For Mike Scott, life is a constant conversation with the music in his head.
In his fascinating new autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy, the leader of the Waterboys writes, “I was six or seven when I first noticed the music in my head. It was there in the classroom, on the football pitch, at the dinner table, when I went to sleep and when I woke up.
“There was never a moment when it wasn’t running in some form or other, whether melodies or rhythms, pop singles from start to finish or instrumental extravaganzas that spun perpetually for a day.”
In his autobiography, Scott recounts his boyhood preoccupation with getting the music in his head onto a record, his rise to fame and the thrill of victory that was the making of the immortal Fisherman’s Blues album in Spiddal.
I especially liked the tales of impromptu jam sessions for that disc, tossed off at the time but now an indelible part of Ireland’s musical fabric. There are stories of jamming with legendary artists like Sharon Shannon and hilarious antics that include a disgruntled housekeeper bringing a loaded gun and an armful of threats to the recording session.
He also recounts the agony of defeat when his dreams of making the Waterboys an Irish Sergeant Pepper went up in smoke as the musicians around him started to go their separate ways during the recording and touring process of the follow-up to Fisherman’s Blues, the album known as Room to Roam (which I personally like just as much if not better).
He writes, “I kept telling myself things would get better, but the tour was like a game of snakes and ladders. From Aberdeen onwards we blessedly found ourselves in indoor venues: a ladder. A few days later the reviews for Room to Roam came out and were as damning as I’d expected: a snake.”
The book stops at the conclusion of the album A Rock in a Weary Land in 2000 because, as he tells me during an exclusive chat with the Irish Voice, “It is a bit vulgar to write about the recent past in my mind. Time gives you perspective on things and allows things to reveal themselves in their wholeness.”
He is open to the idea of revisiting his past again at a future time, but for now he is enjoying the rocking and reading of his book tour, making a U.S. debut next month, in which he brings fiddler and old friend Steve Wickham along for a few tunes. He revealed that a show consisting entirely of his last album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, is coming to New York in March.
This disc, which combines the Waterboys signature sound with poetry by WB Yeats, is perhaps the finest Irish rock album produced in this decade so far. This show will be spectacular indeed!
The concert will include a few unreleased tunes of Yeats poems and will be staged with all local musicians from the Big Apple. Elizabeth Ziman of the band Elizabeth and the Catapult will handle the female lead vocals. A Waterboys tour of Mr. Yeats tunes and old favorites is being planned for late next year as well. A new Waterboys album is written in Scott’s head and will recorded, in his words, “with no real timeframe in my mind.”
We covered a number of topics during our chat -- books, music, and his influence over Celtic culture. Here’s how it went:
What did you learn about yourself in the writing of Adventures of a Waterboy?
I had already been thinking about the book and had reflected about my life, so there were no sudden revelations that I got from the writing process. I suppose one thing I learned was how disciplined I could be. I would get up every morning at 5:30 and write for a few hours every day, which is, of course, an ungodly hour of the morning for a rock star. Why write a book now?
I actually started it a number of years ago. I was just finishing up a very long tour with the Waterboys and found myself in a book shop in San Francisco. I was reading the book On the Road with Jack Kerouac and thought, ‘Right. I just finished this tour and have nothing going on for the next year, so I will become a writer.’ It was something I had been contemplating for about 20 years, so it was just a matter of making the time to do it. I loved reading about how you found your father after not seeing him all those years. You had the expectation when you landed on his doorstep that he would know you and your fame and it had turned out he had no idea. What is your relationship with him now, and what does he think of your music?
It has been 14 years since we met at his doorstep in Birmingham, and our relationship has really blossomed into this lovely, uncomplicated thing. I have gotten to know his family as my own. I attended my half sister’s wedding recently.
I suppose he is proud of me. He comes to all the concerts I do in his area, so he is either a glutton for punishment or he likes what he hears.
I was struck by the number of references you make about bringing old novels and poetry books into the studio for inspiration, like when you were recording things like Fisherman’s Blues.
I read because I like reading, not because I am looking for inspiration. The house was always full of books when I was growing up. My mom’s front room is still full of books I found over the years.
When I come across a poem that scans as a song it’s almost like an invitation to figure out how to set music to it and as a songwriter, it’s a thrill to do that. You obviously do that on An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, taking his poems and setting them to music. Do you ever feel pressure to honor their work when you do that?
I always make my best attempt to be respectful of the poet’s spiritual intention. Having said that, I am an artist myself I have a duty to reflect the music and the mood of the times I find myself in.
Yes, I made changes of some of his lines for the benefit of the song, but never made the meaning of the poem change to facilitate a writing structure. Yeats himself was so dedicated to words; he was ruthless for his lyrics.
I had to bring the same degree of rigor to the process, even to my own words -- no matter how much I love a line, I pitch it out if it doesn’t fit the tune I’m writing. We just finished the Irish festival season in the U.S. and it never fails -- you’ll always here a dozen bands covering the same few Waterboys tunes! What has been your experience with people covering your tunes?
I’ve heard all the cover tunes and I’m always flattered when someone does their version of the song. It’s cool when someone stays true to the tune because that’s the way they hear it in their head, but I confess that I especially love it when they mix things up in their reinterpretation.
I have dozens of songs of mine sung by other artists on my iTunes. I love this band Great Aunt Ida’s version of ‘Fisherman’s Blues,’ and there’s a Japanese punk band that does a great run through that song. You’ll hear buskers playing my songs on Grafton Street here in Dublin and that always makes me smile.
What are the readings like for you, and what can audiences expect?
We read for an hour and then we do a 45 minute music set. I know pretty much what passages work best for the book. Steve Wickham and I play some of the old songs that work best in the guitar and fiddle format. If you were sitting next to the nine-year-old Mike Scott on the bus with all the music in his head, what would you tell him?
The old Mike would not give the young Mike any advice --I’d probably ask what he was listening to and then just sit back and listen myself!
*Scott will read from Adventures of a Waterboy at the following added venues in November. At each reading he will be joined for an acoustic set by Steve Wickham. November 11, World Cafe Live, Philadelphia; 13th and 14th, Rockwood Music Hall, New York; 19th, Williamsburg Music Hall, Brooklyn.
Scott and Wickham will also play a short three-song set at John Wesley Harding's multi-artist extravaganza, Cabinet of Wonders, that includes Steve Earle and Loudon Wainright III on Friday, November 16 at City Winery in New York. Log onto www.mikescottwaterboys.com
for more information.