You See the End Before the Beginning Has Ever Begun

By Owen Armstrong

from-here-to-before-kieran-evans.jpg From Here to Before, 2008

Following the recent rediscovery and revival of singer/ songwriter Vashti Bunyan’s influential 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, director Kieran Evans From Here to Before retraces the journey she and boyfriend Robert Lewis began in 1968 from London to the Isle of Skye. Partly in response to Bunyan’s own disenfranchisement and partly a return to nature, the couple set out to find, among other things, a space in which to set up a creative colony that neglected the values of modern living.

Marking her return to music after a departure of more than 30 years, Bunyan performed at the Barbican’s Folk Britannia Festival in 2006 to rapturous applause and adulation, and it is here that Evans’ begins to retell the story of Just Another Diamond Day and the life and lives that inspired its creation. As is evidenced in footage leading up to Bunyan’s performance, she is a musician whose presence is felt with an overwhelming sense of admiration and respect by all around her. Input from folk luminaries Adem and Devandra Banhart helps to cement her, not only as a key figure in the broader revival of folk music, but also vital to the way a new generation of avant-folk artists such as Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, Espers and King Creosote have been received.

from-here-to-before-kieran-evans-2.jpgFrom Here to Before, 2008 

Initially envisioned by producer Andrew Loog Oldham as a musician in the same mould as Marianne Faithfull, it soon became clear that Bunyan would not generate the same kind of commercial impact. Early footage from US variety show Shindig! features Bunyan performing her first release under Oldham - Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind – a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards who had also provided Faithfull with her first success in As Tears Go By further forcing her into an ill-fitting pop template. Evans carefully contrasts this image of the young pop hopeful with archive material taken from the BBC’s One Pair of Eyes in 1969, which features Bunyan and Lewis travelling by horse and cart through an idyllic, unnamed countryside – an albeit archaic mode of general self-sufficiency becoming a possible solution to obtaining freedom outside the context of Britain’s advanced industrialised civilisation. In showing Bunyan perform in the midst of her obscurity from the music industry, Evans expresses her artistic motives in a fittingly concise and uncomplicated fashion – despite not belonging to any inherent folk movement, she plays for the pleasure of playing, much in the tradition of the origins of a music that grew out of the pleasure of storytelling.

The critical interest that surrounds Bunyan has a distinct and unique air of something that has been refined, almost lying in wait for an appropriate audience. In the same way that her work is the product of a series of remarkably personal events, the way in which she recounts her life separates her from other artists. Between watching her speak and perform, Bunyan seems to defy the model of a musician that has garnered the respect and admiration bestowed on her. There is a powerful humility in her voice that places her outside the realm of musical criticism, as if it is too much, not enough, or simply not befitting to discuss the weight of influence attributed to her. Evans occupies this territory beautifully, abstaining from the temptation of heavy-handed documentary jargon and similarly, there is surprisingly little to offer in the way of complete live performance. Instead, we see Bunyan and her accompanying musicians intermittently preparing for her Barbican return. Rather than providing proof of her musical integrity, these delicately suggestive moments reinforce Bunyan’s position as an artist on the periphery of an industry that has come to demand more of her – she resists, and is not afraid to take her time.

from-here-to-before-kieran-evans-3.jpgFrom Here to Before, 2008 

Reminiscent of the disarming honesty of Nick Drake, Bunyan’s style of song writing refrains from any philosophical sentiment. Instead she deals with her most personal and immediate experiences – perhaps one of the critical reasons for her failure to attract a marketable interest under Oldham. Receiving only a limited release, and under the guidance of producer Joe Boyd, Just Another Diamond Day – a musical diary of Bunyan’s journey - suffered the same fate as her earlier efforts. This repeated lack of commercial success, while crippling for Bunyan, is also one of her albums defining elements, not only setting it apart from music produced in the same era, but also from music produced today.

Though the arrival of the Internet has enabled the musical legacy of Bunyan to flourish, the popularity surrounding her had already begun to form at the hands of record collectors and musical enthusiasts confined to the art of perseverance. Another of producer Joe Boyd’s progenies, Drake has also become the focus of significant critical interest years after his death, and again, the responsibility lies with the dutiful and dedicated. Prescient and timeless, Drake has since been elevated to the kind of indispensable and unique status that separates him from his contemporaries. Just as he and Bunyan failed to find an audience at the time their work was produced, their following is the result of years of cultivated interest – something that has slowly been eradicated from the way in which people listen to music.

from-here-to-before-kieran-evans-4.jpg From Here to Before, 2008

As is evident in the nature of her journey, her music, her absence from the music industry and even the way she speaks, Bunyan emanates a remarkable sense of harmony and faith in patience. Perhaps her most striking quality, it is as though despite the hardship she endured in removing herself from society, she is free of the lure of cynicism and accepting of the time it takes to realise ones goals. Whether it is Evans’ minimal vocal intervention or evocative photography, From Here to Before appropriately emulates the charming simplicity of Bunyan’s story, paying faithful respect to its humble subject matter, and forcing very little on those watching. Since her return Bunyan has recorded with artists as diverse as Animal Collective and Max Richter, and also released a further two albums, Lookaftering and Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind – a collection of early recordings. Both have been released to wide critical acclaim.

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and beekeeper. He lives in London.