Mike Scott lets out a little laugh when asked by American Songwriter if the subject of The Waterboys’ buoyant new single “The Soul Singer” is based on anyone in particular. “There could be somebody specific and it also could be an amalgam of people,” he says. “There may even be a couple of bits of me in there as well.”
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The song luxuriates in an inviting Muscle Shoals-style groove, partly inspired by Waterboys’ collaborator and legendary sideman David Hood, even as it paints a warts-and-all portrait of the grumpy singer-songwriter at its center. “I have lots of feelings about other singers and other musicians,” Scott explains. “Being a musician and bandleader of 40 years, I have an insight to the mental psychosis that we all experience to some degree. And so I can be critical of other singers. If I see them engage in follies, I might have a strong view about it.”
“But I’m also sympathetic. With the character in this song (quoting the lyrics), ‘he’s suffered loss. For the life that he’s lived he’s paid the cost.’ And also, he’s protecting himself the way he knows best. Ultimately everyone who makes a living out of music is doing the best they can with what the cards they’ve been dealt.”
“The Soul Singer” provides a fetching preview of Good Luck, Seeker, Scott’s latest album (arriving August 21) as the leader of the ever-mutating Waterboys collective. It’s a wondrously diverse album, one that delves in everything from atmospheric folk to hip-hop rhythms, while spending the entire second half of the record in spoken-word mode, a genre Scott has tackled before.
“I found myself recording a lot of spoken-word pieces,” Scott says of the album’s makeup. “I love doing it. It’s a frontier for me as a singer and a performer. And I enjoy the different rhythmic and lyrical challenges of working with spoken word. When I saw that I had two or three, I did a few more and had four or five, and I wondered how am I going to structure these within the framework of an album. I’m of an age where I remember sides one and two of vinyl. I thought, of course, make Side One the songs and make Side Two the spoken word.”
While other artists might find spoken-word pieces to be difficult, Scott feels that they give him a kind of liberty. “I’m freed from the discipline of having to provide a chorus or a middle eight or a funny bit, all those things that occur so regularly in traditional songs,” he says. “And I find that a repeated chord sequence or a trance-like approach works very well with spoken word. Some of these like ‘My Wanderings In The Weary Land’ are based on a single chord sequence that repeats over and over. But it’s also true to say that there are no rules. Whenever I begin a piece, whether it’s spoken word or a regular song, I can take it anywhere I want. And I feel free and entitled to do that as a songwriter.”
Even though The Waterboys might get lumped into a classic rock sort of category, one listen to Good Luck, Seeker should leave that all behind, considering the joy that Scott seems to take operating within a more modern rhythmic approach. “I grew up listening to people like David Bowie and Neil Young and Dylan who would change with every album, like The Beatles, of course,” he explains. “That’s my template really. I feel if the music’s not changing, not taking leaps into the unknown, there’s something wrong. And rhythm is part of that. I’ve never felt bounded by classic rock rhythms, even on the early Waterboys records. I’m really doing rhythms based on whatever positions my hands fall into on the guitar or the piano.”
“My own playing is very untutored and natural. And that takes me into some very interesting rhythmic places. You can hear it an early Waterboys song like ‘The Whole Of The Moon,’ where I’m playing my untutored, one-finger on the left hand, three fingers on the right hand piano in syncopated rhythm. I’ve had a lot of serious keyboard and piano players in the band over the years, who’d been to music college and passed all their grades and all that, and none of them can play that rhythm.”
Good Luck, Seeker includes several songs based on the work of early 20th-century spiritual writers like Dion Fortune (the title track) and Charles Williams (“The Golden Work.”) And then there’s “Dennis Hopper,” the stomping ode to one of Hollywood’s great iconoclasts. Scott became fascinated by the actor when he came across a London exhibition of Hopper’s photographs.
“Dennis Hopper is a hero to me, and I don’t use that word lightly,” Scott says. “I deeply respect Hopper for his own explorations and his restlessness and his commitment to expanding his consciousness and expanding his art. And I know he did some crazy things, and there was a lost decade there in the 70s and early 80s, but he paid the price for it and he came back with wisdom. You can’t ask for more than that. I deeply respect how he came back into the mainstream of the film business. He made five movies a year for the last ten, fifteen years of his life. They weren’t always good movies but he had a commitment to working and I love him for that. I never met him but I admire him deeply for that.”
“And, of course, if you’re going to write a song about Dennis Hopper, the immediate challenge for me is to make every line rhyme with ‘Hopper,” Scott laughs. “I enjoyed that challenge very much.”
When you add it all up, you get an album that yearns and quests as if it was the work of a hungry newcomer rather than a settled veteran. But, as Mike Scott explains, that’s the only way he knows how to make Waterboys’ music.
“Art is life and you have to keep moving,” Scott says. “In my personal life, I’m always looking for answers to questions. I’m always looking to expand my understanding and awareness. And I feel if it’s not expanding, then there’s something wrong. It’s the same in art. I think all art, whether it’s music, film, sculpture, whatever, it’s got to move forward. I like pushing into the new and unknown. On a very basic level, it’s more fun for me if there’s a buzz from doing something I’ve never done before. And I’m in it for the fun.”