Before every one of his live shows, Devendra Banhart allegedly writes the name “Vashti Bunyan” on his arm. He's not referring to some bizarre form of tantric yoga or an obscure C.S. Lewis character; rather, he's paying homage to a British singer-songwriter who, until very recently, was best known for being unknown. Few artists hit the big time at age 60, but then again few artists have the amazing voice and the equally amazing back story as Bunyan.
Back in 1965, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham plucked the 19-year-old off the streets of London and posited her as the next Marianne Faithful. Unfortunately, Bunyan's first two singles went nowhere, and that was all the chance you got in those days. Crushed, she set off with her boyfriend for the Outer Hebrides, a group of Scottish islands that Donovan had bought for the purpose of installing an artist colony. Poor as dirt, the pair traveled the only way they could afford: by horse and cart.
Not surprisingly, it took them a year and a half to arrive, and by that time the colony was long gone. Bunyan, however, had written a batch of songs along the way, and an encounter with renowned producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention) led to them being recorded. When the album, Just Another Diamond Day, was met with the same deafening silence as the single (much in the same way Drake's LPs were), Bunyan gave up on music for good.
A funny thing happened over the next 30 years, though. As Bunyan worked at market stalls and elsewhere, Diamond Days became heralded as a lost masterpiece, a collection of timeless, gorgeously bucolic “pastoral pop.” By the time Bunyan bought a computer in 1997, she discovered that people were passing around crappy bootleg copies as if they were the holy grail.
Attempting to thwart the bootleggers, Bunyan contacted Paul Lambden, who worked for Ryko Music, the label that owned the rights to Diamond Days. “He said, 'I think this is great, and it should be reissued,'” Bunyan recalls from her Edinburgh home. “And that was the first time anyone had ever said something good about it.”
Around the same time, Banhart got in touch with her. “Before I even sang a song to anyone other than my mom, I sent Vashti my music and asked her if I should start playing shows, start sharing these tunes with the world,” Banhart says via e-mail. “The reason I sent her my music was because she is the authority! She is the Golden Spirit, the Visionary Prophet among us!”
In 2001, Lambden put out Diamond Days on his Spinney imprint, and this time the press when wild for it. “The reception was all I could've ached for back in 1970,” says Bunyan. After collaborating with big-name indie acts like U.K. spooky poptronic outfit Piano Magic and New York noise-folkers Animal Collective, the singer started work on her sophomore album, 35 years after the first.
The resulting Lookaftering (released in the U.S. on DiCristina in October 2005) sounds as if it could've been recorded right after her debut. “I did try at first to make it as different as Diamond Days — have lots of electronic percussion — but it didn't really work,” she says. “It was [producer] Max [Richter] who pointed out to me that I have to just do what I do and be honest and not try to bend it into something else or something that I think someone would like to hear.”
Lookaftering is the kind of near-Elizabethan chamber-pop record that Isobel Campbell would eat her knickers for. Bunyan's striking voice hasn't aged a bit, still sounding like it's riding along on a moonbeam. Her lyrics, meanwhile, have grown aged and wise, dropping her rustic hippie verses for tales of travel lust and motherhood (on “Wayward” she sings, “I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots/ And a single silver earring and a suitcase full of notes/ And a band of wayward children with their fathers left behind”). At the same time, her guest musicians — including Banhart, avant-classicist Richter, Joanna Newsom, and Mice Parade's Adam Pierce — offer a quiet storm of glockenspiel, hammer dulcimer, harmonium, and recorders that's retro-folk without seeming cloying.
Now, in the midst of her first ever U.S. tour, Bunyan seems genuinely amazed by her good fortune. “It's wonderful because it never really happened to me the first time around,” she says. “The young American people that I've come across, they're so generous with their music, I'm very impressed by that. It's almost as if they're interpreting the '60s how they think it must've been then, and of course it never was.”