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Fighting a poet’s corner

We’ve learned to expect the unexpected from Mike Scott.

In 1985, just when the Waterboys were searching for the Whole of the Moon and threatening to take their Big Music to the big league, Scott decamped to Ireland, lured by the fiddle and the promise of fresh adventures.

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Later, when he wearied of the band’s enchanting blend of folk, country, blues and rock, he rediscovered his electric guitar and headed first to New York and then to Findhorn, following the muse and the music to the detriment of his record sales but to the benefit of his soul.

Scott has never shown much interest in following a straight line, which is why he remains one of our most interesting if erratic rock stars. His latest project may be his most ambitious. In An Appointment with Mr Yeats, the Waterboys recontextualise the words of Ireland’s most venerated poet by setting them to rock music. Having premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin earlier this year to rapturous reviews, it promises to be one of the highlights of the 2011 Celtic Connections programme.

Scott traces the trail of breadcrumbs back to 1970, when he accompanied his mum to the W.B. Yeats summer school, a week-long celebratory event held annually in Sligo. He recalls “this name Yeats being uttered in hushed tones” but little else, until a few years later he plucked a book off the shelves at home and started reading News For The Delphic Oracle. “I didn’t understand it, but I loved it,” he says. “There was a grace in the lyricism.”

This being the mid-70s, David Bowie, Patti Smith and Joe Strummer took precedence over dead poets. It wasn’t until a decade later that Scott finally bought a volume of Yeats’s verse. He began throwing snatches of The Four Ages of Man into the Waterboys live set, and within three years the band had recorded his hauntingly beautiful arrangement of The Stolen Child on the Fisherman’s Blues album. Later, he recorded Love and Death. Gradually the idea formed of doing something on a grander scale: to create an entire suite of Yeats’s poetry set to music.

It has taken a while, but it’s finally here. Scott’s working methods were simple. He sat at the piano with a Yeats anthology and “if the first line of any poem suggested a tune in my head, I’d persevere with it. I started at page one and worked through to page 600-and-something, and then I started again in case I missed any. I must have done that nine or 10 times, to give the opportunity for each line to sing to me. Fortunately he put a lot of his poems into meter and rhyme, and that’s what suggests the music to me. Most of the ones I’ve done are the ones that scan, and most of the tunes came quickly.”

Scott had to be “ruthless” with some poems to make them work, and insists it was important not to be intimidated by Yeats’s stature. “My only responsibility was to make it as great as I can, and not to compromise.” He laughingly describes the transformation of the Lake Isle of Innisfree – “the chocolate-box poem” – into a smouldering blues as “blasphemous”.

Performed by an expanded 10-piece Waterboys line-up, including his old fiddle foil Steve Wickham, An Appointment with Mr Yeats had its world premiere in March over five nights at the Abbey Theatre, the Dublin institution co-founded in 1904 by Yeats. Playing these songs at the Abbey gave the show real cultural resonance. “Absolutely, certainly in an Irish context,” he says. “Putting Yeats to rock and roll at the Abbey is radical, it’s changing his context completely. The reviewers and the audience all understood that there was a potency about doing this in Yeats’s own front room. It was brilliant.”

Though he has rarely been an overtly socio-political writer, Scott believes that placing Yeats’s words in a confrontational contemporary context underscores their continuing relevance. It’s no coincidence that September 1913, one of the poet’s angriest and most assertive statements, has been transformed into a blistering rocker. “It makes a lot of sense right now,” says Scott. “That’s the mark of a great poet, his work doesn’t date.”

Poetry and music are not always happy bedfellows. The positive response to An Appointment With Mr Yeats is attributable in part to Scott’s previous success at adapting the poet – The Stolen Child remains one of the Waterboys’ most beloved songs – but also to the fact that he succeeded long ago in escaping preconceptions. People tend to approach the Waterboys with an open mind. “I don’t do these things to avoid being pigeon-holed, but of course it’s terribly boring to be categorised,” he says.

The Yeats project prompted Scott, who grew up in Edinburgh and Ayr, to return to live in Dublin, the city he called home between the mid-80s and early 90s, and where he “lost himself in music” making Fisherman’s Blues. “I’ve actually been renting a place very close to where I used to live,” he says. “The first few months were like finding myself in one of my old lives. I would turn into a street where I hadn’t been for 20 years and remember how I felt the last time I was there.”

He and his wife Janette will return to Scotland next month, but only to sell their house. They met in the mid-90s while they were both staying at the Findhorn Foundation, and later bought a home just outside the grounds of the spiritual community. At 51, his next permanent move will be to somewhere more urban, if not Dublin then probably London or Edinburgh. He is enjoying the “influence of being at the centre of things again, having that buzz around you”. The plan is to record an album of the Yeats songs for release sometime in 2011, with a regular Waterboys album – “whatever regular means” – to follow.

Acknowledging that in the past he has frequently been “miscast” in the media as some mystical renunciant, technology has allowed Scott to correct misconceptions and “have a much more complete interaction with people”. It’s somehow fitting that the man reshaping Yeats for the 21st century is an enthusiastic tweeter. “The hallmark of this age is sharing your ideas and your work,” he says. “I read Johnny Rotten – I can never call him John Lydon – being very patronising about how rubbish twitter was, and I thought, actually his ego is too big to get on there and have some craic with the punters. I like this new age. It’s about exchanging mystique for intimacy, and I think that’s a pretty good deal.”

The programme for Celtic Connections 2011 is launched today. An Appointment with Mr Yeats is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 30, 2011.

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