INTERVIEW:FEW PEOPLE HAVE the required mix of chutzpah and creativity to make an appointment with a revered dead poet. Neither is a problem for Mike Scott, however, at least if his upcoming Abbey show An Appointment With Mr Yeatsis anything to go by.
It’s an “appointment” that has been pending for some time – 19 years, to be precise, since he first took part in a tribute night to WB Yeats at the Abbey Theatre back in 1991.
“I’d set some Yeats poems to music especially for the show, thinking everyone else would do the same . . . And when I got there, nobody had done that at all! I was the only person who did any Yeats songs. They all did their own numbers. And I thought, ‘there’s something untapped here’. There should be a whole concert that is all Yeats’s lyrics set to music.”
He smiles wryly, his face creasing under his trademark cap. “I didn’t realise then that I would have to do it all myself.”
As it turns out, he won’t be entirely alone. Scott will be joined onstage with the latest Waterboys line-up that extends to a 10-piece band playing a range of instruments including a trombone and an oboe. They’ll all be playing along to the words of WB Yeats, around whose poems Scott has crafted the songs that make up the set.
It has been a long gestation. “I’ve got my book, Yeats’s Complete Poems, which somebody gave me as a wedding present, for my first marriage in 1990, and I’ve always kept that book close. I’d put it on the piano and go through it, and if a poem suggested a tune in my mind, I would wrestle with it and try and get a whole melody for it,” he says.
Over the years since the idea of a Yeats concert first occurred, he has written enough songs to make up a full set. “Suddenly I was sitting on a concert’s worth.”
Where he would perform it was never in question. “In my mind, if I’m going to make a radical statement with Yeats’s lyrics and put them into contexts that are unusual, then I’d rather do it in his own theatre. And I feel that the music I’ve written is very in tune with Yeats’s intentions, as far as someone 100 years later can discern those, so I feel quite confident about playing in the Abbey.”
There’s the chutzpah, then. Scott has no compunction about taking on one of the literary greats, and even tinkering with the words themselves. “Once I’ve decided to work on one of the lyrics, I treat it like one of my own lyrics. I’ll be totally ruthless with it. And if I have to change it very slightly, I will do. If I have to replace a word because a word that Yeats used has fallen out of common currency, I’ll do it.”
Scott is matter-of-fact about making alterations to words that are sacred to so many. “He’ll use a rhyme pattern, like A-B-B-A, and it sounds rubbish with music, so I’ll flip it around. I’ll make sure it doesn’t corrupt anything that Yeats is intending. As long as it still keeps the integrity of the poem and the meaning, if I have to change it, I will.” He shrugs.
“I’m not intimidated by him being the great WB Yeats. Of course, it’s because he’s great that it’s such a pleasure to work with, but I’m not going to be overwhelmed by that.”
Not every Yeats poem suits his purpose, however. “Speaking from my own experience, I find the ones that scan and rhyme, unsurprisingly, are the ones that work best with music. But where they do scan and rhyme, clearly there’s a lot of music within the poetry.”
So how does he make his choices? “When I sit at the piano or with my guitar, the first line, if I hear it in my head with a melody . . . bang. Off I go. And sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don’t.”
It’s not the first time Scott has taken on the master either. A musical version of Yeats’s The Stolen Childappeared on The Waterboys album Fisherman’s Bluesback in 1988.
“I’m fortunate,” he says, by way of explanation of his unjaded approach to the Irish poet. “I didn’t ‘get’ Yeats at school.” He did, however, get plenty of Robert Burns, which didn’t stop him putting Burns’s words to music either. Yet over the years, he has kept returning to Yeats, whose poetry he first encountered when he was growing up in Edinburgh.
“I enjoy Yeats’s subjects,” he explains. “His subject set, if you like. Politics. Love. The mystic. Ireland. Myth and legend. I like that set of subjects.”
The notion of the mystic, the occult, or “just spirituality, that’s what we call it now” is one dear to Scott’s own heart, and a part of Yeats he’d like to see reclaimed. “I’m hugely interested in that. Have been for decades. I also think that Yeats’s interest in the unseen is misunderstood,” he says, taking issue with a wealth of scholarly work on the poet without any hesitation.
“Yeats’s interest in the unseen was very serious indeed . . . And, judging from his poetry, he got it. He understood.”
There was another practical advantage to working Yeats’s words into his own music. He admits to struggling with the lyrical content of his work far more than the musical composition.
“Music happens almost instantly. It is as simple as hearing a tune in the head and then just expanding it. But the words of a thing, I’ll slave over. So working with Yeats is great – it’s like I get a buy to the next round. I’m working with world-class lyrics. Fantastic.”
Though the music might come easy, Scott is not classically trained, and had always played by ear. For his Yeats show, however, he decided to address this.
“I taught myself to read and write music for this project. When I started writing the string arrangements for some of these songs, I realised it’s not enough to just have them on a tape recorder and play the tape recorder to a transcriber. I need to score these myself, learn how to do it.” So he did. With the help of Waterboys constant Steve Wickham, he taught himself to score music, and began to write down the music he’d been hearing in his head. It was a laborious process. “It would take a day to do a page.”
The pages mounted up, and though he says it hasn’t changed how he approaches songwriting, “the manuscripting gives me more authority over it somehow, and it gives me some more confidence as well”.
“I’ve always been fairly confident as a musician anyway, but when I’d be working with trained musicians and they’d be talking in terms of bars and crotchets and minims, I’d be completely lost. But I’m not lost now.”
He does hope for record company interest, or some funding for an album of the Yeats songs once the run of concerts is complete. Yet, this being Mike Scott, who admits he is inseparable from The Waterboys – “if it’s me, it’s The Waterboys, if it’s The Waterboys, it’s me” – there is more, non-Yeatsian material in the pipeline, too. Not to mention several other projects. “I’ve also written a book.” It’s a memoir of his life in music, and there are several more where that came from. “I’ve got three – I don’t know if I’d call them books – but three shorter things ready to go.”
His energy is impressive, and though now in his fifties, and three decades into his musical career, he’s all fired up about his latest project, content to live it all again. And though other musicians have put Yeats to music – Van Morrison, Shane McGowan, even French First Lady Carla Bruni – Scott is more than ready to do battle.
“I quite like doing the ones that other people have done and doing my own take on them. I’m a competitive bastard,” he admits, and smiling, adds, “I take on Christy Moore’s version of The Song of Wandering Aengus”.
He’s taking on more than one Irish giant, then? “Yeah,” he grins. “Someone can come and knock me over after that, you see.”
The Waterboys perform An Appointment with Mr Yeatsat the Abbey Theatre on March 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th and 20th. The production will move to the new Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin 2, on November 7th