Mike Scott of the Waterboys: how we made The Whole of the Moon

‘My girlfriend asked “Is it easy to write songs?” There was a moon, so I pulled out a pen and wrote “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon”’

Mike Scott, singer-songwriter

I was in Manhattan with my girlfriend, Krista. She asked: “Is it easy to write songs?” In my 20s I hadn’t yet grown out of the urge to show off to a new girlfriend, so I said: “Yes it is!” I pulled a pen and a piece of paper out of my pocket. There was a moon in the sky, so I wrote down: “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.” She was duly impressed. I fleshed it out in the hotel and back home in London came up with more lyrics and the piano part, a self-taught rhythm with one finger doing one pattern and three fingers doing another.

The Whole of the Moon is about someone like CS Lewis, who seemed to see so much and explore issues much more deeply than most people, or it could be about a Jimi Hendrix-type person who comes “like a comet, blazing your trail” and is gone too soon, but it’s not specifically about anyone. Contrary to speculation, it’s not about Swell Maps’ singer-songwriter Nikki Sudden, who I used to know and worked with. There was a message I wrote on the record’s label saying, “For Prince, U saw the whole of the moon” but it’s not about Prince, although he covered it twice, with different arrangements. I wrote the greeting because Karl Wallinger [keyboards] and I thought a lot about Prince when we created the sound of the record, in Livingstone studios in north London.

Karl played bass on his synth – a brilliant sound – and did some backing vocals. For the top line synth, I asked him to play something like Prince’s 1999, and he made it his own as he always did. Another four-note sliding melody was influenced by Prince’s Paisley Park.

I recorded the piano and vocal live over the drum machine. The next things that went on were the trumpets. I wanted them to have the impact of the flugelhorns in [the Beatles’] Penny Lane, like sunlight bursting through clouds. Roddy Lorimer came up with parts for two trumpets and two piccolo trumpets. Then Roddy’s trumpet comes back in the “unicorns and cannonballs” section with this fantastic melody. A percussion cat, Martin Ditcham, came in with a bag of weird stuff that he rubbed together or shook – that “click” sound in the first few seconds is him. Karl and I each play a “crump” – where you put an elbow or fist low down on the keyboard. One kicks off the trumpet solo and there’s another at the climax. Golden moments.

The coup de grace was for the line: “Came like a comet.” We put a firework noise from a sound effects disc through an echo machine, so Anto Thistlethwaite’s fantastic sax solo erupts from the explosion. I’d laid down the groove on a drum machine, but it missed drum fills, so Chris Whitten drummed on the finished record on the day it was mixed in Liverpool’s Amazon studios with Mick Glossop. By then I was thinking: “The whole world’s going to love this.”

Max Edie, backing vocals

‘An inspiring feeling’ … Max Edie.
‘An inspiring feeling’ … Max Edie. Photograph: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

I grew up in Melbourne; in my early 20s London was my great escape. Everyone I met seemed to be an artist or musician. I answered an ad in Melody Maker to join a band, and the bass player was sharing a flat with Anto from the Waterboys.

Everyone was always jamming or playing or singing on other people’s stuff. I’d have these incredible long talks with Mike and then go back and write furiously. It was a very inspiring friendship. When he asked if I wanted to do some backing vocals, I soon realised the song was something special.

I was quite nervous, but Mike set me up in a dark corner so I wouldn’t be distracted. He wrote all his lyrics in this huge black Book of Shadows that he’d bought from an magic shop, but the writing was really tiny and difficult to read in the dark. I was terrified of singing the wrong thing, so I asked if I could write the lyrics out bigger.

Mike’s song The Girl in the Swing had a special meaning for him, I think to do with innocence. For The Whole of the Moon, he told me, “Imagine you’re a really carefree, very young girl” – six or seven or something. I could really get into that spirit of wild, free sweetness and just sang what came out naturally. I think in one take. Mike said that writing songs was a form of magic, and whenever I hear it I feel a rush of that exciting, inspiring feeling that we had.

  • The Waterboys’ 14th album, Good Luck, Seeker, is released on 21 August via Cooking Vinyl.

  • This article was corrected on 28 July 2020. The line is “unicorns and cannonballs”, not “popcorns and cannonballs”.

Contributor

Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Waterboys review – breathless, hair-prickling Big Music
Pan-Celtic post-punk returns with a dash of tambourines and a swirl of mysticism as Mike Scott leads his genre-hopping crew

Malcolm Jack

10, Sep, 2019 @9:23 AM

Article image
How we made Air's Moon Safari
‘Before we came along, French pop was synonymous with Sacha Distel. I hated it’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

31, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Spiller: how we made Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)
The dance classic was the first song ever to be played on an iPod. But, as its creators reveal, the demo was left in a car – then tossed on to a floor and forgotten

Interviews by Elizabeth Aubrey

08, Sep, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Why Mike Scott is Richard Curtis's idol

For almost 30 years, screenwriter Richard Curtis has worshipped Mike Scott of the Waterboys. He has read out his lyrics at funerals, he plays This Is The Sea to feel restored – and he cries every time he hears The Whole of The Moon

Richard Curtis

06, Sep, 2011 @8:30 PM

Discuss the new Waterboys album with Mike Scott

Listen to the Waterboys' An Appointment with Mr Yeats and read Mike Scott's track-by-track guide. Better still, the man himself will discuss it in the comments section from 3pm today ...

Mike Scott

16, Sep, 2011 @12:17 PM

Article image
How we made the Face
‘Our office was damp with flooding. An intern turned up in a purple velvet Jean Paul Gaultier suit and was so disappointed he left after a week’

Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snoad

11, Jul, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
How we made Space Ibiza
‘If you wanted to have sex in the middle of the club, you could. No one cared’

Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

28, Jun, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
How we made TLC's Waterfalls
‘A man held my hand and said: I didn’t kill myself because of you’

Interviews by Jenny Stevens

15, May, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Hanson: how we made MMMBop
‘Taylor’s voice was breaking as we were recording. We got a vocal coach in and tried to catch him on a good day. But in the end, we cheated and slowed the tape down’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

24, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Eurythmics: how we made Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
‘We put a cow in the video, to signify reality. It peed everywhere’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

11, Dec, 2017 @6:47 PM