How instrumentalist Mike Vass learned to stop worrying and love his own voice

First a confession: when a notable Scottish folk instrumentalist announced that he was bringing out an album of his own songs, the heart sank, just a little. With triumphs such as In the Wake of Neil Gunn and Notes From the Boat under his belt and his multi-media tribute to the Scots fiddler’s art, The Four Pillars, due for release later this year, for fiddler, multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Vass to suddenly venture into the already well populated realm of singer-songwriting did seem just one string too many on his bow.

Mike Vass
Mike Vass

I stand corrected and contrite. The result, Save His Calm (yes, it’s an anagram) proves a pleasant surprise indeed. Vass’s voice is light and mellow, confiding or confessional as he delivers well-crafted narratives – semi-autobiographical or otherwise – examining human frailties and life’s big questions.

Originally from Nairn but based in Glasgow, Vass proves he can turn a thoughtful lyric as neatly as he can a tune: “Bury this kist and melt down the key,” he implores in the bittersweet Just Enough to Let the Light In, while the unnamed, self-destructive subject of The Rainbow of Your Last Days is “A quarter gill man, for page and quill”. The raw Walk with Me and Meet My Children explores the trauma of tragic loss, although he points out that it is not autobiographical.

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The album’s polished eloquence is also down to the fine band he assembled for it, his own habitual tenor guitar joined by Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbot on drums and vocals, Euan Burton on bass, pianist Tom Gibbs, cellist Su-a Lee and sister Fi Vass also on vocals, while Philip Cardwell’s trumpet distinctly colours the overall sound, steering it towards a jazz vibe and letting rip nicely in the lissom waltz-time of Fly.

“I knew that they would all bring their own energy to the project,” says Vass.

“We actually recorded this back in October 2017. We just met one Sunday evening in GloWorm studios in Glasgow and I let them hear the songs. We spent a few hours arranging them then recorded them over the Monday and Tuesday.”

In fact, Vass had been carrying these songs around with him for some years, his first tentative lyrics dating back to 2013 when he was hospitalised with life-threatening Neuroborreliosis – late-stage Lyme disease – an experience which informs the song As I’ve Grown Older. A seasoned yachtsman, in 2017 he took a sabbatical and went sailing from Scotland to the Canaries with his brother, Martin. “While we were away I practised them pretty much every day. I think the warm climate really helped to open my voice out.”

At one point he considered recording his songs using guest singers, “but whenever I sang them to small groups of people, they would say, ‘No you can’t; they’re your songs.”

So far as songwriting influences are concerned, he particularly cites Karine Polwart and the American Anais Mitchell, but adds that years playing with the band Malinky, and other traditional performers have him well steeped in the often sanguinary “muckle sangs”, the old Scots ballads.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of them and I’m really interested in how people interpret them.”

There’s a dark enough side to some of his own songs. At present, he says, he’s too busy producing other musicians to think about another song collection.

Perhaps, he muses, a second album might be a bit lighter. Then he bursts out laughing: “Although I doubt it.”

In the meantime, he embarks on a solo tour, starting with Girvan Folk Festival on 3-5 May then on through Glenfarg, Ullapool, Findhorn and Lyth. And tonight at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, he’s part of the house band in What a Voice, a celebration of women tradition-bearers, alongside Malinky colleague Fiona Hunter, Kathleen MacInnes and Kaela Rowan, as part of the city’s Tradfest, which runs until 6 May. - Jim Gilchrist

Save His Calm is on Unroofed Records. For full tour dates and details see www.mikevass.comminor and www.edinburghtradfest.com