“Supremely sensitive. . . exceptional charm and vibrancy. . . Gary Innes is a master of extremes, and of everything in between.” (Living Tradition)
Accordion in hand, Gary Innes truly has the world at his fingertips – though at heart he’s never far from his native Scottish Highlands. Over recent years he’s gigged in China, Malaysia, the USA, the Middle East and Kazakhstan, among other exotic destinations, but between times he’s just as busy playing rural village halls and remote island festivals back home, from Acharacle to Achiltibuie, Shetland to Skye.
It’s this harmony between deep local roots and international outlook, allied with superlative technique and sublime creative artistry, that sets Gary’s musicianship apart. A founder member of accordion supergroup Box Club, and more recently of hotly-tipped Highland outfit Mànran – the first band this century to break the UK Top 100 with a Gaelic song – he also features as a regular guest with veteran folk-rockers Runrig, and in a duo with award-winning singer/guitarist Ewan Robertson.
Born in 1980, in the West Highland village of Spean Bridge, Gary was just eight when given his first “wee red accordion”, by his father. “Dad wasn’t a professional musician, but played a fair bit in the house,” he says. “I remember the tunes from downstairs when he and mum had folk back for a party, so it seemed a very natural thing to do: I instantly just loved it.”
Having mastered the basics at home, he later took lessons with a variety of established players, including Ireland’s Paddy Neary and West Coast dance-band stalwart Neil Sinclair. While his choice of instrument was seen by his peers as “a bit weird – definitely no good for pulling the girls at the disco”, Gary’s adolescent credibility was salvaged by an almost equal passion for the totemic – and notoriously hard-fought – Highland sport of shinty, at which he remains a star player to this day. “The sport definitely helped,” he acknowledges. “But even at that age, I knew I wanted to play the accordion for a living.”
These aims were only intensified by his first taste of the musician’s lifestyle, when he joined the Fort William-based Cach Mhor Ceilidh Band aged 14, touring with them throughout the UK. Later in his teens, he completed an HNC in music at Thurso College, on Scotland’s north coast, where tutors including the renowned Addie Harper continued to deepen his craft and widen his range of influences.
After a couple of years back home, juggling gigs with casual jobs, Gary moved to Glasgow in 2001, determined to make music his livelihood. “I went out to the airport and spent £30 on 500 business cards from one of those machines,” he recalls. “I spent two weeks walking around every bar and club I could find in Glasgow, handing them out, and after that the work started slowly coming in: pub gigs, birthday parties, retirement dos – anything I was offered, basically.”
At this time, too, Glasgow was superseding Edinburgh as the main creative hub of Scotland’s contemporary folk scene, via its flourishing network of informal sessions, in which Gary – like many other young Highland musicians – was soon immersed. “It introduced me to all sorts of new tunes and different styles, beyond the dance-band music I’d mainly grown up with – plus it was great for meeting people. I knew nobody in Glasgow when I arrived, but the sessions were really welcoming.”
All of which led directly to Gary’s debut album, How’s the Craic?, in 2005 – the craic being mighty indeed, fuelled as it was by a guest-list of 13, including such fellow rising stars as Anna Massie, Duncan Lyall, Martin O’Neill and Hamish Napier, with Donald Shaw (of Capercaillie fame) as producer. Despite the adventurous diversity of its material and arrangements – from ceilidh classics to Innes originals, Gaelic songs to vintage Americana – Living Tradition praised the album for “a sense of place often lacking among younger musicians”, hailing Gary a “virtuoso” and the album overall as “lyrical, expertly played, innovative traditional music.”
Box Club, formed the following year - and christened with a suitably tongue-in-cheek riff on the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club – was another direct product of Glasgow’s musical melting-pot. “The number of box players at sessions had become a standing joke – at one point there were more accordions than fiddles on the scene,” explains Gary, of how he conspired with co-instrumentalists John Somerville, Mairearad Green and Angus Lyon to form the band’s unique frontline. “Box Club was basically us deciding to take the joke too far.” As one of today’s most sought-after and creatively sophisticated Scottish folk acts – also featuring a powerhouse three-man rhythm team – they’re certainly enjoying the last laugh.
It was also via the session scene that Innes and Ewan Robertson (BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2008) first hit it off. Having set up their own record label, Purple Dougal Productions – named after Gary’s favourite accordion – they released their first duo recording, Shouts, in 2009. Picked as Album of the Month by BBC Radio nan Gaidheal, it took an adroitly opposite, complementary tack to its predecessor. “I’d done the big production thing with my own record, lots of overdubbing and so on, so I really liked having that contrast,” Gary says. “Shouts was made in about 10 days, start to finish; it was much more tightly focused, both musically and in how we used the studio – but a duo also gives you both lots more space to showcase yourself than a big band.”
Alongside these projects, Gary’s own schedule has included playing for Scotland’s First Minister at Edinburgh Castle, entertaining exclusive private parties aboard the Royal Scotsman train, recording in LA with Madonna’s piper of choice, Lorne Cousins, and performing to a crowd of 7000 at a lavish peace concert hosted by Jordan’s royal family, staged in a Roman amphitheatre. “They had the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and pretty much all of the world’s top session musicians,” he recalls of that last occasion. “People like JR Robertson, the most recorded drummer of all time: he travels with his own golf agent, to check out the courses and arrange his games. And then there was me – I’ve never felt so out of my depth in my life.”
Dressed to impress in his kilt, he also nearly sparked a diplomatic incident midway through the show, arising from his supposed solution to the traditional underwear question – but here it’s probably best to draw a veil. Other highlight gigs include his annual sorties as ringleader of the Kazakh Ceilidh Commandos, a moveable feast of a line-up mustered each winter to tour oil installations in the wilds of Kazakhstan.
Wherever in the world his music takes him, though, Gary always does his utmost to turn up for key shinty fixtures, whether for his team – Camanachd Cup Champions Fort William – or his country, as a regularly capped Scottish internationalist. “Ultimately the music comes first,” he says, “but I get to as many games as I possibly can. Once I flew back overnight from San Francisco to go straight to a MacTavish Cup semi-final; another time I finished a gig on Harris at 2.30 in the morning of a Camanachd Cup tie, and hired a guy with a boat to get me back to the mainland – we won 2-1 in extra time.”
In between gigs and games, Gary is also in constant demand as an accordion teacher, working frequently with the acclaimed Highland-wide Fèis movement. The same ongoing commitment to his home turf underlies his volunteer duties as a regional firefighter, also delivering safety seminars to young drivers, and as a local First Responder for the Scottish Ambulance Service. Back on the shinty front, his two dearest passions attained a memorable merger in 2007, when a photo of him mid-match was the cover image on Runrig’s album Everything You See, since which he’s been guesting with them live whenever opportunity allows.
As of 2010, however, Gary’s main musical focus has been on Mànran, a project he initiated early that year. “I’d got to a point where I felt much clearer about what kinds of music I wanted to play,” he explains, “bringing together all the different things I’d been doing – so I decided to put a band together.” Vocalist and guitarist Norrie MacIver, who sings in both Gaelic and English, along with Ewen Henderson (fiddle/Highland bagpipes), and Calum Stewart (flutes/uilleann pipes) were first on Gary’s call-list, with bassist Ross Saunders and drummer Scott Mackay completing the line-up.
Performing a vibrant, muscular mix of traditional, contemporary and original songs, plus dynamic, cosmopolitan instrumentals, Mànran launched themselves on an unsuspecting world the following January, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, with a campaign to get their debut single, ‘Latha Math’ – a new Gaelic song by MacIver – into the UK Top 40. It may ‘only’ have hit No.61 – hardly a minor feat in itself – but topped the iTunes singer-songwriter chart, and reached No.6 in both the official Scottish and Radio 1 indie charts. The preceding week of intensive promotion, culminating in UK-wide and international TV coverage, also brought in such prestigious bookings as the Hebridean Celtic Festival, Cambridge Folk Festival, and events all over Europe.
And so far, too, that’s the Gary Innes story: one of talent, passion, hard work, love of home and love of adventure, all converging on an accordion’s keys – via fingers often bruised by a shinty stick. Happily busy with an array of diverse projects, all keeping each other fresh, Gary looks set fair for a long and fruitful career as one of Scotland’s most gifted and charismatic musical ambassadors.
If you want to catch Gary at a concert soon. then check out the GIGS section at the top of the page.