SELDOM has a country and its people been celebrated in such an ambitious fashion as on Brian McAlpine’s debut solo album Mutual Imagination Society. A cinematic journey through soundscapes which chime perfectly with the landscapes of Scotland, this is both a deeply personal offering and a delightfully egalitarian one.

McAlpine’s musical journey, however, has been a long and winding one. Starting from his embarkation on one of the country’s first contemporary music courses in Perth in the mid-1980s, through his time with The Pearlfishers and latterly with Session A9, McAlpine’s debut solo offering has been a long time in gestation. The results, however, are simply stunning.

While the album certainly has elements that are recognisably trad, his scope and vision cast a far wider net and as such Mutual Imagination Society is truly difficult to pigeon-hole. Yet, if folk music is about personal experience and place then this certainly qualifies.

Melancholic and yet joyous in parts, it is a genuine journey – a journey through our country and also a trip back over the past 10 years of McAlpine’s life.

Having contributed to more than 60 albums as a musician and composer, why has this debut taken so long?

“I’ve been playing since I was 17 and I’m 50 now,” explains McAlpine. “And I’ve worked on so many other people’s albums and been involved in the process and I’ve also thought, ‘I really need to get my finger out and make my own album’. But I didn’t simply want to make an album of tunes or songs.

“I write every day and I just had to wait until the moment felt right.

“The past 10 years have been quite challenging with personal stuff and it all just started to become too much. I used the writing process as a healing process for myself and suddenly found myself with loads to say.

“I didn’t have a plan of what I was going to do at the start and then as I started working I started to feel like it’s all worthwhile. It all just started to make sense as I started to communicate it.”

McAlpine’s ability to communicate through his music is one of the many delights of Mutual Imagination Society. His soul is bared, stripped of any pretence and his sorrows and joys placed in stark relief. The sweeping cinematic backdrop to his story is accentuated by lush strings, helped to soar with the addition of saxophones and trombones yet punctuated by piano and firmly tethered by the earth-bound accordion. It is at once uplifting and melancholic.

“Everything tied into this narrative of diving into your personal experiences, grabbing a thought or a feeling and then trying to express it musically,” says McAlpine. “Every note meant something to me and even if it didn’t have any relevance to anything else I thought, let’s just go with it.

“I wanted it to be big, colourful, expressive and dynamic and I just went with every idea that came to me.

“I would start in the morning and see how I felt. So if I was feeling a bit apprehensive I would think ‘oh, why’s that’ and then I’d start playing and move in whatever that direction was.

“It meant that each track at times goes places you can’t anticipate because there’s no form in it, it’s literally just me reacting to how writing was making me feel.

“It wasn’t obvious to me before I started what was going to come.”

Some of what was to come was born of necessity. The widescreen nature of Mutual Imagination Society and its ambition is made more remarkable by the fact that almost the entire album was recorded in McAlpine’s home studio. A failed bid for Creative Scotland funding meant that the album was made on a shoestring but that, says McAlpine, helped to make it what it was to become.

“It gave me a new resolve,” he says of the lack of funding. “I decided I’d make it for nothing as I had no money. So eventually I started to phone people and ask for a favour. I’d offer to trade, so I’d play on their album or they could use the studio or whatever. And folk just started to say yes.

“I got two friends who did all the strings (Jonny Hardie and Alison Smith) and they played them a million times each. The brass was always going to be this guy Rick Taylor who lives on Skye. So I sent him demos and then he started to send back the parts he’d recorded in his shed and I was blown away.

“When people actually play things for real after you’ve played them on a keyboard it goes into a whole new stratosphere. That really inspired me to keep pushing on.

“And when the pipers came in (Finlay MacDonald, Ross Ainslie, Scott Wood, Calum MacCrimmon and James Duncan MacKenzie all play) it was way beyond what I thought I was going to make.

“And then I had Nigel Hitchcock playing sax and when I heard it it was unbelievable. I’d sent him a letter along with the music explaining how I wanted to play it and it was like he had my head on his shoulders!”

THIS collaborative effort is what makes McAlpine’s vision come to life.

“WIth those parts, apart from the bagpipes, but the strings and the trombones, I had done proper versions of them with samples and it sounded amazing. I could have released it with those samples. But when people send you their actual human playing it’s an entirely different ballgame.”

While McAlpine’s personal journey is at the heart of Mutual Imagination Society, there is definitely a co-star, and that is Scotland itself.

As an in-demand musician McAlpine has spent years travelling the country and his love of his homeland is always in evidence.

“Over the years I’ve driven almost every road in Scotland,” says McAlpine. “I can’t even quantify how much I love Scotland. So when I was making the album every time I went out to a gig, whether it was in Skye or wherever, I would have it on in the car. So I’d use the landscape as the inspiration. Sometimes I’d be listening and think ‘this sounds a bit small, I need to widen this out a bit’. Just driving about and looking out at the amazing landscapes seemed to play back into the feeling of ambition that I wanted to put into the record – to make it wider, make it bigger, to paint more colourful pictures.

“The whole album is a personal journey of mine but I also think it works tremendously well as simply the soundtrack to a journey.”

MCALPINE’S love of country is deep and complicated. Yet, he manages to convey that in his music. The permanence of the hills, the ancient nature of the landscape serve to provide perspective and hope, after a decade of personal challenges.

“It’s all about personal struggle and expressing that,” says McAlpine. “But the one thing that has always kept me sane is the feeling that Scotland is so old and so established, the hills are there and have always been there, so you get this notion that you’re part of something so much bigger and that it’s okay.

“Once I’d tied that into my music more effectively it helped open up the sonic landscapes. I was able to stop worrying and open up and make it huge and then bring it down to nothing.”

McAlpine’s ambition is to be applauded, but it is his soulful, bluesy execution of that far-reaching ambition that makes Mutual Imagination Society such a special record and marks him out as a composer deserving of further acclaim and attention.