MIKE SCOTT interviewed by John Healy
An Appointment With Mr Yeats has been a labour of love spanning twenty years. How does it feel to have finished the album?
The only thing that counts is whether the album is great. If it's great, I've done my job, then all the time is worthwhile.
And is it great?
You and everyone else who hears it, and posterity, will have to judge that, but I'm satisfied in myself.
Can you explain how it was recorded?
The core band was four players from the recent Mr Yeats shows - myself, Marc Arciero (bass), Ralph Salmins (drums) and James Hallawell (keyboards) - and we set up in a smal studio in west London and played live, like our lives depended it on it. Top line instruments were overdubbed a week later - Steve's fiddle, the flute, trombone, sax and oboe, Joe Chester's guitar parts. I did most of my overdubs - instruments and vocals - at home, and Katie Kim's voice was just about the last thing to go down.
Did you follow the live arrangements from the 2010-11 concerts?
Yes, though the music evolved again during the recording process, as indeed it should. Some things have been tightened up, others have been developed. One of my favourite evolutions is Mad As The Mist And Snow which has morphed into a wild psychedelic extravaganza, and contains what is probably Steve Wickham's best ever fiddle solo, a real storming freak out.
Any other moments you care to mention here?
Too many to list. Every track's my favourite really. But I'll make a special mention of The Hosting Of The Shee and White Birds which are the full expression of what journalists once termed "The Big Music". They are IT, and take the concept and sound further even than the first three Waterboys albums did.
The album features 14 songs, but there were 20 in the show. How did you make the selection?
Well, three had been recorded and released before - Stolen Child, Love & Death, Song Of The Rosy Cross - so I left them off. And I didn't want to make a long, long album. I like shorter CDs, a maximum of fifty-five or -six minutes at the absolute tops. Any longer than that and the human brain can't contain it all. I have CDs by other artists lasting 60 or 70 minutes and I simply never get through them; there's too much information to take on board. The music in the last twenty minutes becomes a shadow region, a twilit zone. So I wanted to keep it down to what I felt was the right length. I got opinions from lost of musicians and friends who I respect, took their views on board, and then made the call. I lost Four Ages Of Man, Down By The Salley Gardens and The Mountain Tomb, all shortish tracks.
Will they ever get their day?
Apart from on the concert stage? Well, Four Ages will be a bonus track in some download formats, and the other two I guess will wait for the full length concert DVD we hope to do of the whole show.
I see there are a few co-writes on the album with other musicians.
Yes, two are musical collaborations with Steve Wickham, and another two - Sweet Dancer and White Birds - have music mainly written by Freddie Stevenson. Freddie's a British songwriter of great skill and sensitivity - and a wonderful singer too - who lives in New York. I sent him the lyrics of several poems, edited for maximum musicality, and he set them to tunes and sent them back to me. I made a few changes and wrote the bridges, and we were off. Freddie is the sole non-Waterboys guest on the album, in fact, singing alongside me and Katie Kim on Sweet Dancer.
Katie is heavily featured on the album.
Yeah, and why not? She has such a wonderful voice and it works so well with mine. And I love the sections where she sings lead - a verse here, a bridge or outro there.
How did you find her?
Walked into a gig in Dublin three years ago and there was a support act with an exquisite-sounding girl singer, though the lights were so low I couldn't see her properly. I stood spellbound, listening to her totally nail every song in this beautiful, witchy, cartoonesque voice. I knew she was the female voice I'd imagined for Mr Yeats; no doubt whatsoever. Next day I found her band on myspace and sent her a message asking if she'd get involved in Mr Yeats.
How did the whole Appointment With Mr Yeats concept - show and album - evolve?
Its genesis was when we recorded The Stolen Child on Fisherman's Blues, back in 1988. That proved to me that I could set Yeats to music successfully. I had the fuller concert idea - that came before the album concept - in 1991 when I was one of several artists on the bill of a Yeats tribute at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which, as you probably know, Yeats had founded in 1904. Specially for the show I set 4 more Yeats poems to music expecting the other artists to do the same. I was even worried some of them might have picked the same ones as me. But as it turned out I was the only person who did any Yeats material. I can still remember standing in the wings of the Abbey stage thinking that Yeats deserved a whole show dedicated to his poems. That was the first glimmer of the idea, though I didn't realise then I'd end up doing it with my own band.
What took so long?
Well I only had those 4 plus The Stolen Child, and setting Yeats to music has been a slow process for me. I concocted a few more in the 1990s, but it wasn't till four or five years ago that I began to gather enough for a show. In fact it was after Steve Wickham performed at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo in 2005 that the deluge came. He did The Stolen Child with his ensemble and told me all about it. This caught my imagination and set me off revisiting my idea of an all-Yeats show. A motherlode of new adaptations followed in quick order.
How do you go about setting Yeats to music?
I put the book on top of my piano and leaf through it a poem at a time. And if the first line of a poem suggests a melody in my mind I'll work on it. I just start singing and away we go.
Are there challenges or difficulties working with someone's else's material?
Well it's a stunning experience working with lyrics of Yeats' calibre. I'm well aware I'm sculpting with words of the very highest quality, and this spurs me to write music at the peak of my own abilities and expression. The poems conjure an exquisite otherworld in my imagination, and I want to create the soundtrack of that world. But I'm not intimidated or anything like that. My job is to make the work as great as possible, same as it was for Yeats when he wrote or for me when I do my own music and lyrics. So I'm as ruthless and unsentimental when working with Yeats' words as I am with my own. If that means leaving something out, or merging parts of two poems to create a song, I'll do it. No, the challenges are more like this: Yeats wrote a hundred years ago and sometimes I come across a word that's fallen out of common use. When that happens I'll replace the word, not changing the poet's meaning or intention, but rendering it clear and understandable in our own times. Or sometimes the structure of a poem doesn't work as a song. In such cases I'll remove a verse - again if this doesn't adversely affect the poem or undo its meaning - or shift lines.
You've done a few other poets, haven't you?
Yup. One Burns, a James Stephens, a George MacDonald, some Patti Smith ones when I was in my teens, but that's about it. It's only with Yeats that I've had a serious sustained artistic "relationship".
Have you always known about Yeats' poems? I mean, did you do them in school, things like that?
The Irish kids get Yeats in school, but not the Scottish. I heard about Yeats from my mother. I grew up with the impression of this master poet, whose name was uttered around the house in hushed, awed tones. The very sound of that one syllable "Yeats", rhyming with "great", had a gravity, a power. And when I was 11, in 1970, my mum attended the Yeats Summer School and took me along. I don't remember being at any of the lectures - though she assures me I was - but I remember my impressions of Sligo, the strange mountain Ben Bulben, and Yeats' grave beneath it. We also visited the tower where he lived, Thoor Ballylee near Galway, which I loved.
Were you reading his poems at this time?
No. I was thinking about pop records. I first read Yeats a few years later, when I came across the poem News For The Delphic Oracle on my mother's bookshelves. I didn't really understand it, but I loved its invocation of the god Pan. For a long time that was the only poem of his I knew. Then in my twenties I began to fill in the gaps.
You were involved in a Yeats album in the late '90s.
That's right. The album was called Now And In Time To Be, and one of its organisers wrote to me suggesting a record of different artists' interpretations of Yeats. I thought it was a great idea and encouraged him. It came out in '98 and I contributed two tracks, The Stolen Child and A Song Of The Rosy-Cross, which I recorded with Sharon Shannon. But I don't think the album was good enough. It had its moments, but several of the best existing Yeats adaptations weren't used - like Van Morrison's Crazy Jane On God - for whatever reasons, and a lot of the tracks that were used were rather hastily recorded by artists on the label that issued it. So it didn't stand up as a definitive piece of work or attract the attention and respect such an album might have.
But which yours will?
That's the idea. You've got it.