Sunday, September 13, 2020

An appointment with Mr. Scott of The Waterboys

Nineteen years after I spent a memorable afternoon with Mike Scott inside a Boston hotel, I called up The Waterboys songwriter for an interview about the latest album, Good Luck, Seeker. This time, Scott was in his home studio in Dublin.

"All the days I'm not parenting I come here and work," he told me. "I'm either working on music or making videos."

I was only able to include a portion of stimulating conversation in the article so I thought I'd share some of the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor. 

The focus of this interview for The Christian Science Monitor newspaper was about Scott's poetic lyrics but we also talked about how, unlike so many of his contemporaries, Scott strives to change up his sound. The new record, and its two predecessors, are notable for often embracing a lush sound with RnB influences and hip-hop rhythms. The cracking first single, "The Soul Singer," is propelled by a horn section with the blast of an afterburner.

Scott: "I loved soul music when I was a kid. I grew up in the '60s and so the latest Four Tops and Temptations and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and the Supremes records were always on the radio and I grew up with those just as much as the Beatles and the Stones. And I mean, it wasn't buying Four Tops albums. I was buying new singles. And then later I was big into Sly and the Family Stone. And then disco. I was mad for disco around 1978. I'd be buying all the disco records on 12 inch. So all of that has had an effect on me as well."

The new album includes a cover version of "Why Should I Love You," Kate Bush's collaboration with Prince. Scott is a longtime fan of both. I reminded him that his sleeve notes to Dream Harder detail a dream that he once had of meeting Kate Bush in Edinburgh and the two of them searching for a cafe. "Yes, that's right," Scott chuckled. But it turns out that he has never actually met Kate. Nor has he met Prince, though the two of them formed a mutual admiration society. Scott still occasionally plays "Purple Rain" at Waterboys shows, as he did in Boston last year (with Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention fame guesting on drums). Prince, meanwhile, had been known to cover the most famous Waterboys song.

"He's covered 'The Whole of the Moon' twice and he's done it in two different arrangements. I've heard one of them. Like everyone else, I've heard the funk version of 'The Whole of the Moon' that he did at a benefit concert," Scott said. "And the other time was at Ronnie Scott's club in London where apparently he did a piano/vocal version which I've never heard and would love to hear."

Mostly, though, the focus of my interview was on Scott's lyrics and the recurring themes in his songs.

I reached out to Ian Abrahams, author of the biography Strange Boat: Mike Scott and The Waterboys, to glean his insights into the songwriter's words.

"I think there's three or four particular strands to Mike Scott's lyrics. As you say, there's the spiritual and mystical, which is a little bit undefined in how that reflects his own outlook, and of course our feelings towards these intangible ideas often shift and change as our life unfolds, so they inform us differently at different times in our lives, but there's not a definitive idea of where this part of his lyrics shapes his own life. I mean, clearly his relationship to Findhorn in particular has been a very powerful influence on his words, because it's a mighty powerful influence on him over the years, but I think his sense of spiritual is a fluid thing and he takes what he needs from those ideas depending on where he is in mind and in location."

Another influence on Scott are poets such as Robert Burns and WB Yeats (On An Appointment with Mr. Yeats my brief review here - Scott created an entire album out of the latter poet's works)  and also the writer CS Lewis. I asked the songwriter about each of them.

"Burns is Scotland's national poet. I'm very proud of him. And he wrote some really great work.... But he wrote in Scots, which this means much like Shakespeare, it's quite hard to understand him. You need to really work at it. His songs, I don't think he wrote the tunes. I think he fastened his lyrics to existing traditional tunes.... Some of his songs, I like more than others. But I always value him as a great writer and a great poet. Yeats: Another great poet. But I don't like all his work. I'm not interested in all of it. I also think he some of his more occult material, like 'A Vision,' I don't find very interesting. And then C.S. Lewis,  I like all his fiction. And I don't we don't have much interest in any of his Christian theology. That theology comes into some of his fiction, some more than others, but whenever he's in fiction I'm with him."

Ian Abrahams, the biographer, shared this interesting observation with me about other literary influences on Scott:

"I also find it really interesting to dig and speculate at other, less obvious, moments where he's writing with other writers in mind. One that struck from his early work was hearing the SF writer Harlan Ellison in Scott's 'The Girl In The Swing', and if that's a deliberate homage or allusion that's going on there ("you just asked me do I know what love is"), I think that's really intriguing in the way that Ellison was the angry young man of science fiction, and Scott was equally an angry young man of rock music right back to 'Another Pretty Thing'... and Ellison kept that going all his life, and it feels like Mike has as well."

I didn't have time to ask Scott about the occasional humorous, tongue-in-cheek songs he's written. But I did ask him about his penchant for writing songs about other artists and musicians. He's written a tributes to Patti Smith, Mick Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams, Elvis, and, on the new album, actor Dennis Hopper.

"I don't know how that happens. 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank' came out of the title. I remember there was a concert and someone said something and, one way or another, the phrase 'has anybody here seen Hank?' came up. And I remember improvizing a song on the spot. It was in Cardiff, 1986. I'll never forget it. And it didn't become the song 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?' but it sparked the idea. The Patti Smith one came out of a line she had in song, 'a girl named Johnny' and I stole that, I confess, and turned into 'A Girl Called Johnny' - partly written about her but partly not really about her at all."

As for Scott's writing process? He told me he's always got something cooking, which is why he's released four albums in five years and already has the next one written. 

"I just write for fun," he told me. "I didn't like homework when I was at school...and sometimes I get asked to do things, prepare this or do that or write this and I think, "It feels like homework and I don't like it.' But making music never feels like homework."  

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