Interview: Mike Vass's latest musical adventure draws on the sounds of the sea

Mariner and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass has taken to the water once again for his latest album, the appropriately titled Notes from the Boat, which he recorded early last year on board his 11-metre Dutch sailing boat, Sweet Harmony, while moored at Inverkip marina on the Clyde. His last album, 2014's In the Wake of Neil Gunn, was nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year award and was inspired by the Highland writer's memoir Off in a Boat. For Vass, recovering from severe illness at the time, making the album (and retracing Gunn's Highland voyage) was a cathartic process. With Notes from the Boat, he simply wanted to record music he'd composed over the past decade '“ written for weddings, birthdays and the like '“ in collaboration with musicians he'd known and played with over the years.
Mike VassMike Vass
Mike Vass

He and his brother Martin were planning an ambitious sea voyage in the Sweet Harmony, taking in Spain Portugal, Madeira and the Canaries with a possible Atlantic crossing to follow, so he invited pals such as fiddlers Gillian Frame, Duncan Chisholm and Tomás Callister, fiddler-guitarist Anna Massie and harpist Corrina Hewat to join him in his floating mini-studio, which was also his home at the time.

As things transpired, the subsequent voyage was far from plain sailing, and any plans for an Atlantic crossing were dispelled by severe weather they hit after leaving Portugal – the boat is still in the Canaries undergoing repairs.

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“The waves got so bad,” he recalls, “we couldn’t eat for two days. It was a case of hanging on for dear life. But you need to experience these conditions to grow as a sailor.”

The new album is a much lighter affair than the last one, he agrees, though richly melodic and with some intriguing use of “found sound” such as speech snatches, water lapping, rigging thrumming and even a sail serving as a bass drum. The opening Last Day, for instance, with its raindrop pizzicato, has fiddler Gillian Frame intoning the tune title in VHF phonetic alphabet, while the closing Art features fiddler-guitarist Innes Watson and some knock-on parts for galley saucepans.

Elsewhere, the sprightly jig Bright Kirk contains chirpy vocal samples from Vass’s nine-month-old niece. Certain other background effects were unlooked for but unavoidable: both Massie’s charming wedding waltz and another beautiful air, also written by Vass for a wedding and played by Chisholm, were recorded at Inverkip while a near-gale was blowing outside, although digital technology has calmed it down to a discreet background murmur.

“The boat is such a noisy environment,” says Vass, “whether you’re sailing or in port. The way my brain works I’m always hearing these things. If I hear something interesting I’ll record it and try and incorporate it – but then you end up starting to take sounds out because it just becomes too cluttered. “I like it,” he admits, “because all these noises are a bit silly, and it’s trying to allow that silliness but also trying to be tasteful.”

Throughout it all, Vass’s own accompaniments, on tenor guitar, fiddle and much else, flow with his tunes like water under the boat. He’s been working on recording a song cycle he’s written, called Save His Calm, with other musicians, but it’s studio production that keeps him busiest in Glasgow. He’s currently working on a new album project – The Ledger – with Gillian Frame and Findlay Napier, as well as on singer and fellow Malinky-member Fiona Hunter’s next album.

“That’s the main part of my working life now, studio things. I get to be creative while helping other people with their studio time. And I love it.”

Notes From The Boat is out now on Unroofed Records,