Collaborators have always been serious business for Mike Scott. Perhaps that’s why he has sided so extensively with so few of them during his three-decade musical odyssey with The Waterboys.
Early on, the Scottish-born songsmith pretty much handled everything for the band: writing, musicianship, production. Among his few lasting collaborators were saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite, who helped define the band’s earliest music; Karl Wallinger, the keyboardist who bridged the band’s post-punk beginnings to broader pop visions (he eventually formed World Party); and fiddler Steve Wickham, a valued link to folk traditions who remains integral to Scott’s music to this day.
With 1984’s This is the Sea album and its 1988 followup Fisherman’s Blues, having established Scott and the Waterboys as an international pop force, a different and immensely deeper collaborator came into view. He wasn’t a rocker, but he was viewed as a rebel voice. His lyrics launched a project that would take Scott two decades to complete. There was a hurdle to this partnership, however. The collaborator had been dead for 50 years.
His name was William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet who became one of the most revered literary figures of his day. Thus began a work in which Scott, who long ago had moved to Ireland, would set Yeats’ poetry to music. The result is a new Waterboys recording and performance piece, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats.
The work will have its only fully staged North American performance next week in New York. But Scott and Wickham will offer stripped-down versions of the Mr. Yeats material along with a smattering of past Waterboys tunes at Monday’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre. The visit will be Scott’s performance debut in Kentucky.
“I first had the idea of a show dedicated to Yeats’ lyrics back in 1991,” Scott said last week by phone from Dublin. “I had been invited to perform a Yeats tribute at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1991. The Abbey Theatre was significant because it was founded by Yeats, so it was a good place to have this kind of show in.
“Lots of Dublin-based artists were invited. So I went along, but I misunderstood the brief I was given. I thought we were to set some of his poems to music and then come and sing them – something I had already done on Fisherman’s Blues (for the song The Stolen Child). So I dutifully set four Yeats poems to music and brought them along on the night. Then, to my surprise and disappointment, all the other artists just did their own numbers. There were no other Yeats interpretations.
“I figured for a real tribute to Yeats, we should put his lyrics to music. So I remember standing at the side of the Abbey Theatre stage thinking, ‘There’s got to be a whole show in this. But how is it going to happen? Am I going to do it or is it going be a various artists show?’ And, initially, that’s what I thought it would be. I used to make lists of all the different artists in Ireland who I thought would be good at interpreting Yeats. But I’m not really a show producer like that. So over the years, I kept setting more Yeats poems to music. About 15 years later, I was close to having enough for a show and realized, ‘Hang on. I’m going to do this show myself with my own band.’ And that’s what I did.
“I’ve always liked Yeats’ voice. I like that he is a serious spiritual explorer. And while he’s not quite a street fighter, he will roll up his sleeves and bloody people’s noses with his lyrics. But it wouldn’t matter how much I love Yeats if the lyrics didn’t work with music. Really, the engine that has driven this project is the fact that the lyrics seem, to me, to cry out for music.”
For Scott – who calls Dublin, Galway, New York and “various places in Scotland” home, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats is the latest chapter of a career mapped out extensively in his recent autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy. But he has yet to pen an ending for his story.
“There have been ups and downs, as you know if you’ve read the book. But looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had a wonderful life making a living out of doing what I love most.
“I was in a taxi the other day in Dublin and the driver said to me, ‘So, are you on your way to work?’ And I said to him, ‘I’m a rock and roller, sir. I don’t work.’ And I’m privileged to be able to say that’s true. I don’t work. I very much play.”
Mike Scott with Steve Wickham perform at 7 p.m. March 11 the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third St. for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.