Mike Scott is pop’s only literate lyricist who would dare take on the stately iconography of William Butler Yeats. Forget about the living proof provided by his band the Waterboys as they tackle the Irishman’s prickly poems through a series of 14 daringly diverse arrangements on the new An Appointment With Mr. Yeats (Proper American). You’d know that if you’ve listened to Scott’s richly robust catalog of Waterboys albums made since 1983, or even read his recently released book, Adventures Of A Waterboy. Though imbued with an intellectual curiosity beyond that of the most wizened scholar, Scott has long found himself inspired by Yeats’ vivid world-weary lyrical textures and smartly grammatical manner. On the other hand, he’s a big Twitter fan. Go figure. Scott will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
What makes you fond of Twitter? I see that you’re active. I must say, I can’t imagine how you cram your wordy literary aplomb into 140 characters.
I love the way people use Twitter to make pithy but pointed statements. The limitation, the whole 140-character limit, is a great spur toward brevity and focus. When used to its best, Twitter is a strong medium for wit, sharpness and intellectual rigor. Plus I’ve made great friends there: Rosanne Cash, author Dan Levitin, singer and novelist John Wesley Harding, to name but three.
Lyrically, musically and collaboratively, what do you see—honestly—as the trajectory of your Waterboys albums? The new one feels more brusque and muscular as it winds its way through Yeats’ texts. Your voice sounds breathy and scuffed.
The first three are the evolution of the early layered Waterboys sound, culminating in (1985’s) This Is The Sea. The next two—Fisherman’s Blues and Room To Roam—are the rootsy albums we made in Ireland, and to my imagination, they sound kaleidoscopically colorful, and are full of great memories. Then there is the sequence of albums I made both with and without the Waterboys in the 1990s and early 2000s, which are variations on the exploration of spirituality, the mysteries of consciousness, ways of seeing myself and the world and framing those in the skin of a song. They are the inner-exploration albums. Since then, it’s back to the world.
I enjoyed seeing you read from Adventures Of A Waterboy with an acoustic set of your faves following. Does it feel as if you have to constantly reintroduce America to your comings and goings?
Yes. Because we didn’t tour consistently enough here when the band started and establish ourselves, we are constantly catching up now. But I’ve got myself an apartment in New York, and I’ve hired some brilliant New York-based musicians, so expect to see more of the Waterboys in North America from here on in.
There are so many great author autobiographies. I’m recently keen on Future Indefinite by Noël Coward, along with—on a non-author tip—My Inventions by Nikola Tesla. Was there a model from which you gleaned to shape your book?
I’ve read lots of biographies, including many music ones, but there was no example on which I drew for the shape or tone of mine. I wanted my own voice, and let the events of my life shape the text’s narrative structure.
I know that you’re writing for yourself, that you cannot consider how quick on the uptake your readers or listeners are. But do you ever think that they might not fully grasp your use of metaphor, anthropomorphism or metonymy?
I think that I always work to make my lyrics understandable. I also think I’ve got better at that over the years. I like a song where various meanings are possible, of course, but I see no point in being sloppy and misleading people.
I want to duck back to the notion of America for a moment. I know that at your musical career’s beginning, you had a great feel for American-born folk, gospel and country—Fisherman’s Blues and This Is The Sea most certainly. From the instrumentation down through your love of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and your use of Bob Johnston as producer, the work reeked of the American. What do you think of us now? And what do you think we think of you now—especially after all your time in New York City?
American music has influenced me more than I can say, but I prefer the music you made from 1920 to 1970—jazz, Broadway, blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, proper R&B, counterculture, soul—than anything made since. And what do you lot think of me? Ain’t got a clue.
You certainly have shown connection to Robert Burns, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald in your lyrics. Why has Yeats stood beyond that lot and stayed so—you picked on him for “The Stolen Child” on Fisherman’s Blues and “Love And Death” and “The Song Of The Rosy Cross.” What made you want to do an album of all-Yeats as opposed to, say, Lewis?
Yeats wrote so many lyrics that work as songs. Simple as that. If Lewis had written brilliant poems that rhymed and scanned, and expressed a non-denominational, un-boundaried spirituality, I’d have set them to music, but he didn’t. Burns was a great poet—none finer, and as a Scotsman I’m fiercely proud of him—but he has been set to music definitely over the years by a myriad of composers and singer. I had nothing to add there.
Being that you’ve used C.S. Lewis as an influence in your work, how do you see Yeats take on religion as it relates to your own—and how did that affect what and where you went on Appointment With? And how are the personal questions of God’s role still part of your daily existence?
Yeats is marvelously free of religious limitations. Lewis was a great writer, and a great man, but the Christian framework of much of his work renders it frustrating to a non-Christian like me. Yes, there are still spiritual truths to glean from what he wrote—spirituality itself is beyond religious differences and specifics—but it makes it a job of work to translate, and to filter out the dogma. So, it is refreshing to read Yeats, who, like Whitman or Blake, goes straight to spirit, addresses it as a force in his life and ours, and doesn’t get fixed or stuck in a particular system or jargon. As for me, I went through around 14 years of intense spiritual education and reading and experience, from 1992 to 2005, and I’m still absorbing what I learned. Paradoxically, I don’t need to be reading or thinking about spiritual matters at the moment—just getting on with life, testing my knowledge in the field of deeds, as the song says.
Did you decide what poems, texts and “ballads” of his you wanted to use before you got into a studio? How were these particular words picked?
Yes, the adaptations were all done before we recorded An Appointment With. I chose whichever poems suggested a melody in my mind. I effectively made myself available to the poems, without imposing my own selection on them.
From there, you don’t seem to have been precious about trimming or reshaping Yeats’ original phrasing. Tell me a little bit about that process. I know you’re audacious and ballsy, but it takes big balls to reconfigure such classic texts.
I figure that for Yeats’ poems to live and breathe as contemporary song lyrics, I had to not approach them as museum pieces or sacred cows. In the folk tradition, words and tunes are constantly adapting, and so I brought some of that attitude to Yeats. If I wanted to go where the poems sent me musically, I had to make some little changes, sometimes merging two poems to make one song, or losing a line or even a verse if it didn’t serve the shape of the song. But I worked with the absolute rule that I would never change Yeats’ intention or meaning. Also that I would never insert any lyrics of my own among Yeats’. That, to my thinking, would be the height of arrogance, and when I’ve come across other artists doing that, I’m very dismayed indeed. It is so wrong.
On Appointment, there are a dozen different musical mood swings. How did you allow the musical settings to coincide with his words? Was it something organic where his words told you what to do, or did you have this palette that you wanted to use as paints behind and through his words?
The words directed the music. The poems, in effect, told me where to take the music. From there, I had my own palette of styles and skills to work with, though I managed to expand that when a poem—for example, “News For The Delphic Oracle” or “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”—pushed me into what were for me unexplored musical territories.
Sounds corny, I know, but was he alive and collaborating with you in a sense? Did Yeats physically bring out other voices within you?
I felt the will and personality of the poems, not the poet. To do my job properly, and to be as ruthless in my artistic decisions as the job required, I had to be uninhibited by the weight of Yeats’ reputation.