Mike Vass is one of the most creative forces on the Scottish music scene. As a musician, composer, producer and arranger Vass has amassed a body of work that encompasses collaborations with many of the leading voices among today’s Scots and Gaelic tradition bearers, multi-media performances, production work on critically acclaimed recordings, scoring for prestigious ensembles and composing for and appearing in theatre works.
From a teenage fiddle talent playing music mostly from the Scottish tradition, Vass has developed into top class performer as well as an in-demand accompanist and session player. Following work as a multi-instrumentalist with Scottish traditional song champions Malinky, he has toured with long-running Scottish favourites Battlefield Band and the Paul McKenna Band and played concerts with Scottish folk hero Dougie MacLean and singers Kathleen MacInnes, Siobhan Miller, Fiona Hunter, Robyn Stapleton and Ewan Macpherson. Session work has included Gaelic rock heroes Runrig’s The Story, fiddler-guitarist Innes Watson’s Guitar Colloquium and singer-songwriter Adam Holmes’ Hope Park albums.
The skill shown in crafting his own Decemberwell album in 2012 has led to demand for Vass’s services as a record producer. Albums by Malinky singer Fiona Hunter, English folksinger Bella Hardy, multi-instrumentalist Mairearad Green, Gaelic singing duo Brian O’headhra & Fiona Mackenzie, Irish musician and composer Grainne Brady, neo-trad trio Project Smok, and Gillian Frame and Findlay Napier have all benefited from Vass’s sure touch and creative imagination in the studio.
Vass’s talent as a tunesmith, which was clear from his earliest days in his fiddle-keyboard duo with twin sister Ali, has developed into much broader compositions. His 2010 Celtic Connections commission, String Theory, has become one of the yardsticks for the festival’s New Voices strand and ambitious projects such as Notes from the Boat and In the Wake of Neil Gunn have earned critical acclaim. Subsequent works include pieces for string quartets and quintets and for larger ensembles including folk orchestra the Unusual Suspects and film soundtracks including Gavin C Robinson’s Scottish Bafta-winning animation, Hart’s Desire.
Commissions have included The Four Pillars, for the Scots Fiddle Festival 2018, Air falbh ann am bàta/Off in a Boat, for the Blas festival of Gaelic culture 2020 and Hot Water Music for the bagpipe ensemble Tryst at Piping Live! 2021.
Vass’s interest in both continuing and expanding Scotland’s musical traditions has been recognised by invitations to become a guest lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he subsequently became the associate artist in traditional music in 2021, and his appointment as University of Edinburgh traditional artist in residence from 2019 to 2021.
The latter position resulted in several commissions. For the Scottish Parliament Vass composed Sea Moss – the Ninth Chord, a celebration of Hamish Henderson which involved blending archive voices with live instrumentation and samples. For Edinburgh’s Tradfest celebration of traditional arts he produced The Order of Time, featuring piper-accordionist Mairearad Green with live samples, and voices and photographs from the archive. A piece for Edinburgh International Festival, The Living Archive, celebrated 70 years of the School of Scottish studies archive.
During his time as University of Edinburgh traditional artist in residence, Vass also curated In Light Festival, an online celebration of the School of Scottish Studies archives with filmed performances from Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, fiddler master Alasdair Fraser, American singer Aoife O’Donovan and specially commissioned work by pianist Mhairi Hall and harpist Rachel Newton.
As well as critical acclaim, Vass’ work has brought honours including Composer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2012 and the Hands up for Trad Ignition award for innovation in the tradition in March 2019.
His latest album, Decemberwell Decade, reimagines the music of the original Decemberwell, this time employing a cast of top singers and musicians to realise the impressions of a Scottish winter that Vass, using an array of instruments, created by himself.