Yeats and beyond

The Waterboys look to poet for new project

Mike Scott
Photo by Charlie Bibby

Mike Scott has been heading up The Waterboys for three decades now, with plenty of the usual rock band personnel turnover to be expected of an enterprise this well-tenured, but his latest songwriting collaborator won’t be joining him on the road on his current tour. Because he’s been dead for 74 years.

Scott is bringing the Irish/English folk rock outfit to the Boulder Theater this coming Monday, and a part of the show will include selections from his latest project, An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, a song cycle Scott scored upon selected works of the revered Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Scott completed the project in 2010, after some years of setting a poem here and there to music and including them on proper Waterboys and solo releases. Like most children growing up the UK, Scott was regularly exposed to Yeats’ work in school, and probably more than most, as his mother was a university lecturer in English literature. “In hushed tones” is how Scott describes how his mother would refer to Yeats.

But the project started a little at a time.

“I did a few in the early ’90s,” Scott explained when we caught up with him last week, right after his arrival in the U.S. “And then every couple of years, I would do another one. Right around the middle of the last decade, in 2005, I realized I had about 14 or 15, and nearly enough for a stage show and an album, and in 2010 we staged it in Dublin.

“I think we nailed it in 2010 in Dublin, in the theater [The Abbey] that Yeats himself founded. A few of the songs have developed a little onstage as we’ve played as part of our regular show, but that just always happens.”

Yeats is a cultural icon and a household name for the Irish, one of the last century’s most articulate and beloved voices of the Irish soul, his work at times immersed in mysticism and allegory, other times lamenting the rawness of poverty and political struggle. Yeats can be a tangle of contradictory passions; rock music usually traffics in disposable certitudes. We wondered if setting a collection of Yeats’ poetry to rock music and performing it to an Irish crowd — in Yeats’ hometown, in the very theater he founded in 1904 — was at all a daunting proposition for Scott.

“Not really, no,” Scott said. “I’m a rock ’n’ roller, so I value rebellion. And I figured if people were going to be stiff about it, it was going to be good fun. But in the event it didn’t cause any eruptions or a bad time, it was pretty well accepted.”

And in the interests of full disclosure, Scott isn’t the first musician to borrow from this material. As he was preparing to put the album together, he went online and found “more than 300” songs recorded from Yeats’ work.

But Scott draws his lines as well. The guy is a musician, not a literature historian or a Yeats completist (and there are some, make no mistake.) The work itself lends itself well to lyrical interpretation, and Scott — whose body of work draws heavily from British Isles folk, steeped itself in the same imagery and cultural DNA that courses so prominently in the poet’s work — focused himself on the music, not psychology.

“I’m not a Yeats scholar, I’m not one of these people who needs to know every detail of his life, or all the letters he wrote to [Irish activist and erstwhile Yeats paramour] Maud Gonne and so on. I’m not so interested in all that.

“There’s been a lot of distortion about his life as well that I didn’t want to get pulled into. … A lot of people talking about Yeats, about why he did this or why he did that, and I think, ‘no, you weren’t there.’ I’ve read some of his biographers who don’t understand the mystical side of Yeats, and they ridicule it because they don’t understand it.”

The Waterboys play the Boulder Theater on Monday, Oct. 14. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.