The Waterboys’ Yeats Affection
When it came to writing and recording an album based on the works of legendary Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Mike Scott didn’t mind allowing that idea to slowly come to fruition. Nearly two decades after his initial foray into wedding Yeats’ words within the fabric of a song, he jumped fully into the venture once timing and creative inspiration conveniently meet.
His mom, a university literature professor, introduced the young Scott to the works of Yeats. As the leader of the Waterboys, he noticed how Yeats’ poems had a melodic flair that could be easily be set to music. The debut of this discovery, “The Stolen Child,” came out in 1988 on the Waterboys’ Celtic rock classic Fisherman’s Blues. Afterwards, he returned to the Nobel Prize-winning poet and recorded a few more tracks.
In 2005 Scott had a flood of inspiration, which led to 20 completed numbers. Still, five more years passed before he performed them onstage and another before he released An Appointment with Mr. Yeats in Europe. Finally out in North America, the album offers a perfect relationship of Yeats’ stanzas that deal with spirituality and mysticism with Scott’s sympathetic melodies.
Today, Scott enthusiastically discusses An Appointment with Mr. Yeats while keeping abreast of the time. In a sign of running a very tight ship for survival in the modern music industry he has to dash off to auditions in order to put together a U.S. version of the Waterboys.
“I have a great band in Britain. Most of them live in London, but it’s so expensive to tour abroad, at least to tour in the United States with my British band. And I have a place in New York, so I spend some of my time here. I figured it might be a good idea to put together an American version of the Waterboys. It’ll be myself and Steve Wickham, longtime Waterboys fiddler, and new American musicians.
Other than one Yeats show when the album was released, and then you won’t be touring again until July. Why is that?
Well, I’m only putting together my American operation. I don’t yet have a tour manager or any crew members. I’ve got a couple members of the band, but I’ve still got two or three to find. I figured that going straight into a tour when I’m already putting other things together myself — I don’t have management — would be unwise.
I thought I’ll do one show, New York, where I know I can make it work. Then, take a bit of time to set up the proper touring, which is a sensible way of going about it for me because I don’t have an organization to take care of all of it.
Not having an organization, is that on the one hand trying but on the other hand a bit of freedom for you that you’re not tied down?
MS: Well, I’d be free anyway. When I say no organization, I have what I would call an organization in Britain. I’ve got a great tour manager, great crew and full-time band. So, I’ve still got lots of freedom as far as music according to my own decisions and once I’ve put together an organization here in America, I’ll still do the music where I want it.
The album An Appointment with Mr. Yeats was originally released in 2011?
2011 in Europe, yes.
And it’s just coming out now in the U.S. Is that schedule of the modern music industry, releasing it in different territories at different times and promoting it for years, does that rattle you at all or do you just get used to it?
Oh I’m fine with it. Doesn’t rattle me at all. I worked so long on this Mr. Yeats project in my imagination for 15, 20 years that spreading out the release dates and the campaign so that it lasts for two or three years is no hardship at all. Glad to be able to take my time and do it properly.
At the same time, it has been a very long, ongoing endeavor. Was it best that you worked on it almost as a hobby rather than piling through it say in 1995?
I don’t know. Well, the decision wasn’t really based on that kind of criteria. What it was, I waited until I had enough great Yeats’ interpretations. Yeats’ words are among the finest written in the English language so I had to do something really good to match up to that, and I took my time with it. I didn’t go public with it as a project until I felt that I had a sufficiently high quality collection of arrangements. So, timing.
What is it that attracts you to Yeats and why should it be his poetry recommended to others who may not be as familiar with him as you are?
Well, I like him because I like the subjects he writes about. I share his interests and I like the way he uses language. He’s a very, very great user of the English language.
You originally used his poetry on “The Stolen Child” on 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues. What was the original desire back then to put his words to music because the only other person who immediately comes to mind who did such a thing is Van Morrison? What made you think that this is a good idea that needs to be done and hopefully Yeats’ followers won’t crucify you for doing that?
Well, I never cared what Yeats’ aficionados thought. If they had a problem with me doing it, I don’t really care about that. It was simply that the poem, “The Stolen Child” stood there on the page and seemed to me to cry out for music. It rhymed. It had a chorus that I heard in my mind as a melody. So, it’s just a small jump from that to writing music for it. And really, it was just because it was there. Like [George] Mallory who climbed Everest and someone asks, “Why?” and he says, “Because it’s there.” Well, just because Yeats poems were there and they spoke to me from the page and said, “Please, set us to music.”
The wonderful thing about it is once you got through that one you knew that you could do more.
Yeah, I didn’t do any more for a couple of years. I think the next one I did was “Love and Death,” which I set to music in 1991. That was on the Waterboys album, Dream Harder, which came out in the ‘90s. I did two or three others shortly after that, and a couple more in the late ‘90s. Then, in 2005 I had a sudden Yeats burst at that point. And that was when I knew I was beginning to approach having the crucial number of interpretations of high enough quality that I can lead a stage show and an album.