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Arts / Vicky goes solo in style with new EP ‘Atlaness’

Musician and composer Vicky Gray. Photo: Gordon MacKenzie

SHETLANDER Vicky Gray has long been known for her prowess as a graceful fiddle player steeped in the traditions of her home islands – and after many years of performing in bands this week she is stepping out of the shadows and unveiling her stylish debut EP as a solo artist.

Atlaness is a concise piece of work, the four tracks’ combined duration clocking in just shy of the 12-minute mark, but still finds time to cover a considerable amount of musical ground.

Several of the pieces are partial reworkings of tunes she learned from her late grandfather Gilbert (Gibby) Gray from Unst, a notable tradition-bearer and fiddler.

“I still love listening to the old recordings of my Grandad Gray playing the fiddle and am fascinated by the history of the old tunes and the stories that go with them,” Vicky says. “He was a great storyteller and had an infectious rhythm to his playing.”

Now living in Loch Leven, just south of Kinross, Vicky – along with her partner Sean McLoughlin – is part of highly rated Scottish indie group Dante, who performed at Shetland Folk Festival in 2018.

“Sean forced me to do it!” she jokes when asked about the impetus for creating these recordings. More accustomed to the role of band member, Vicky – an instrumental tutor who also teaches business studies at Perth College – admits finding it “quite scary” to be putting her own name on a release.

The Atlaness EP’s elegant cover art was created by Jenny Deschenes.

She and Sean, who also play in an acoustic folk project called The Wind-Up Crowes, co-produced the EP, which was recorded with Gary Boyle at Slate Room Studios prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Vicky is working on something else just now and she has to do it all from home, so it’s nice to release something made when we could still go into the studio,” Sean says.

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Vicky’s friend and visual artist Jenny Deschenes provides the EP’s classy artwork, and her family also supplied an old recording of Jenny’s great-grandfather Glybie (James Irvine) playing wedding tunes and talking about the old traditions that went with them. Vicky says his playing is “beautifully ornamented and full of character”.

“By making a new recording of these tunes, I didn’t want to try and replicate them, but retell them,” she says.

A further Shetland connection sees bass playing on the EP courtesy of former Hom Bru musician Alex Johnson, now staying in Campbelltown.

Atlaness commences with the stark Glybie’s Tune and takes in multiple tempos and styles, with Vicky’s playing every bit as impeccable and assured as you would expect throughout.

Perhaps the most melodic set is Atlaness/Paul Chamberlain’s Reel. Driving acoustic guitar provides a heel-clicking rhythm to proceeding buttressed by warm flickers of mandolin as the set transitions into its jaunty closing reel.

Atlaness was penned by Vicky after her sister and nephew moved to Hamnavoe where they have “one of the most beautiful views in Shetland”, often watching whales and dolphins, and she has provided the sheet music for the tune (see below).

The EP’s closing track is its most progressive moment. Teif on da Lum opens with a spoken word archive recording of Vicky’s granddad, which gives way to Vicky’s ethereal layered vocals – accompanied by atmospheric, gently reverberating synths that you’d associate more with Sigur Ros than Shetland reels.

It is a gorgeous piece of music. The playful vocal refrain has a similar feel to aspects of King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love, and you can’t help wonder if Teif on da Lum might serve as an intriguing pointer to future musical pursuits.

In the meantime, while performers and gig-goers alike continue to be starved of live music, Atlaness is simply a breath of fresh air from a highly talented Shetland musician and composer, and I would urge trad music fans to buy a copy.

  • Digital and CD versions of Vicky Gray’s Atlaness EP are available here.

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