The works of the Irish poet are put to music on The Waterboys' album An Appointment with Mr Yeats.
The Waterboys fashion a musical ode to poet WB Yeats
From Kurt Weill's 1942 outing Walt Whitman Songs to Eddi Reader's 2003 album Sings the Songs of Robert Burns, great poetry has long been an inspirational touchstone for musicians. For Mike Scott, the Edinburgh-born linchpin of The Waterboys, works by the Irishman William Butler Yeats have proved particularly fruitful.
"Basically, I like his subject set," says Scott, 52, ahead of today's release of An Appointment with Mr Yeats, a new Waterboys album that sets a number of the great bard's works to music. "Politics, love, the mystic, Ireland and the adventure of being human. I like the way Yeats deals with those subjects."
The singer and I have met in the bar of a west London hotel. An attentive, sometimes unnervingly intense interviewee, Scott is teetotal and is drinking lattes. His mother Anne taught English literature and his own lyrics are often exquisitely crafted (witness the transcendent Waterboys hit The Whole of the Moon). All things considered, his interest in Yeats is understandable.
Scott first "covered" the Irish poet on The Waterboys' 1988 album Fisherman's Blues, for which the traditional singer Tomás Mac Eoin narrated a version of The Stolen Child magically arranged for piano, voice and flute. On 1993's Dream Harder, Scott tackled Yeats's Love & Death.
It was in 2005, though, that his long-percolating ideas regarding a more substantial Yeats undertaking came flooding back. The trigger was a Yeats-themed concert that long-term Waterboys fiddler Steve Wickham had played at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.
"I was living in Findhorn [Moray, Scotland] at the time," says Scott, "but Steve's account of how the concert had gone down thrilled me. I got out this huge volume of Yeats that I'd had for years - some 600 poems - and I set it up on the piano. I'd flip through, reading the first line of each poem. If it didn't immediately suggest a melody I'd be on to the next one."
In time, Scott was able to re-invent The Lake Isle of Innisfree as a mischievous blues number and September 1913 as a crunching anthem. His Yeats album also has psychedelic folk elements, the singer delving deep into the mystic on The Song of Wandering Aengus, a brilliant interpretation of the Yeats poem some read as a paean to lost youth.
Another of the album's truly affecting songs is the ballad Let the Earth Bear Witness. In a show of solidarity with Iran's "Green Wave" protesters, Scott made the track available on YouTube in summer 2009, where it appeared with subtitles in Farsi. But while that version ended with Iranian protestors chanting "Allahu Akbar!", Scott says he had to cut the protestors' voices from the album version. "Unfortunately, it just sounded wrong going into the next song," he explains.
Like Kate Bush before him (only when she re-visited the title track of 1989's The Sensual World on 2011's Director's Cut did James Joyce's estate finally grant Bush permission to quote from Ulysses), Scott also had to contend with copyright laws when preparing his Yeats record. Still, even accounting for (comparatively) recent reforms that saw Irish artists' rights extended from "50 years beyond death" to "70 years beyond death", Scott's Yeats album was effectively given the go-ahead on December 31, 2009, when the poet went out of copyright.
"I actually had permission from Yeats's estate before that, if I didn't change anything," says Scott, "but that would have been a deal-breaker for me. I'm as ruthless with Yeats's words as I am with my own, and if I have to ride roughshod over the museum piece of the original poem, I'll do so.
"I'm always in awe of Yeats's greatness and skill," he adds, "but when I was making this album I wasn't in awe of that weight of scholarship that says 'This is sacred'. I grew up with punk, so I don't give a fig for all that. I just love the poems, and I wanted Yeats's work to be alive."
An Appointment with Mr Yeats features a specially expanded Waterboys line-up. Guests such as the Dublin-based singer Katie Kim and flautist Sarah Allen join Scott and his core band. The new material was road-tested before it was recorded, a live version of An Appointment with Mr Yeats premiering with a five-night run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in March 2010. When Scott took the show on the road in the UK earlier this year, it was similarly acclaimed.
Opening at the Abbey was appropriate, for Yeats co-founded the theatre in 1899 and a number of his plays were staged there. The theatre's location has changed twice since then, but Scott says he still had a sense of going into "central Yeats territory", of proximity to "the sacred founding stone of Ireland's National Theatre".
"It was a great opportunity, so I wanted to make a radical statement while being respectful of what I perceived to be Yeats's intention and meaning," he explains.
That Scott - a Scotsman - has been able to joust with an Irish cultural icon and still garner rave reviews from the Irish press speaks volumes about his work's quality, but it also says something about his relationship with the Emerald Isle itself. The singer currently lives in Dublin after years away in London, New York and Findhorn, but he first moved to Ireland in January 1986.
Back then he had just released the Waterboys album This Is the Sea, an epic work that seemed to prime his band for stadia success, à la U2. But in a spectacular volte face, Scott left London for Dublin, eventually travelling west to settle in the village of Spiddal on the Galway Bay. The resultant records were 1988's Fisherman's Blues and 1990's Room to Roam, two Waterboys albums steeped in traditionalism.
"I was attracted to the wildness of Irish music and the sense of an older world behind it," he says.
Scott is an adopted son of Ireland, then, and this has certainly been a plus for his Yeats project.
"You have to remember that I didn't move to Ireland as a tax exile," he says. "I went for the Craic and the music. The Irish people know that; I think I've got their respect."