How the Pandemic Sparked Mike Scott on the Waterboys’ New Album
The pandemic certainly hasn't slowed Waterboys leader Mike Scott's creative output: They just released All Souls Hill, the follow-up to 2020's Good Luck, Seeker and their 15th album. Scott says the next Waterboys LP has already been recorded.
For All Souls Hill, Scott again collaborated with producer Simon Dine, perhaps best known for cowriting and coproducing four acclaimed albums with Paul Weller. Scott sent tracks back and forth to Dine and the rest of the Waterboys from his at-home studio in Dublin, and it was a process he found quite fulfilling.
"I'm a bit of a lone wolf anyway," Scott tells UCR. "I like working on my own."
In several ways, All Souls Hill is a snapshot of the last year. It touches on political unrest, social justice — or lack of — and the cautiously optimistic hope that those circumstances can inspire.
Scott and bandmate Brother Paul Brown recently wrapped up a short series of acoustic shows in the U.S., their first since 2019, with plans for a busy summer head – including an appearance at Glastonbury in June.
UCR caught up with Scott before his return to the U.K. to discuss the creation of All Souls Hill.
You've been performing these smaller, acoustic shows with just you on guitar and Brother Paul on keyboards. How have you found those? When was the last time you played a concert like that, without the full band?
Well, we never did two-man shows with Brother Paul before. My visa [to the U.S.] was very late in coming and we didn't have the proposed rehearsal time, so it was quite a rush to get everything organized, and we spent the first three or four shows really fine-tuning the set.
On All Souls Hill, the song "The Liar" takes aim at a few different current American political figures, most notably former President Trump, his impeachment and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Did you always have it in your head that you were going to write a song about all that?
I tried writing a song about Trump a couple of times — I had one called "Eye Candy for the Ladies," which is kind of how he thinks of himself ... and I actually got the song finished. Brother Paul and I wrote it together, but it was such a dry topic. It was just no fun and I didn't want to do anything with the song. Then I had another one called "Painting America White," which is a protest about what happened in Charlottesville. And I would have put that on the album, but it just wasn't topical enough anymore. So it's a bonus track. It's available on a seven-inch single that comes with certain bundles. "The Liar" was a satirical tweet that I wrote. I used to follow this Twitter account called Gollum [J.] Trump, who was someone who posted about the events of the day during Trump's presidency, as if Trump was Gollum from Lord of the Rings and the presidency was the precious, as in the ring. These were very, very funny posts that really helped keep me sane during the nightmare of his presidency. The first time he was impeached, I wrote "When Gollum Trump was peached," in this sort of Gollum speak, and it was four or five verses over four or five tweets. When he was impeached for the second time, I thought, 'Oh, I'm gonna go back to that poem, turn it into a song.' So I put it in regular language.
Listen to the Waterboys' 'The Liar'
I'm curious about your producer on this album, Simon Dine. Had you worked with him before?
I'd done five or six tracks with him before, one on a previous album and I think four that are on the next Waterboys album, which were recorded before All Souls Hill.
And you worked remotely?
Yeah. We have met. We've actually met in the physical world, but when we work, he sends me a ZIP file of maybe 10 or 20 short instrumental mashups that he's created and I listen to them all. It's a bit like opening a Christmas present. I listen to them all, and two or three of them will suggest melodies, or maybe remind me of a lyrical idea that I've had. ... There'll be some way in for me, and then I'll work on turning them into a song. They don't all work out, but some of them do.
[Late former James Brown saxophonist] Pee Wee Ellis plays a fantastic solo on "Hollywood Blues," which is probably one of his last recordings before he died. How did you come to be connected with him? Did you already know him?
I didn't know him. One of our two keyboard players, James Hallawell, had been in the J.B.'s with Pee Wee Ellis and Pee Wee lived — before his death – he lived in the West Country in England. I think maybe he ended up there after working with Van Morrison, that would be my guess. And so James suggested Pee Wee for the sax solo and recorded him in London.
Listen to the Waterboys' 'Hollywood Blues'
"In My Dreams" is another great track on the album. It name-checks all these great musicians – the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse. Is that true? Have those people all appeared in your dreams?
Oh, yeah, of course. Every night I dream about musicians. ... The Rolling Stones are in my dreams almost every night. I don't know why.
What do the Rolling Stones do in your dreams?
Hang out and ... I don't know. My dreams are always in sort of endless summer holiday, foreign countries, cities ... and there's always Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards], or [recently retired Waterboys violinist] Steve Wickham or other musicians. They're always in my dreams. [Laughs.] I don't know why.
You've got a great cover on the album of Robbie Robertson's "Once Were Brothers," but you've edited the lyrics to be a bit more hopeful than the original. What made you pick that song specifically?
I love the song very much. I'd heard it on the documentary about the Band of the same title, and then I bought Robbie's album Sinematic so I could play it at home. I thought it was a very beautiful song, but I wished he'd written a bit more. ... The emotional tone of the song was such that I felt after the bridge section, the "we already duked it out" section — it seemed to me that the emotional arc of the song was leading towards a final, maybe double length, denouement verse before the resolution of the last chorus. But Robbie didn't do that. He went straight out of the bridge into the last chorus, and I found myself writing the verse that I wished had gone there. I sat on it for a while, thinking I'd never be able to do anything with it, but eventually, I liked it so much I asked my manager to talk to Robbie's team and ask if we could use it and Robbie gave us permission.
Listen to the Waterboys' 'Once Were Brothers'
You also wrote some new lyrics for [Dick Blakeslee's 1948 folk song] "Passing Through" [which has been recorded by Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, the Highwaymen and others]. Your version works up to present-day matters with the death of George Floyd. It's really powerful as the closing song on the album. Can you talk a bit about how that song came together?
I heard that song 50 years ago on a Leonard Cohen live album, Live Songs and even when Leonard did it, it was an old song. ... I loved the premise of the song. I loved the first verse about Adam leaving the garden. I thought that was brilliant, and the chorus, but I didn't like so much the other three or four verses in the song. There was one about him meeting Jesus on the cross and you hate mankind for what they've done to you, and Jesus gives us not the Messiah's answer, not a luminous answer, but kind of a normal person's answer. It's just not as good as the chorus. There was a verse about Franklin Roosevelt; I wasn't buying that either. Over the years, I wrote my own verses for it. ... The Martin Luther King and Hank Williams verses were written maybe 15, 20 years ago. And the rest were written last year when I was recording it. So everything except the first verse and the chorus was written by me – and the tune, of course, is the original.
All Soul's Hill is the 15th Waterboys album. What would you say is the biggest difference in your approach to songwriting since your early albums?
I do it all the time now — well, I did it all the time then, I suppose. The biggest difference is that I can record at home. It used to be that I would have to go to the guy at the record company and say "Look, I've got some new songs I'd like to record," and he'd want to hear them first before he spent the money. Then, I'd have to negotiate with them about how much studio time I could get, and then he'd want to come down to the studio. ... I'd be working with an engineer who might be looking at his watch and have to filter everything through the engineer's sense of music, and I might never have met him before. All those things have gone now that I'm working on my own. There's nothing between me and the act of recording.
What can you tell us about the next Waterboys album?
It's a theme record. All the songs are telling one story. It's almost finished, and it will probably come out next year.