was it just a matter of extensive nature-YouTubing?
I’m so glad you heard the swimming. That song had many tracks, many different rounds of synthy instruments along with some real. I wanted it to sound like it was going from side to side without very obvious panning — so some tracks do and some don’t. It’s the song I’m most proud of as I worked a long time on it to make it illustrate the words.
How, when you’re writing about a specific person, as in the “The Boy,” do you go about the act of writing a musical portrait?
I don’t think I ever really set about anything I do. It just comes to me or it doesn’t. And when it does, afterwards I have no idea how it happened. (Otherwise I could produce more.) As to portraits, again I don’t set out to draw one, but some people are so brave, as in the subject of “The Boy,” that they impress me deeply and a portrait comes easily.
“Across the Water” seems to be in dialogue with quite a few songs from Diamond Day, especially “Glow Worms.” Are you aware of songs speaking to each other when you’re writing?
Only in so far as I tend to draw on pastoral imagery a lot. Again my years in the hills — shouting at the sky — or loving the tranquility. It is all still there even though I have lived an urban life for 22 years now.
Is there a location from your current life with which you affiliate your more recent albums?
I like the chimneypot skylines I see from my window here. I fly over them in my imagination — back to the hills and the seas that I have loved.
The song “Heartleap” was inspired by a painting by your daughter, and that painting’s featured on the cover. In another interview, you said it was one of the most immediate songs for you to write. Has your music influenced your daughter’s artwork at all? Have you — at least, since you started sharing your music again — used music to communicate with your children?
My children had no real idea of my musical past as I kept it well hidden throughout their childhoods. But now they know and want to know more and so I will eventually write it all down for them. ‘Til then the song “Lately” on Lookaftering is a kind of letter to them all. My daughter and I do have an uncanny way of reflecting each other in our different work — sometimes without any verbal communication. Her painting “Hart’s Leap” did bring about the song “Heartleap,” yes — and it just might be the last song I’ll write as it says all I wanted to say about the cycle of love and loss.
There was a 30-year gap between your first and second albums, and now, by comparison, a rather small seven-year gap. Have you listened to Lookaftering recently? How has your change in perspective — on music and perhaps on life — changed between these albums compared with the space between the first and second?
I haven’t listened to Lookaftering for a while, no — but yes, my outlook now is very different to the way it was back then. I was very sheltered making that album and had a huge amount of help from some extraordinary people. This time I was out on that hill in my mind — much more alone, much more exposed. Also the outside world away from music has changed so so much since then, in a way I find hard to fathom. Maybe I really should find a way to scream in my songs.