Have you ever had that experience where an old song suddenly floats to the top of the common consciousness and no one will shut up about it? For bonus points, it’s almost always from an artist who you’ve kind of heard of but never listened to, and suddenly you’re out there, playing catch-up. Whether it’s a VW commercial reintroducing the world to Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” or Russian Doll reminding people of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” Or, my current favorite example, “You’re Dead” by Norma Tanega which is used in the opening credits to What We Do in Shadows and was originally recorded in 1966.
It’s a proven model. The old song, rarely a hit in its time, mind you, evokes nostalgia for those who remember it or the artist, and it can typically be licensed for cheap. Then you get a that hit of a lived-in yet also new sensation. Because it’s new(ish) to you. And for those people who were hip to the artist before you ever heard of them, it’s an opportunity for smug satisfaction.
Which is why instead of looking at the NOW for this Old Hipster Recommends, I’m going to talk about something a bit older. Pay attention. This is your chance to get ahead of the curve and put a vintage artist in your musical arsenal. Also, you get the satisfaction of falling in love with something magical that’s a little left of the dial. And if that’s not hipster goals, what really is? Just try to be an Inclusive Hipster, and not an Exclusive one. Share your love. That’s how things grow.
All of that is to say, welcome to the music of Vashti Bunyan.
Hailing from London, Vashti attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford before being kicked out for focusing too much on music rather than other art. Inspired by Bob Dylan, she decided to become a professional musician at age 18, recording her first single in 1965–the Jagger/Richards penned “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind.”
In between that and the release of her first full length album a few years later in 1970, she made her way around the folk and folk/rock scene of England, forming connections with several of the luminaries of the time. People expected her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day. to be a hit.
It was not.
Despite the positive reviews, it failed to really find much of an audience at all.
For thirty years.
Vashti Bunyan left the music business. She moved around the UK, finally ending up back in Scotland where she focused on raising her family. Unbeknownst to hear, that album became a sought-after rarity in music circles, once selling online for almost $4,000.
In 2000, the album was remastered and reissued, allowing a whole new generation to discover her music. The renewed attention got her writing and performing again. Her second album, after a three decade hiatus, Lookaftering, came out in 2005 and album three, Heartleap in 2014. And it wasn’t just the admittedly small circle of British Folk Revival fans who were rediscovering her. It was ad executives. “Just Another Diamond Day” got used for a nationwide T-Mobile commercial. Then, an old single from the late sixties, “Train Song,” got used for a Reebok ad for the NFL in 2008, and then on the soundtrack of True Detective six years later, as well as the opening credits for Patriot, an original series on Amazon (which is where I finally heard her for the first time.)
But despite that, she’s still relatively unknown. She has just over 55k followers on Spotify. That sounds like a lot, but Toad the Wet Sprocket has north of 157k, and Nickleback is closing in on 4 million. She’s still performing, though I’d be surprised to find her mounting a world-wide tour anytime soon. I’m still thrilled to see her doing gigs at the Barbican in London.
So, all that preamble, what about the music?
Well, it’s very much English Folk Revival. Guitar, voice, maybe some recorder, strings, mandolin, or even harmonica in the mix. Her voice is airy and haunting. Her finger picking precise. It’s relaxing, ethereal music without feeling forced. (As an added bonus, the Spotify upload of that original album still has the hiss and pops of the vinyl which makes the entire experience warm and welcoming.)
Vashti Bunyan is comforting. Close your eyes. Get comfortable. Let “Hebridean Sun” or “Trawlerman’s Song” transport you to a sunny field in England. There’s a lovely and undeniable innocence to that first album. And a wise wistfulness on the later albums, sophisticated without being over-engineered. I can pretty much guarantee that you can turn off the phone, lock the door, and let 2005’s Lookaftering wrap you in a flannel blanket of love and warmth. It makes literally any day better.
Which is not to say that her music is uncomplicated. The instrumentation is sometimes sparse, the layers, when they are, are all very well considered. It’s exactly as full as it needs to be. Not ornate for the sake of being ornate. Deceptively complex without being offuscatory. It’s masterful songwriting not to be missed.
And honestly, we could all use a bit more of that in our lives.
I’d suggest sampling her first album, Just Another Diamond Day and then maybe move on to her more recent music to hear how she’s matured and evolved. I genuinely love her music and hope that at least a few people who read this let her music into their heart. It embodies a timeless gentleness. A softness that is often difficult to find.
I’m leaving you with “Lately” off her second album. It’s a lovely song and will make your day better. That’s the Old Hipster guarantee.