The story of Vashti Bunyan has been told many times. Whilst she was still a teenager her debut single was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, yet she ended up becoming disillusioned, turning her back on the London music industry of the late Sixties to set off on a horse and cart towards the Isle of Skye. Thirty years later she was encouraged to write and record again as her only existing recordings were achieving cult status, and people started calling her things like "The Godmother of Freak-Folk."

Now there is a third chapter to her story with the release of Heartleap, her third studio album in 44 years, and one which she says will be her last. This album is the reason that we are talking to her today, the reason that she is sitting by the phone awaiting the calls of music journalists who will ask her what it is like to release albums after so long away, and if she has any regrets.

Listening back to the recording of our conversation as I prepare this piece, two things stand out. First of all she has a soft Scottish accent, having lived most of her life in that part of the world, although she was born in Newcastle on Tyne and briefly studied art at Oxford University before her music career began. Secondly, she laughs a lot, mainly when she is reminiscing about something, and when she is telling me her story it's almost as if she can't believe where she has ended up. Considering the disappointments that she had to deal with in the Sixties, and her long self-imposed exile away from music it is remarkable that we are sitting here discussing a brand new album with such enthusiasm; and also, now towards the end of her sixties, that she has been able to create something so independent and self-assured.


The Bedroom Of The Last Child That Left Home

Even from the first few listens it is clear that Heartleap is of just as high a standard as her other albums. Her debut Just Another Diamond Day was produced by Joe Boyd, and 35 years later the eventual follow-up Lookaftering was produced and arranged by Max Richter. This time the credits say written and produced by Vashti Bunyan, and in fact three of the ten songs ('The Boy', 'Blue Shed' and the title track) feature her alone on vocals, guitars and synths. So how and why did she make the decision to work so independently? Did she have her own studio?

"Well you could call it a studio," she laughs, "or you could call it the bedroom of the last child that left home. We don't actually refer to it as my studio, it's my 'room' that I've filled with all my music stuff. I tried to do as much of this by myself as I could, as much as my technical knowledge would allow me to. I just became fascinated by the whole process of recording and editing and mixing, and I think I was very lucky to be able to spend a lot of time on it. If I had had a producer and an engineer and a studio who was doing all of that for me I would've done it to a timescale, and it's been wonderful for me to be able to just work on it at my own pace and build it up layer by layer, and not have to worry about somebody else's time."

It is a process which has paid off, although Heartleap took a long time, her vocal performance is assured, and the delicately layered arrangements work beautifully. However it needn't have been such a solo album, and Vashti's original vision for this album was different.

"Seven years back I started writing these songs and recording them," she explains, "and then six years ago I was lent a studio in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles for two months, and that was a very productive period, but from then on it was just bits here and there, with a lot of other life in between, until I approached Robert Kirby - he was the man who arranged a lot of the songs on Nick Drake's records and a few of the songs on my first album. We had made contact again through a show we were doing together, and he wanted to hear my new songs so I took them to him and he was delighted with them. We decided to make this album together and then two weeks later he died. It was such a shock that I shelved everything for two years. I got back to it gradually and over this last year I have been working on it literally every day, and driving everybody crazy, but it's become an absolute obsession that I had to get it finished rather than letting it drift on and on. I really wanted to complete it and have it as a whole, rather than just a bit of a song here and a bit of a song there, and keeping what might have happened with Robert in mind and what arrangements he might have made, and gradually I got my confidence back decided that this was something I had to do for myself."

Were you working with Robert in your head, sort of like a tribute to him?

"Yes, exactly, certainly for the string arrangements I referred to him in my head, and they are mine obviously, but I always had him in mind, and what might have happened. And it wasn't just the strings we were going to work on together, he had ideas for tuba and for french horns and things like that," she pauses and laughs gently. "They were just lovely ideas and then of course he wasn't there anymore and I had to stand on my own feet."

One of the bits of pre-publicity surrounding Heartleap states that this will be your final album, why do you say that?

"It's partly because of the time it took. I am very slow," she laughs again. "I just wonder if in another nine years there will be such a format as an album, or if things will become much more song-by-song rather than a collection of songs. This isn't the end of my music writing probably, but I don't want to have to take that long to create a set of songs again, so maybe if I do come up with one song I would put it out as it is, rather than waiting for another nine songs."

Which album was harder to follow-up? When you released Lookaftering did you think that it might be your last album?

"When Lookaftering was finished I had no real thought of making another one - the same as I feel now about this one actually! I learnt a lot from Max Richter who completely sheltered me throughout the entire process, but he was the producer. I made the songs and I co-wrote the arrangements with him but mostly it was his vision. I adore him and I have huge respect for him and choosing to do Heartleap by myself is in no way a reflection of what I felt about Max or about Joe Boyd or about anybody that I've ever worked with. I just felt that this time I had to be brave enough to stand on my own feet and learn from my past experiences but also just make something of my own. Max is very much from a classical background and we definitely shared a love for that kind of music, although he is way more knowledgeable than me, he's a real classically trained musician, whereas I can't read or write music. I can't play the piano with more than one finger - it's a miracle that we managed to come together really considering how little I knew, but when I first heard his Blue Notebooks that Fat Cat had pointed me towards, I just knew that he would understand the songs and that he would know what I wanted to do with them, and he sure did!"

Were any of the songs on Heartleap or even Lookaftering old ideas, or were they all written with a new album in mind?

"After Diamond Day was reissued and I got the idea eventually that maybe I could make another album, the songs came very slowly but they were also very much looking back over my life. Heartleap is much more set in the present and my feelings about now, rather than my feelings about the rest of my life backwards, so yes, I think that they have all appeared in their own good time."



Her Influence

Whilst she has been immersed in her own album, she admits to enjoying the recent albums by Paul Buchanan (of the Blue Nile) and Bob Dylan, and she loves the cover that Fever Ray did of her song 'Here Before'. "That was absolutely brilliant I really loved it, I fell off my chair when I first heard it, I thought it was great," she says. What about other new music though? "A lot of the music that I listen to I get frustrated by, because I think that it is so formulaic that there's always an underpinning of a drum track and percussion and a bass and I often listen to music and think, that'd be really great if they'd just take the drum track off," she laughs, "so I'm a bit obsessed with that at the moment. My oldest child Leif is often saying to me "oh Mum when are you going to put some drums on your songs, when are you going to use percussion, why don't you have any bass?" It's not that I don't like percussion or bass, I like them in their place, it's just that I don't think they have to be there for everything."

As well as the familiar absence of any bass or percussion, one other thing missing from Heartleap is the roll-call of guest musicians. This time around the main players are her touring band after Lookaftering - guitar player Gareth Dickson. multi-instrumentalist Jo Mango, violin player Fiona Brice and cellist Ian Burdge. She is full of praise for the Lookaftering guests though.

"I was very dependent on all the people who came to help like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart and Adem - Adem was really important to that album - and I leaned on these people so much and they were fabulous, but for this one I didn't want to lean quite so heavily," she says.

Some of those musicians mentioned are partly responsible for her renaissance, but what made her realise that she still had people interested in her music? "It was a bit of a shock but it happened when I first got a computer and used the internet and keyed my name in, and this was about 1996, 1997, and up came these references to this album that I had long forgotten, I thought it was just buried somewhere in the North Pole, that was also a really big surprise as was finding that there was a bootleg of the album out so I set about finding out who it belonged to, and that set me on the path to the reissue. Even now, 14 years after the reissue I still get completely surprised when anybody has ever heard of it, and it's lovely, a very nice feeling."


Her Return

You hadn't been in a studio between 1970 and 2000 so that must have been odd. Who first approached you about recording again? "It was Glen Johnson of Piano Magic. It was pretty out of the blue, because I hadn't expected to be doing anything else and so to be asked to do something like that was really quite a big thing for me, and very exciting. Glen knew the publisher of the Diamond Day songs, Paul Lambden, who put together a label especially to reissue Diamond Day in 2000. Glen asked me to go down to London and sing one of his songs for his new album (which became 'Crown of the Lost'), and that's what I did, and I hadn't been in a studio for thirty years and I hadn't opened my mouth to sing hardly to sing in all of that time." She laughs,"so I didn't know what was going to happen when he put me in front of the microphone and then I realised that actually it was all still there, and actually that was when I decided that I did want to make another album. I came out of the studio and I was literally walking on air."

She goes on to talk about the huge string of people that helped her get back into writing and recording again, including Kieran Hebden of Four Tet/ Fridge, who put her in touch with Animal Collective, with whom she made the Prospect Hummer EP.

She recalls, "Kieran said, "these guys all have your album and again I was so surprised, I just thought, how did they get it and why!? Then they asked if I would like to collaborate on a few songs with them and I thought they meant put a bit of vocal in the background but when I arrived in their studio it was three days full on work, and they had me doing stuff I didn't know that I could do, or hadn't done for so long. The Animal Collective guys were so inventive and so persuasive and had such a wonderful life force between them that it really inspired me to get on with it. I know how lucky I am to have met all these people and they've all been so good to me and really kind."

The documentary film From Here to Before, released in 2008, is the definitive tale of her journey away from London and the music industry towards a self-sufficient lifestyle on the Isle of Skye. How does it feel to look back at that now?

"It's funny, I saw that just the other week, it was being shown at No.6 Festival in Portmeirion in Wales. Joe Boyd was there and we did a Q&A session after it and neither of us had seen the film for a few years. I really enjoyed it this time, and I think Joe did as well. It was very nice to see Joe and to talk to him about it and remember things."

When you had your long time away from the music business were you aware that Joe Boyd was still keeping busy, producing people like REM, Billy Bragg, and so on?

"Yes I think I was and I always thought that Joe has possibly forgotten all about what we did and he never mentioned it, and I just got the idea that he wasn't that keen on it or that he didn't remember it. I think he is as surprised as I am that Diamond Day has found its place and that people ask him about it, nobody ever did in all of those years, but now he says that people do ask him about it and that he's quite surprised. It just shows how much before internet days that things just got lost, if they weren't successful, if they weren't out on the mainstream they just got completely lost and that's not so likely to happen now I think. Then it was so easy to just disappear."

In those years away from the music business, what music did you listen to?

"I didn't, and that's what I realised when I came back that I had been so crushed, I think I took the rejection very badly and it had the effect of making me turn my back on music altogether, I couldn't listen to anybody, which is such a terrible, terrible thing to do as it meant I also deprived my kids of music in their childhoods, but when I came back my partner was a great music fan all the way through those years and he re-educated me on all that I had missed and that's been fantastic really."

The music industry must have changed a lot since you started.

"Oh, it is enormously different, but then I am very lucky to be with Fat Cat and to be with DiChristina in the States who I think are not typical of the music industry at large, they're incredibly dedicated people and I haven't had any horrible experiences, I've seen other people have terrible experiences with the bigger companies but I have come across fabulous people in the last ten years so when people ask me what I think about the music industry I think I probably have a very narrow view," she laughs, "I have had such a nice time with it I haven't fallen foul of anybody or anything and I am very lucky."


Moving Forward and Looking Back

Vashi was only 25 when she left London and her music career behind, but was considered - both by herself and the industry - to have been a failure. She recalls "I was very young when I started, I was 19 when I met (Rolling Stones manager) Andrew Oldham who was only a year older me. It felt like I had been trying to push this rock up a hill for centuries but of course it was only 6 or 7 years that I was really trying, until I absolutely said "THAT'S IT!" I'm obviously no good at this so I'm off."

What would you say to a female musician in a similar situation now?

"Ohh... just keep going I guess, I dunno, what would I say, you do what you want to do and don't listen to anybody else!" she laughs, "and if you want to stop, stop. There's nothing making you do it!"

People must be envious that you turned your back on the music business and you are now back doing things more or less on your own terms.

"If I had any success back then my life would have been so different and so I'm really glad that I didn't," she says, "because the life I have had has been so rewarding and brilliant and I don't think I would've handled any success well back then. I think I'm much more grounded as a person now, so everything has worked out perfectly fine for me and I don't have any regrets and I don't have any bitterness for what happened, and yes it was wonderful seeing Joe Boyd last month and ironing out all the wrinkles that there might have been. He might have thought that I was upset by what happened but I had to reassure him that, no I wasn't." She says firmly, "it has been absolutely right what has happened and I was right to leave when I did and just not keep trying and trying when obviously it wasn't working, and it did take another thirty years for it to find the right people and to work."

Vashti Bunyan's new album, Heartleap, is out now on FatCat Records.