The podcasting duo Sodajerker have struck gold once again with the ever evolving and consistently challenging Scottish songwriter Mike Scott
t’s many a songwriter who believes that they are immune to being pigeonholed. It’s rare, though, to find one who seems to thrive on defying convention and carving a niche that is submissive only to their creative whims. Mike Scott is such a songwriter and he’s one who’s retained the quality of his writing since he began making music.
Born in Scotland and currently dwelling in Ireland, Scott is best known as the lead songwriter of The Waterboys. Forming the band in the early 1980s, the band have mixed folk and Celtic songwriting with rock music to create a sound that’s both unique and fluid. It’s this uniqueness that’s made Mike Scott one of the most recognisable songwriters of his generation, and here he explains what’s given him the drive to get there – with special thanks to Nick Cave.
We really love I Can See Elvis. Is there a reason you wanted to write about him?
“I like Elvis – like everyone in rock n roll I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for Elvis! But it was something that our old drummer Damon – who drummed with us in 2007/8 – said. We were having a joke one night, talking about people that have near death experiences, when someone has an accident and imagines that they’re going to a white light at the end of the tunnel.
[cc_blockquote_right] THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW YOU CAN PICK UP [/cc_blockquote_right]
“We were talking about this and Damon started pretending to be a guy who pretended to be going in the tunnel, going towards the white light. And when he got to the white light he exclaimed “I can see Elvis!” And he knew he was in heaven because he could see Elvis and I liked that phrase and I took it as a springboard for a song about the afterlife. What would Elvis be doing in the afterlife? I think he’d be a cool Elvis, he’d be intellectual, he’d be reading books, he’d be talking to Shakespeare, he’d be smoking reefers with James Dean; he’d be counter-cultural, he’d be a rebellious Elvis. So that’s where the song came from.”
Is inspiration important when you write? Does an idea have to give you goosebumps, or can you just get something great out of using your skills to craft something?
“I use both really. I need a good idea before I can begin writing a song; that can come in the shape of a title, or it can be a couple of lines of lyric, or it could be a chord sequence, but it’s gotta be something that sparks it, something that turns me on.”
Is it easy to get lost in that process or does the editor inside you step in?
“I’ve learned to keep that very experienced judgemental part, the part that decides whether a song’s worth recording, I keep that on pause when I’m writing because I don’t want it to disrupt the flow of being creative.”
Is there still much for you to learn about songwriting?
“I’m always learning new chords. I learnt a new chord from working with Ian McNabb a few years ago. It was a song that he asked me to play on for one of his albums that had a really interesting chord on it. I worked out what the chord was and it was one that I’d never used before. It was a C chord that’s got one note raised to a C#, which puts a beautiful tension in it. It was on a song called New Light. And it’s a beautiful chord and I used it on a couple of songs shortly after. So there’s always something new that you can pick up.”
[cc_blockquote_right] ONCE I GET IN THE STUDIO I LIKE TO LEAVE THE MUSICIANS TO SEE WHAT THEY PLAY THEMSELVES, RATHER THAN CORRECT THEM [/cc_blockquote_right]
You’ve set existing words to music before – Yeats for example. How do you tend to start in that situation, when the words already exist?
“If I’m reading a poem and it suggests a tune in my head then I’ll work on it. That’s how I did it with the Yeats piece. I’ll usually work with a piano and I would sit with a poetry book and flick the pages open and go through them one-by-one. And if the first couple of lines suggested a tune then I would figure it out in the piano and then carry on, and if it didn’t then I would go onto the next poem.”
When talking about some of your very well known songs from the past, we heard that you tend to write the song first and then imagine the record. Do you still try and keep those processes separate?
“I tend not to imagine the record so much these days. But that’s how I used to work. When I was making the early Waterboys records I would write the song and then I would run it in my head; I’d be walking down the street and then I would imagine the song in my head, all the instruments and the overdub, and then I would write it down when I got back in my house. Then I would go in the studio and make it real, using my notes as the script of the arrangement. But these days I leave a lot more to chance and once I get in the studio I like to leave the musicians to see what they play themselves, rather than correcting them.”
Whole Of The Moon is a song that has kind of an unusual feel on the piano…
“I have my own self-taught style and have had lots of proper trained piano players in the band over the years and none of them could play The Whole Of The Moon like me. It’s one finger on the left hand, three fingers on the right, kind of primal.”
What was the inspiration behind it?”
“I was in New York in the 80s with a Canadian girlfriend and she was asking me if it was easy to write songs, and I told her that it was and I wanted to impress her. We were walking down the street and I remember that it was a moonlight night and I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and looked around for some inspiration. And I can’t remember if it was a whole moon or a crescent moon that was in the sky, but whichever it was I got this idea for ‘I saw the crescent and you saw the whole of the moon’ and I wrote it down. My girlfriend was suitably impressed I’m glad to say and I had the beginning of a song!”
You’ve continued to write so many songs in so many different styles. Is there anything that keeps you passionate about this art-form particularly?
“Well I’m still hungry to do well. I’m very competitive; I hear Nick Cave’s album and I think ‘Ok that’s what Cave’s up-to, what am I going to do that’s going to out-do him?’ I’ve always thought like that, I’ve always wanted to be the best in my generation and I always wanted to do better than the other guy. It’s not that I wanted the other songwriters to do badly, I want them to do well, I just want me to do better! I want to be the best songwriter. So that keeps me fighting, keeps me hungry.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 40-minute interview with Mike Scott – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.