‘A journey of recovery and discovery’
Award-winning Scottish composer and fiddler Mike Vass is the master musician behind one of the most ambitious and intriguing instrumental releases of 2014.
A case of adversity triggering creativity, In the Wake of Neil Gunn is an ambitious music-maritime project, the seed of which was sown when keen sailor Vass was seriously ill in hospital last year. Named Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards Vass’s last highly acclaimed album Decemberwell (2012) was another instrumental CD conjuring up both the chill and the warmth of the final month of the year.
A long-term member of renowned Scottish band Malinky, Mike has also performed in the Paul McKenna Band, in a duo with sister Ali, with Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and in the feted super group Fiddle Rendezvous. Also building a career as a producer (he produced Scottish songstress Fiona Hunter’s debut album last year) the Nairn-born tunesmith is known for his classy compositions – he wrote and performed the soundtrack for Gavin Robinson’s Scottish BAFTA-winning Hart’s Desire animation and his jig Cavers of Kircudbright won the inaugural Neil Gow Composition Award and has been recorded by artists from Scotland, Ireland, France and USA.
But in 2013 he suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease. Whilst recuperating in hospital his father gave him Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s book Off in a Boat, describing a 1937 voyage of the spectacular west coast of Scotland. Fisherman’s son Gunn had given up his job as a civil servant, sold his house and bought a boat called The Thistle to embark on his three month long adventure around the Inner Hebrides.
Says Mike, who had been put in an induced coma: “I’d suffered a life threatening illness called Neuroborreliosis – late stage Lyme’s disease that affects the central nervous system. I found Gunn’s book utterly inspirational and immediately started planning my own version of the trip.”
In May this year Mike did just that, mirroring Gunn’s voyage closely and gathering endless inspiration for the new album, with Salmon Films recording the voyage and House of Lochar re-issuing the book. Mike and a small crew set off on his father’s 35’ sailing boat from Portree on the Isle of Syke voyaging to the Isle of Eigg, Arisaig, Mull, Iona, Oban, Kentallen, Fort William and back up the Caledonian Canal to Nairn..He revisited the same coastal communities as Gunn and performed a series of concerts with guest musicians, including one at Iona Abbey.
He says: “Making music on board and watching the stunning coastline of Scotland slip by from one of the most privileged viewpoints on Earth is something I will never forget.” Though intimately inspired by Gunn’s voyage and writing Mike said: “It is inescapably the story of my own reflections. It is a journey of recovery and discovery”.
The 10-track recording features samples of “found sound” recorded on the trip (from flapping flags to a diesel inboard) and live instruments captured later in the studio. Multi-instrumentalist Mike plays tenor guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dulcitone, melodica and percussion. Joining him on the album are some of Scotland’s foremost traditional musicians – Iain Hutchison on piano (who also co-produced the release with Vass); Jennifer Port on oboe and clarsach (Celtic harp); Hamish Napier on flute and whistle and Euan Burton on electric and double bass. Adding to the filmic sound is The Cairn String Quartet of Katie Rush and Catherine Robertson on violin, Annemarie McGahon on viola and Susan Applebe on cello.
Highly original, it is a suite of music that ebbs and flows, variously subtle and symphonic, seemingly having arrived fully formed with edge, atmosphere, nuances and even boat creaks that makes you feel you are taking the voyage too!
Says Mike: “I also used some quirky sounding objects from around the house – if you listen carefully you might hear a toilet seat lid, an office stapler and a paracetamol tub being used as a shaker!”
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Artist’s website: www.mikevass.com
“A multi-instrumentalist and composer, Vass bends genres here. Is this contemporary folk music or a modern classical work? Yes.” – 4 * R2 Magazine
“Only a few years into what promises to be a glittering career, Mike Vass delivers a stunning collection of standout tunes.” – Taplas
“Expansively flowing, often luminous music that runs with the tide” – The Scotsman
A live performance of ‘Settled In Clay’ from In The Wake Of Neil Gunn: