The Waterboys: All Souls Hill (2021) | featured image

The Waterboys’ Mike Scott on the Delightfully Strange ‘All Souls Hill’

The Waterboy’s songs are often deemed religious, neopagan, or spiritual. Mike Scott’s inspiration behind 2021’s All Souls Hill might be more earthy.

All Souls Hill
The Waterboys
Cooking Vinyl
17 November 2021

Scottish songwriter Mike Scott has been banding together with like-minded musicians from around the Atlantic Archipelago under the Waterboys banner since 1983. His latest collection of songs, All Souls Hill, draws on the Waterboys’ folk-rock sound but expands it into poppier, more structurally unique territory. From start to finish, it’s an engaging and explorative listen, and has been picking up rave reviews, with Mojo calling it “A multi-faceted and in turns amusing and affecting album.”

When I meet Mike on a video call, he is dressed in a cowboy hat and tells me that I sound distorted, like I’m “inside Keith Richards’ fuzz pedal”, while casually swinging from side to side in his chair. I apologize, fix my headset, and thank him for his time. Mike is speaking to me from his home in Dublin, where he took up residence after what was supposed to be a short visit; “I came to Dublin in the 1980s to stay for a few days with the band’s fiddler Steve [Wickham], but I liked being here so much that I ended up staying for years. It’s a city full of characters. Individuality is popular here. It’s a great place to write.” 

Dublin, and Ireland at large, of course, have a rich literary history. Four Nobel laureates in literature have emerged from the emerald isle, and young writers such as Sally Rooney and Megan Nolan are upholding Ireland’s presence at the echelons of the literary world. Why is Dublin such a breeding ground for artistic expression? “Dublin is where the Irish imagination meets the world. If I lived in other parts of Ireland, maybe in the West of Ireland, I would get the benefit of the Irish imagination, but I would be a bit out of the rest of the world. Sometimes there’s a call for that, and I’ve walked those roads. But as a working rock ‘n’ roll musician, I do like to be in the larger world as well. Dublin is where I can get both.”

Behind him I see a microphone, a guitar resting atop a piano, and a bookshelf – all elements of a home recording studio. He explains why he prefers working from home; “I can work any time I like, and I don’t have to look at the clock,” and “I love mixing. I love being in a position to change the sound and effect it and turn myself on. I worked with Bill Price, a recording engineer, who worked with Paul McCartney, and he said when McCartney is working, he’s at play, and I thought, ‘God, I know what he means.'”

“In the old days, when I’d be in recording studios, I’d be trying to be at play, but there’d be time pressures, or I’d be working with an engineer, and I’d have to filter everything through their musical consciousness. But when I’m working on my own in my own studio, I’m at play. It’s great.” 

Co-producer Simon Dine helped construct All Souls Hills via file sharing, with Scott telling me they worked; “Strictly by correspondence. He would send me a zip file of twenty one-minute-long instrumentals, and I’d play them, and maybe two of them would suggest melodies or an idea to me, and I’d turn them into a song. Technology allows us to work like that.” The album is impossible, he says, to sum up in one sentence.

Indeed, All Souls Hill is a delightfully strange album, and its thoughtful songs are played with gusto, unafraid of laying themself bare to the listener. There are fun moments, like in the disco-tinged “Blackberry Girl” and the single “Here We Go Again”, which use simple hooks and snappy production to work their way into your head. Then there are more introspective and philosophical numbers, like the stunning “In My Dreams”, which details Scott’s rich experiences with lucid dreaming. 

Is the dream world vital to his work and spiritual life? “I respect the information that comes through dreams, even though it’s completely subjective,” he says. “The only person who can interpret a dream is the dreamer. My dreams speak to me in a language that my subconscious understands. I go through phases of writing my dreams. I make sure I have a little voice recorder or pen and paper beside the bed. I’ve kept them as my old dream journals, and I used them as the source for the lyrics of [“In My Dreams”]. I fly in my dreams, and I meet the Rolling Stones, Mick, and Keith, almost every night.”

He’s never actually met the Rolling Stones. “I’ve met many of my favorites: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer,” he says. “I met Strummer when I was nineteen years old. It was easy to meet people in the punk days. The barrier between bands and audience had broken down.”

All Souls Hill, Scott is preparing for a short tour of the US this spring before a longer one in the fall; “We’re doing five shows in May, one in Franklin, Tennessee, and four in New York as a two-man show, me and our keyboard player.” Does he enjoy playing live? “Yeah, of course. What’s not to like? I’m going on a stage with my mates playing music.”

“But isn’t it stressful?” I ask, imagining what a full touring schedule and the pressure to perform must feel like. “There are stresses to it, but that’s my job. I have to deal with the stress. The stress doesn’t outweigh the pleasures. I’ve seen a lot of my studio over the last couple of years, so I’m very eager to walk out onto a stage.”

It seems it feels good to be on the road again. The pandemic shutdown was difficult for Scott and his family. “My wife is Japanese, and we have a five-year-old son. They went to Japan on a family holiday, just as the lockdown started. They’re still there. I’ve just come back. I’ve been there several times since international travel opened up again. But a year and a half not seeing my wife and my little boy was tough.” 

In today’s market, musicians are expected to be both entertainers and social media personalities. “I don’t think of myself as a social media personality, but I do enjoy Twitter. It’s useful for posting about concerts and musical things. And I have a lot of conversations with people about music. I also like sharing my views, and I do that almost every day.” 

“Do you ever find that Twitter can be toxic?” I ask. Scott takes a moment to think before replying, “Twitter is like a mirror of the world. There’s good and bad on Twitter, just like there is in the world. But certainly, the ability to post anonymously gives a lot of cowardly, stupid people the courage to talk shite. But I like a good bit of sport, and baiting right-wingers or telling them to go and suck their c*ck in their corner is good sport.”

“I’m from Scotland. In Scotland, we don’t put up with crap,” he says. “I’m not a physical fighter, but in Scotland, people say what they think, and they will use colorful language to do so.”

Scottland and Ireland’s history and culture share an inextricable Celtic connection. “There are many similarities, we’re very closely related, they’re brother and sister countries. But the consciousness of Scotland is spikier. I can think of lots of Scottish people who would tell a right-winger to suck his c*ck, but I can’t think of any Irishman who would do so. Are you Irish, Jay?” he asks me, picking up on my accent. 

When I share my remote location in Ireland with him, he is surprised; “You’re out beyond the beyond.”

Again, Scott draws inspiration from around the globe, and his familial connection to Japan is represented in his books, abundantly collected on a shelf behind him. “These on this shelf are all art books. They are to get ideas for record covers and so on. A lot of them are Japanese. They do these beautiful books. Old fairytale illustrations in black and white,” he says, spreading open one of the books to show me its detailed illustrations. “I’m working on a box set and book package for an old Waterboys album, and I want to make the package all black and white, so I got this to give me ideas.”

Japan, he says, is “a great place to buy bootlegs. There’s this part of Tokyo called Nishi-Shinjuku, and there are a number of bootleg record shops just in this area, and I got some interesting bootlegs there. I got this for my daughter,” he holds up a bootleg of Taylor Swift’s Red Tour to the screen, “I love Taylor Swift’s music. And I got one of my favorites, Leon Russel, live at the Eagle’s auditorium Seattle. That’s some of my booty from Tokyo.” 

Throughout his career, people have variably referred to Scott’s songs as religious, neopagan, or spiritual. Indeed, All Souls Hill is full of spiritual and religious imagery. “The bible is the mainstream spiritual literature of our culture, it is full of symbolism that everybody understands, and I’ve used that symbolism, but that doesn’t make me a Christian. I disagree with Christianity about many things, and I’m not Catholic or Protestant. But I will use its storehouse of imagery.” 

On whether or not he follows the “Spiritual but not religious” mantra, he offers; “I think everybody’s spiritual, but certainly, I’ve lived in a spiritual community in Findhorn in Scotland for some years. It was founded in the early ’60s, not by hippies, this is in the pre-hippie era but by three people. It became a community, and the premise is that your teacher or your guru is within yourself. That’s spiritual wisdom I can go along with.”