Waterboys frontman calmly waits for the lyrics to come. They always do.

Why We Wrote This

How do people access creativity? Longtime musician Mike Scott, frontman for The Waterboys, does so by maintaining daily habits – and an unwavering understanding that inspiration can take time.

Barry McCall/Courtesy of Chart Room Media
Mike Scott is the founding member, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the rock band The Waterboys.

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When you ask Scottish songwriter Mike Scott about cultivating creativity, he points to a track on the new album he’s released with his band The Waterboys. Titled “Beauty in Repetition,” the song details how 19th-century philosopher William James followed an unchanging daily routine so that he could free up the higher parts of his mind. Mr. Scott recalls explaining to a former girlfriend that his habitual activities, such as eating the same meals, mean that he’s less preoccupied with banal decisions and can focus on creativity.  

“Good Luck, Seeker” is the fourth Waterboys album in five years and the 14th album in a career that has garnered the admiration of Bob Dylan, U2, and The War on Drugs – and covers by Prince. Influenced by William Butler Yeats, C.S. Lewis, and Van Morrison, Mr. Scott has developed a reputation as one of rock’s true poets. His lyrics express open-hearted wonder as he explores existential questions.  

“I used to think if I didn’t get the song done, I would lose it. I don’t think that anymore,” says Mr. Scott during a call from his studio in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s going to come down in its own time. So there’s a calmness to the way I work.” 

When songwriter Mike Scott recently rummaged through a box of forgotten compositions, he found a poem he’d written three decades ago. The bandleader of The Waterboys was struck by the first line: “The storm that has howled for four days has blown itself out.” It transported his memory to the coastal Irish cottage, covered in a shag of ivy, where he wrote the 1988 album “Fisherman’s Blues.”

The rediscovered prose developed into “Postcard From The Celtic Dreamtime,” a wistful track on the new Waterboys record, “Good Luck, Seeker.”   

“I used to think if I didn’t get the song done, I would lose it. I don’t think that anymore,” says Mr. Scott during a call from his studio in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s going to come down in its own time. So there’s a calmness to the way I work.”

Calmness is not idleness. “Good Luck, Seeker” is the fourth Waterboys album in five years and the 14th album in a career that has garnered the admiration of Bob Dylan, U2, The War on Drugs – and covers by Prince. Mr. Scott is the sole constant member of The Waterboys, which has had more lineup changes than any other band in rock history. At least 85 musicians have performed with the group over the decades. Its sound is often earthy but its spirit is celestial. Influenced by William Butler Yeats, C.S. Lewis, and Van Morrison, Mr. Scott has developed a reputation as one of rock’s true poets. His lyrics express open-hearted wonder as he explores existential questions. 

“As a lyricist he’s very heart-on-sleeve about his life,” says Ian Abrahams, author of the biography “Strange Boat: Mike Scott and The Waterboys.” “He’s really at the top of his game when he’s writing about himself, or maintaining a sense of anger at the mediocrity of this world, or where he’s embracing the work of writers he’s loved and building them into his sense of spirituality.”

Mr. Scott is that rare veteran artist whose sound hasn’t fossilized into a predictable style. The Waterboys have continually evolved, from post-punk anthems to rustic Celtic folk to guitar-lick rock ’n’ roll. “Good Luck, Seeker” touches on those earlier elements, weaving them into an R&B sound that’s as lush as velour. As for those hip-hop rhythms? Credit the influence of rap star Kendrick Lamar. 

“He uses all these found sounds and incidental sounds. It’s like listening to a movie for the ears,” says Mr. Scott, the sort of rock star who has the panache to wear crushed velvet jackets and cowboy hats. “It reminds me of the punk DIY days or, going back further, psychedelia with all the sound effects. ... I love creating like that.”

From habits, creativity

Asked about the conditions he favors to facilitate creativity, the Scottish songwriter points to a track on the new album titled “Beauty in Repetition.” It details how 19th-century philosopher William James, author of “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” followed an unchanging daily routine so that he could free up the higher parts of his mind. Similarly, Mr. Scott recalls explaining to a former girlfriend that his habitual activities, such as eating the same meals day after day, mean that he’s less preoccupied with banal decisions and can focus on creativity. 

Now that he’s become a father, those patterns require more flexibility. But the change has its benefits. “I’m constantly making up stories and songs for and with my kids. And that means my creative wheels are turning all the time,” he says. When the fount of inspiration flows, he needs a pen with a deep ink well. The recent single “The Soul Singer,” propelled by a horn section, features as many verses that made the final cut as didn’t. 

The second half of “Good Luck, Seeker” – a series of dramatic spoken-word pieces set to instrumental music – liberates Mr. Scott’s lyrics from the harnessed reigns of songwriting stricture. 

“It’s not that I feel the need to be free. I like working with verses and choruses and structures, and I like working with rhythm and rhyme. But the spoken word is a different kind of expression,” he says. “It has been a creative edge for me.”  

Mr. Scott’s enduring interest in poetry has inspired him to set poems by Robert Burns and George MacDonald to music. All the songs on “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” (2011) were composed from the words of Yeats. On the new album, spoken-word compositions such as “The Land of Sunset” showcase Mr. Scott’s own considerable wordsmithing in evoking a strong sense of place. Other pieces, “My Wanderings in the Weary Land” and “Everchanging,” continue the artist’s abiding tradition of metaphysical travelogues that chronicle a search for meaning and truth. 

“I discovered deeper spiritual literature, esoteric spiritual literature, and I realized that I could find what I sought in many places. And the grey church Christianity of my own culture was not the whole story,” he reflects.

“I’m gonna look twice at you”

Mr. Scott avoids the cynical outlook that’s often fashionable among his contemporaries. He expresses his disappointment that one of his original songwriting heroes has embraced the idea that man’s conscience is vile and depraved. By contrast, he looks for the good in people. In the 1995 song “Wonderful Disguise,” for instance, he describes seeing past the outward appearance and behavior of various individuals he encounters over the course of a day. In another song, “The Christ in You,” he sings a simple recurring refrain: “I’m gonna look twice at you / Until I see the Christ in you / When I’m lookin’ through the eyes of love.”

“The proof in the pudding is in the practice of it,” says Mr. Scott, who admits he finds it challenging when it comes to President Donald Trump. “Can I look at him and say ‘I’m going to look twice until I see the Christ in you?’ And I must try that and see what happens.”

Not one to stay still, Mr. Scott has already finished the next album. He reveals that it will be The Waterboys’ first conceptually themed record. Once again, the sound will be different.  

“Hearing Kendrick’s records about five years ago, when I got turned on to them, reminded me that you can do anything,” he says. “You can juxtapose anything. If it works and it feels good, there are no rules.” 

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