The Waterboys: New Melodies For An Old Irish Soul

Music Features

The seeds for The Waterboys’ latest album An Appointment with Mr Yeats were planted long ago. The band’s frontman Mike Scott was only 11 the first time he visited the grave of Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats. His mother was a literature professor, and Yeats was among her specialties. Scott’s father had just left the family, so he accompanied his mother from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the Yeats Society Summer School in the town of Sligo, Ireland.

It would be a few more years, though, before Scott personally connected with the poetry of Yeats, pulling a collection with “News For the Delphic Oracle” off his mother’s bookshelves. “I didn’t understand it but I loved it,” he says. “And later, I bought a book of his poems for myself when I was touring in Ireland in the 1980s. I’ve got to say, my mother was great. She introduced me to Yeats but never forced fed him to me so she didn’t put me off him.”

In 1988, for the band’s seminal album Fisherman’s Blues, Scott, who had just moved to Ireland, took a Yeats poem and set it to music. “Shortly after I did that I began noticing that a lot of people were doing that type of music as well. Van Morrison had done one and some lesser-known people as well. And I began to think wouldn’t it be great to do a compilation album of them, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to organize that by myself.”

Scott has put other poets to music over the years, including Robert Burns and George MacDonald, but it was Yeats that kept tugging at his mind over the years. “A lot of his poems rhymed and scanned very sweetly,” he says. “I would look at them on the page of the poetry book and they just kind of winked at me like they were song lyrics looking for a tune. And I’m also very sympathetic to Yeats’ choice of subject and also the way he uses language. I love the way his lyrics flow off the tongue. And even though they can be very deliberated over—as if he’s being careful at the place of ever corner—the words still flow lightly, very light and gracious. ‘Elegant,’ in fact, is a word I’ll use about Yeats’ lyrics.”

In 1991, Scott was invited to do a concert for a Yeats celebration in Dublin. He was asked to play a few songs, but he misunderstood the request, thinking that the organizers wanted Yeats poems set to music. He wrote melodies for four poems and played them with some of his friends. The other performers on the bill just did their own songs. “I thought well, okay, I got the brief wrong,” Scott says, “but even so, I think I was right that Yeats should have a whole evening dedicated to his lyrics. And I remember standing on the side of the Abbey Theater stage on that night thinking, ‘I’m going to make this happen one day. I’m going to make a whole show dedicated to Yeats’ poems. Because the show itself caught my imagination, I wanted to lead with that. So like an old Broadway production, it would begin life as a stage show and then that in turn would lead to the album.”

That’s exactly what happened, although it would take nearly two decades for his vision to come to pass. Before releasing An Appointment with Mr Yeats, the Waterboys began performing concerts with the 14 Yeats poems set to music that would appear on the album, along with additional poems like “Down By The Salley Gardens,” “Four Ages of Man” and “Love Song” which appear as various bonus tracks.

“Lyrics is the thing that I will work on most when I write a song myself so to find a ready-made lyric that’s brilliant and all I have to do is write music, it’s like a treat,” says Scott. “The Yeats poems were all inspired simply from reading the poem and the lyric itself suggested a melody. But in one case, ‘Mad As The Mist And Snow,’ I went back to the jam session that the Waterboys had done in 1987. I had a cassette form a rehearsal of a wonderful 20-minute jam based on a fiddle jig that Steve Wickham was playing. And the title, “Mad As The Mist And Snow,” seemed to go with the quality of this jam session which was very wild, very loose. So I got out the old cassette tape and put it on and tried singing the poem over the jam, and it worked. And it came out really great so we replicated that music on the album.”

Scott had a like-minded collaborator in Waterboys fiddler Steve Wickham. “He lives right in the heart of Yeats’ country and is more familiar with Yeats than I am,” says Scott. “He worked with me on the string arrangement and manuscript and he co wrote some of the featured music.”

The Waterboys’ An Appointment with Mr Yeats was released last year in the UK on EMI, but the record label opted not to pick it up for the U.S. It’s finally available in the U.S. today through Proper Records. Scott and Wickham put an American version of The Waterboys together (including Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth & The Catapult singing the female parts) to play a Yeats concert at New York’s Town Hall. They’ll return to the States in the fall with the same players, playing half Waterboys songs and half songs inspired by Mr. Yeats.

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