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Mike Scott of The Waterboys: ‘Taylor Swift made me cry’

On The Music That Made Me, The Waterboys’ Mike Scott reveals his surprise pick for the best songwriter in the world today.

For almost four decades, The Waterboys have burned an emotional, folk-rock trail through the music of these isles. With Mike Scott at their helm, they’ve crafted songs of soaring romance and searing political satire.

Scott was born and raised in Edinburgh, but spent his teenage years living on Scotland’s west coast, in the town of Ayr. Among the seaside hotels, he cut his musical teeth playing Velvet Underground and punk songs to perplexed (and sparse) rock night audiences. “We’d be up there playing Heroin and Waiting for the Man and Sex Pistols numbers. And people would just be looking at us as if we had grown two heads,” he remembers.

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In 1983, he formed The Waterboys – and among a rotating cast of members has remained the frontman and songwriting engine of the band. Their most famous song, The Whole of the Moon, counts Bob Dylan and Prince among its many millions of fans.

As their 15th album, All Souls Hill, hits download and streaming services everywhere, frontman Mike Scott joined The Music That Made Me from his home in Dublin to recount the music that got him started and the artists that keep him going.

Featuring spliffs with Dylan and tears to Taylor Swift.

Mike Scott, The Waterboys: The Music That Made Me

The Four Tops and emotion in music

I was a child in the Sixties. I was lucky enough to grow up during that amazing decade where it was incredible innovation and amazing music all the time. I remember when I was about five or six hearing soul music on the radio – Otis Redding, and the Four Tops, and the Temptations – and getting turned on to emotion in music. Those voices were full of emotion. At the time, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think, “Oh my goodness, song is an expression for emotion.” I didn’t think anything theoretical. I just responded to the emotion in the songs and loved it. When I look back now, I see that it was a kind of awakening. Perhaps that’s fed through into the way that I sing and the way that I write.

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A forgotten psychedelic melody

The second song I picked is Kites by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. It’s a forgotten track from the psychedelic heyday of about 1967. But what it taught me and what I always remember about the song is the melody, the quality of melody. It’s got a very unusual, almost Eastern melody to it, and great flights of melody. The vocal sounds like it’s on a magic carpet or something.

The power of Sly and the Family Stone

My mum and I used to go on holiday to London every summer. One day we were in a shop on Piccadilly Circus called I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. It was a kind of hippie clothing chain, but this was the flagship store and they’d a record department at the back. The guy at the record department was playing Stand by Sly and the Family Stone. It was a very, very loud sound system. It was the first time I’d ever heard music properly on that kind of sound system. I’ll never forget the power of that song. All these powerful voices arrayed together. That showed me the power of a recording… and the power of sound.

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Bob Dylan’s lyrical genius… and some reefers

When I was about 12 or 13, I had an older friend who played me Dylan’s records. He played me the album Blonde on Blonde, and that turned me on to lyric: the power of lyric. There was one particular song called Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. It’s maybe not one of Dylan’s greatest songs, but at the age of 13, it was the one that amused me and entertained me. It opened me up to the possibility of what mischief you could have with lyrics because Bob’s rhyming and his lyrics in that song are really quite outrageous. 

I’ve met Bob Dylan twice, actually. In the 1980s, when the Waterboys were first emerging, someone had played him my song, The Whole of the Moon. He liked it. He was in London and so was I, and through a mutual acquaintance, he invited me down to the studio. He was very, very friendly, very nice. Very pleased to see us. I think he’s super, super shy. And of course, he’s carrying the weight of being Bob Dylan and everybody knowing that about him.

I’m proud to say I’ve smoked a reefer that Bob Dylan has rolled and I’m even prouder to say Bob Dylan has smoked a reefer that I’ve rolled.

The Velvet Underground: creative inspiration before technical proficiency

I first got turned on to the Velvets by hearing David Bowie doing their songs. He used to do Waiting for the Man and White Light, White Heat in his live sets. That alerted me to the songwriting of Lou Reed. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but honestly, it blew my mind the way that they deconstructed music. Everything was sonic. Actually, the great lesson of the Velvet Underground was that technical proficiency is less important than creative inspiration.

Mercury Rev remind Mike of the magic of rock

Holes came out in 1998 on an album called Deserter’s Songs. And at the time, I was very jaded with music. I’d spent years in Ireland and got very deep into Celtic music. I hadn’t listened to new rock records for maybe a decade.

I was in the old Virgin Megastore at Piccadilly Circus and this amazing music was playing. It had this high voice and a strange languid band. Of course, as I always do when I hear something great in a record shop, I go up to the counter and say, “What’s that?” It was Mercury Rev. So I bought the record… and it turned me on again to rock music.

I’m very grateful for that reminder that there was magic out there.

The best songwriter in the world? Taylor Swift

I think Taylor Swift is the best songwriter active in the world right now, at least in Western culture that I know about. I think she’s the number one.

I remember Damon Albarn quite recently dissed her and said she didn’t write her own songs. I thought, “You silly twit… You should be apologising to her. She’s light years ahead of you.”

I picked a song called Marjorie from her Evermore album. I bought the album for my daughter because she likes Taylor. I was blown away. Every time Marjorie came on I found it so moving. It’s about her grandmother who died and she’s singing about how she can still feel her grandmother’s presence and what died didn’t stay dead.

I was sitting there, tears rolling down my cheeks listening to this. Trying not to let my daughter see it. I don’t mind her seeing me crying. She’s seen me cry before, but it was her record and her moment and I didn’t want to steal it. Oh, boy, what a song.

For me, Taylor’s work is a reminder that people are still writing great songs.

All Souls Hill, the new album by The Waterboys is out on May 6 2022.

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