Listen to this track by returning den mother of wispy, ethereal English folk music Vashti Bunyan. It’s “Wayward”, one of the many jewels featured on her 2005 album Lookaftering, her second full-length album in a career that at that point stretched to forty years, starting with her years working with Andrew Loog Oldham in the mid-60s as a pop singles artist. Her first album, Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970, a work that moved away from pop and embraced a distinctively English folk style instead.
But, despite its delicate lyricism, ecstatic pastoral textures, and appealingly hazy melodicism, that first album was a commercial flop. Tired of the merciless rigours of the music business and of trying to find an audience that understood what she was trying to do, Bunyan gave it up to concentrate on other things, specifically in raising a family. She repaired to a farm in Ireland to live the rural life that is reflected in her songs. That was thirty-five years before she’d return as a recording artist with a new album.
What was it that brought her back? The answer is simply that her first album paid her back for her efforts by taking on a life of its own long after she’d given it up for dead.
While Bunyan took care of animals, meals, washing, and children while on the farm, Just Another Diamond Day was gaining a reputation as a long lost British folk record, championed by collectors and folk rock enthusiasts for many years. And by the end of the 1990s and into 2000, a new crop of folk artists who were trying to capture the same spirit of that record, had carved out a niche that made Bunyan’s music a perfect fit into a new musical milieu in the twenty-first century. Just Another Diamond Day was re-issued in 2000, and it got Bunyan thinking about writing again as universally positive feedback for the record, not to mention royalties, rolled in. Even when you’re a visionary, there’s still something to be said for a little encouragement.
Eventually, Bunyan ended up writing all of the material on the follow-up after the re-issue hit the shops, with the advantage of knowing that there was an audience for its follow-up. In the creation of the new record, she would get to work with members of that new crop of sympathetic artists that had followed her lead; Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Mice Parade’s Adam Pierce, among others. She would also work with producer and composer Max Richter who would take her demos (made on a Mac with synthesized arrangements!) and re-create the sumptuous orchestral folk sound of Just Another Diamond Day. And with that, she was back.
This song is the perfect example of that dreamlike and gauzy effect that makes the span of years between albums into an afterthought. On one level, this song is about that span of years, a reflection on a specific facet of that period when she felt housebound instead of enjoying a life of possibilities on the road. It could be considered a song of wistful regret as applied to its creator. But, it’s very existence is down her determination to refuse that mere supporting role in the movie of her own life.
Then at age sixty through the slow-burn success of her first album, she’d discovered a new avenue of possibilities to be the artist she’d always striven to be when she was in her twenties, helped along by those still in their twenties who followed a similar path by 2005. The world had caught up with her, with this record proving that she’d always been right about following her muse.
For more information, take a read of this interview with Vashti Bunyan on Pitchfork around the time that Lookaftering was released.