An Appointment With Mr Yeats

The Waterboys frontman has set Yeats’s poetry to music and tells Joanne Savage about being radical with the Irishman’s lyrics

Sitting at his piano, with a well-thumbed copy of the Complete Poems of WB Yeats in front of him, Mike Scott searches for the lines that initially inspired him to put the words to music. Yeats’s lyricism sparked off a fire in his head - a string of melodies and moods. Unexpectedly psychedelic sounds suggested themselves; this would be Yeatsian music with more chutzpah than a fiddle-heavy reel or jig.

Scott’s interest in Yeats goes back decades. The Waterboys famously recorded a version of 'The Stolen Child' on their 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues, where a pastoral, folk sound gave the immortal lines new energy: 'Come away human child / To the water and the wild... for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.'

In 1991 the frontman - described in his 1980s heyday as a 'genius or a madman depending on your point of view' - took part in a tribute night to Yeats at the Abbey Theatre, the Dublin institution opened by the poet in 1904. 'I’d set some Yeats poems to music especially for the show, thinking everyone else would do the same,' says Scott, stirring his cup of green tea with honey, all a mass of hair and velvet, appearing slightly incongruous in a Belfast cafe.

'When I got there, nobody had done that at all. I was disappointed to find that I was the only person who did any Yeats songs. They all did their own numbers. And I thought, ‘There’s something untapped here.' There should be a whole concert that is all Yeats’s lyrics set to music.'

Almost two decades later, Scott is touring with his show An Appointment with Mr Yeats, featuring interpretations of 20 of the Irishman’s poems, including 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', 'White Swans', 'The Hosting of the Sidhe', 'News for the Delphic Oracle' and 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'.

Scott tinkered with lines to make the poems fit to music. A 13-piece band play a range of instruments to the lyrics, including a trombone and an oboe. When the show premiered at the Abbey in March 2010, hologram images of the dead poet flickered in the background. The audience responded to the material with a standing ovation.

What does Scott imagine Yeats would make of this rocked-up rehearsal of his work? 'Phew...I don’t know,' he admits, staring into the middle-distance. 'I don’t want to guess. It’s impossible to imaginatively transplant him from his time into these times - would he be a mover and shaker if he were around today? I don’t know. My allegiance is to the poems, not to their creator. This is Yeats set to rock, some of it leaning to psychedelia, some of it leaning to folk, some of it blues - a Waterboys sound.'

Musicians tinkering with Yeats isn’t exactly a new concept. Among the many artists who have tried their hand at adapting his lyrics are Christy Moore, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, the Cranberries and Bono - to name only the most obvious handful.

The poet is ever song-ready, it seems, his embroidered lines of unrequited love, mystical reverie and political philosophising so frequently lapidary and beautiful that their rhythms sing - they are musical and hypnotic in and of themselves. 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', for example, is one of literature’s most affecting love poems:

I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Yeats is a treasure trove of yearning lyricism. ''The Song of Wandering Aegnus' is one of my favourite adaptations,' says Scott. 'Other versions have been too mellow or too pretty - ours has edge - it’s more spunky.

'I have to say, our versions are better than what other artists have done with Yeats. With the exception of Van Morrison’s 'Crazy Jane on God' - which is great - the rest make you feel that they just haven’t been worked on hard enough. The arrangement has to have a relationship with the inner world of the poem.

'We have been radical with Yeats and the directions we’ve taken the poems in. I haven’t limited this by any sense of propriety or reverence. I’m in awe of Yeats’s talent but not his reputation. It’s important to me that the show is a full-blown, radical statement.'

His blue eyes shine with conviction beneath the mop of hair, greying now Scott has reached 50. 'Listen to 'News for the Delphic Oracle',' he says, passing his ipod across the table, 'it might be my favourite.'

It’s part-Tom Waits, part dark waltz, ethereal and moody. 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', that chocolate box poem, has becomes a blues tune. This is Yeats recharged, rocked out. Those Celtic mysteries, occult musings and romantic infatuations have been given spookily sensitive musical form, with salt and Nietzschean muscularity in all the right places.

The Waterboys: An Appointment with Mr Yeats runs at the Grand Opera House Belfast, November 9-10. To book tickets call the box office on 02890 241 919 or visit