Award-winning Scottish tunesmith sparks electronic journey in hypnotic new single, Threes. Featuring 2020 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Ali Levack.
If you think you know the music of Mike Vass, think again. A master of eloquent and evocative compositions and named Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards, the innovative Nairn-born tunesmith is rightly recognised as one of the most creative forces on the Scottish music scene. A musician never far from a new commission, he has built his enviable reputation on his skills not just as a composer but also an in-demand producer and multi-instrumentalist known for his signature fiddle and tenor guitar playing which saw him nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Scots Trad Music Awards.
Currently Traditional Artist in Residence at Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, Mike surprised everyone two years ago when he changed tack, releasing his first ever album of self-penned songs, and revealing a fine voice into the bargain. Save His Calm was probably not what followers of Vass’s music had expected following on from three beautifully crafted instrumental albums - Decemberwell, In the Wake of Neil Gunn and Notes from the Boat. The semi-autobiographical song cycle blended folk, indie, jazz and pop elements in an album that could be seen as something of a cathartic creative response to life incidents, not least a lengthy hospital stay when Vass was diagnosed with the life threatening illness Neuroborreliosis.
Now his musical shape shifting takes on a new form with the brand new single Threes. Recorded during the third lockdown, it followed Mike’s temporary return to his native Scottish Highlands last autumn – his Nairn-based break turning in to a longer stay when the lockdown was announced on Boxing Day. Mike took to walking daily – in rain, hail, snow and sunshine - on the beautiful white sands and dunes of Nairn Beach adjoining the Moray Firth. During his strolls, which served for both exercise and reflection, he began to notice uncanny patterns of ‘threes’ in nature, from sheep to sculptures, sea shells to snowdrops, fir cones to footprints in the sand and three-pronged antler-like driftwood.
Says Mike: “The more I looked the more I found. Researching the symbolism of threes, I found out about ‘apophenia’, a human tendency to see meaningful connections and patterns between seemingly unrelated objects and that sparked an idea for this new piece of music.” Pursuing a long-held interest in exploring electronic music Mike came up with the uncommon 3/2 triple time signature to match the patterns of ‘threes’ he had alighted on during his walks.
He said: “I had no access to a recording studio – or even a decent-sounding acoustic space - so I built the track with analogue synthesisers – a Lyra 8 built by Soma Synths in Russia and French company Arturia’s DrumBrute drum machine.”
Forgoing his fiddle and tenor guitar, Mike invited piper and whistle virtuoso Ali Levack to add his unique sound to the record. Also locked down in the Highlands, 26-year-old Ali added his whistle parts remotely, in a makeshift home studio in Dingwall. Mike had first worked with Ali in 2019 when he produced Bayview, the debut album for Ali’s neo-trad band Project Smok which went on to be shortlisted as Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards.
Weaving a syncopated techno soundscape with a nod to jazz, Vass has conjured an arresting, mesmeric track which can take the listener on an immersive mini journey of their own as it picks up pace and then retreats like an ebbing tide – another classy, cerebral composition destined for Vass’s next album due later this year.
Talented artist Anna Colliton has designed the artwork and created the animated video that accompanies the release, dominated by a hurricane lamp swinging on a creaking chain and a train coursing over a viaduct. Threes is available as a digital download on BandCamp and on iTunes, Spotify and other digital platforms.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Mike Vass, (4) Project Smok ft. Ali Levack (unknown/website).