Published: 06/10/2014 11:20 - Updated: 06/10/2014 11:40

Nairn's Mike Vass follows Neil Gunn's trail to the Western Isles - and a brand new album

Mike Vass found inspiration at sea after a spell in hospital.
Mike Vass found inspiration at sea after a spell in hospital.

LAID up in hospital, Nairn musician Mike Vass turned his dreams of escape to the Western Isles into a reality.

Now that journey has been turned into an album and tour that he considers his most ambitious musical project to date.

Last year, just months after being named Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Awards, Vass was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease and ended up in hospital in Glasgow, where he now lives.

While he was recuperating, his father brought him a copy of Off in a Boat, Highland-born writer Neil Gunn’s account of his three month voyage along the west coast and Hebridean islands in 1937 after deciding to quit his job as a civil servant in Inverness, sell his house and buy a boat.

"Being confined in the hospital bed and reading about the stunning west coast and being out on the open sea, that’s where the idea was hatched," Vass said.

Vass, who was introduced to sailing by his dad at the age of eight, borrowed his father’s sailing boat and, together with a small crew, spent May recreating as closely as possible Gunn’s voyage, stopping of for a few shows along the way.

"It was great to do for me and it definitely helped with recovery from Lyme disease as well — I’m still a bit fatigued from it, but definitely getting back to normal now. Being out on the water for a month was a huge help with that," Vass said.

"The important thing, from my point of view, was not to try and work too hard and just soak up as much as possible. That’s why we only did five gigs over the course of the trip, so we wouldn’t be rushing from place to place."

Mike has been sailing since the age of eight.
Mike has been sailing since the age of eight.

Vass also held off writing any new material until he returned home.

He came up with the initial ideas on his own, then fleshed them out in the studio with producer and piano player Iain Hutchison from Inverness.

"I found that a lot more enjoyable than being on my own writing," he said.

"Once we were in the studio, it all came together pretty quickly."

Vass, who has also played with Malkiny, Fiddle Rendezvous, the Paul McKenna Band and in duos with his twin sister Ali and singer Fiona Hunter, did not just rely on his own multi-instrumental skills to put his musical vision together.

He also brought in Grantown’s Hamish Napier on flute and whistle, clarsach and oboe player Jennifer Port, bass player Euan Burton and the Cairn String Quartet to join himself and Hutchison on the new album.

However, it was only when rehearsals began for the tour that all the musicians involved were finally in one room at the same time.

"I’m really excited about the tour and happy with how it’s sounding," Vass said.

"It’s quite different from anything I’ve done before as well."

For Vass, the new work builds on previous projects such as String Theory, his commission for the 2010 Celtic Connections Festival, or Decemberwell, where he challenged himself to write a new tune every day for the month of December.

"I started to broaden my listening a lot after String Theory," he said.

"String Theory was definitely rooted in the tradition. This one borrows from classical music and even electronica."

With Vass’s health returning to normal, there is still much to keep him busy, so it might be a while before he tackles a similarly ambitious project.

"I’m going to take a little bit of time off at the start of December and think about what happens next," he said.

"I’m still working with Fiona Hunter a lot and I’m doing some duo concerts with Innes Watson. In terms of solo projects, nothing as grand as In The Wake of Neil Gunn is planned as yet, but with these projects, the ideas almost come by accident.

"If I hadn’t been lent that book, the project wouldn’t have happened, so who knows where the next inspiration will come from?"

• Mike Vass’s In The Wake of Neil Gunn Tour takes him to Eden Court’s OneTouch Theatre on Wednesday 8th October; Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye on Friday 10th October; and Lyth Arts Centre near Wick on Saturday 11th October.

The album is released on Monday 20th October on Unroofed Records.

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