(Way back in 2003 I had the privilege of interviewing Mike Scott, of The Waterboys, for a Paste Magazine article. This is the blog I wrote then. It seems appropriate to re-blog on the day I seek that Ulster Hall 1986 feeling, yet again!)
The Waterboys’ mainman, Mike Scott is a gentle spirit, full of wide eyed wonder and open hearted love. When I asked him what triggered the spiritual journey that is so evident in his music he responded “if you mean what triggered my whole spiritual journey, it was being born on planet earth of course!” For Scott life is big and every moment is full of the hugest potential. He brandishes his brush way outside of the lines but the lines are never ignored, just used as signposts to something higher, wider and deeper than the confinement of definitions. God is spirit, within and without, way in and way out. When I ask him to label his Creed he responds with a seemingly unconstrained freedom and yet the clearest conviction, “And what creed might that be? I have none. I personally believe we are truly One in our deepest truth; that there is One Life in creation, and all our adventurings and learnings are leading us to that realization. This is the perennial wisdom and it has been around as long as God.”
As a musician Scott is a performer of gigantic proportions, a charismatic rock figure who holds concert halls in the grip of his hand. As a writer he is a visionary, a man of poetic words and sublime melodies. His songs seem so familiar, so comfortable, so beautiful. His sound is big even when stripped back to the acoustic guitar. When you hit his music with his faith you get a spark that lights the entire cosmos and the tiniest most hidden corners of the soul. It seems simple but is most profound. It seems effortless and casual but is focused and driven. It is inspirational; it lifts you, buoys you up, and takes you higher, never ignoring the darker side but shining that light over it, under it and through it. You feel that you could reach for the stars and actually touch them. You get less satisfied with the crescent; you want to grasp the whole of the moon.
The Waterboys new album is another instalment in Scott’s spiritual diary. Universal Hall sees the mystical troubadour back at the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community in the north east of his native Scotland and the place where Scott found “my school” through the writings of the one of the Foundations founders Eileen Caddy. I suggest she is a bit of a guru to him and he is quick to deflate such a lofty title. “'Guru',with all its distortions, would be the last word Eileen Caddy would use to describe herself. She is a teacher, certainly, primarily by the example of her own life. She's an ordinary woman who has lived in an extraordinary way - following the inner guidance of the 'still small voice within'- the voice of God within - wherever it leads, however strange its instructions might appear to human values. Her whole teaching is to turn others inward to find that inner divine source within themselves (the mark of the true spiritual teacher), and that is what I've learned from her. I love her a whole lot and am very grateful for the privilege of knowing her.”
There are many Christian reference points in Scott’s writings and yet he is sometimes hesitant about any affiliation with mainstream Christianity. I asked him about his name dropping of Iona, CS Lewis and Jesus himself and he was quick to talk about each one of them. “I don't reject Christianity. It is the religion of my race and like everyone else here I grew up with the stories of the example and teaching of Jesus - and how could I be untouched by that? But I am not a practising Christian. I'm not even sure Jesus would be if he incarnated today! As for CS Lewis, yes, he was a committed Christian, but I find if a writer or teacher is infused by the true divine spirit, as Lewis undoubtedly was, this is magnified and transmitted through their work regardless of the name of their faith. Iona is well known as a Christian centre because of the work of St. Columba who brought Christrianity there in the 6th century, but it was a Druid centre of power before then, and the island has a spiritual quality or soul that is divinely and powerfully Itself - and accessible to all who have eyes to see, regardless of their spiritual background or religion. Lastly the Christ to me is the divine energy that Jesus manifested on the physical earth - hence his bearing the name 'Jesus Christ', but I believe the Christ energy existed before Jesus, and is a universal energy infusing every part of creation, and every human being, whether they call themselves 'Christian' or not.”
Looking back at the twenty years of The Waterboys there have always been hints of the divine but it was 1995’s Bring Em All In, the first of two albums that Scott released without The Waterboys moniker, that the spiritual became such a force. The previous album recorded in New York after his few years in the west of Ireland had suggested a spiritual awakening as he sang “I just found God where he always was” but Bring ‘Em All In recorded in Findhorn was an album of spiritual songs of a man most sure. After his second solo album Scott who told a Greenbelt 94 audience “I am the Waterboys” took the band name back and made his most rocking album in over a decade A Rock in a Weary Land which looked at the tired dumbing down that the big city brings and holding on to the transcendent when the mundane is what is being celebrated.
In 2001 Scott and his wife visited Findhorn again and they “both got a 'yes' feeling to moving back.” And so Universal Hall the sacred space where both bring Em All In and the new album was recorded sees a return to the acoustic and more meditative. Without doubt The Waterboys albums are always effected by location. Does Scott go different places like you might use some musical instrument to purposely effect the music. He told me, “I generally make 'em wherever I find myself but on occasion I have made a decision in advance to, for example, write and record in the West of Ireland (late 80's), or to record the new Universal Hall album in Findhorn, in the spiritually charged atmosphere of the Findhorn Community. I am always inspired by the places I live and by what I feel and see around me, and this inevitably flows into the music and the albums.”
Another injection to the muse of Universal Hall is the reunion old Waterboys pal Steve Wickham. Wickham is a mesmerising Irish fiddle player who makes anything dance that comes into his vicinity. In the middle of the eighties Scott came across the Dublin based player and the hybrid fusion of Scott’s big music and Wickham’s folk rock fiddle brought to flower one of the most powerful live shows the world has ever seen. I still use their Ulster Hall, Belfast gig in April 1986 as a yard stick to all good rock shows and nothing has ever come close. Sadly the band took too long playing at their music and before they released their next album the sound had dropped a little too far off the Irish traditional balance scale and Fisherman’s Blues just never reached the heights it could have.
I told Scott that when I watch him perform now I get the impression of a man at peace with where his art has taken him. he could have been a megastar but decided to get off the beaten track and head west to Galway. He seems to be very content at the level of his success. The songs seem more important than the riches, fame or house in Malibu. Am I right? His answer is characteristically philosophical, “Whether I 'could have been a megastar' is unknown. As CS Lewis liked to say 'We are never told what might have happened'. Nor am I interested in what might have happened! I've always followed my heart, guts and fascinations and I have learned to surrender to the places - both physical and inspirational - to which they take me. Yes, the songs and creativity are more important than any riches that could result, but I have nothing against houses in Malibu. Malibu is a very fine place indeed.”
In November 2000 I was back in the Ulster Hall trying to revisit those old feelings of 1986 and though enjoyable it was getting nowhere near and then for the encores out stepped Steve Wickham and the crowd went wild. The old magic bow weaved again and suddenly we were transported to those enchanting places. How did they get back together? Scott tells the story, “Steve and I are great friends and even when we weren't working professionally together we were always in touch. In 1999 Steve invited me to Sligo, where he lives in the west of Ireland, to do a show. So I went over and we did a two-man concert together. It was a great success and I knew we had a lot of music still to make together. Then I asked him to guest with us at our shows in Dublin and Belfast in 2000. It went so well I asked him to rejoin the band, and, to my great pleasure and delight, he is back and playing the greatest rock fiddling ever!”
It is hard to argue with that but what then does he add to Scott’s muse well over a decade later? “Steve gives the music wings, a sense of the elemental, a sweetness, a gateway to the unseen.” Does the writing change with the fiddle on stand by? “Yes, indeed. 'Peace of Iona' was a hypnotic chant until Steve's fiddle entered the picture and turned it into a sonic evocation of the island and the elements.” Last Wickham question has to be about how he feels with the spiritual concentration of the songs and recording in a spiritual community. Scott is loathe to speak for his friend, suffice to say, “Well, I can't answer that for him, though we had a great time together in Findhorn making 'Universal Hall'. He has visited many times.”
Universal Hall is an album full of spiritual reflection, meditation and at times almost corporate worship. Many of the songs have only a few lines that become almost like Taize prayer chants. I wondered what had inspired him to the economy of words. “I'm familiar with Taize chants because they are very popular in Findhorn, and I also work with affirmations, so I'm used to the idea that a few short lines of words, carefully chosen and repeated aloud or inwardly, can have a powerful inspirational effect. When my songs started coming in this minimal form, with only 2 or 3 lines, the challenge was to allow them to be so, and not to be tempted to flesh them out into a 'normal' structure. I resisted the temptation!”
Finally, I was curious to know if the spiritual belief that ignites these songs gives an extra expectation to what Scott hoped that they might achieve. Again his answer is intriguing showing so clearly that we should never differentiate between the so called sacred and secular. If it is important enough top provoke songs it all should have similar hope of impact. “My hope is the same whatever kind of song I'm writing - that I may express myself and my inspiration authentically, in a way that thrills me and takes my writing somewhere it has never reached before, and that the listener will have every chance to 'get it' and receive the same inspiration I did when writing.” And what would he hope we might take away from Universal Hall? “A feeling of love inside.”