Joe Scarborough Talks His Trump-Inspired Songs & Awkward Meeting With Paul McCartney

Miller Hawkins
Joe Scarborough

As the longtime host of his namesake MSNBC show Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and a colorful cast (which includes wife Mika Brzezinski) extrapolate the day's news, which lately has been bogged down in a tangled web of political controversies.

Over time, Scarborough has learned to funnel his headline stress into a passion for songwriting and performing, which he dove into during a "life's too short" moment when he turned 50 in 2013. Since then, he's written hundreds of songs and released a variety of tracks both under the name Scarborough and, lately, The Independent Counsel of Funk. The latest is "Blue Dawn," a gospel influenced wake-up anthem he wrote and produced that boasts a wild music video which playfully features Scarborough's Morning Joe having anything but a good AM.    

Scarborough spoke to Billboard about the genesis of the song, the politics of music and how President Trump has begrudgingly become a muse. "It's been really tumultuous and I think that (times like these) inspire songwriting."

How are you doing?

I'm doing well. Other than the craziness in the world, all going very well.

Well, this will be a nice opportunity to not even think about that. There's the craziness in the world and there's music -- and it is cathartic.

Yeah, it really is. It's so interesting; as I get older, the music means more to me and it seems, oddly enough, even though I've been in politics and talking about politics on TV for so long, I actually see myself as a musician first. When I'm in the studio, it's like I'm escaping. It's my version of a weekend away golfing. Music is what drives me and it's how I judge myself. If I'm writing and recording songs and if I'm in the middle of projects that move me and I'm feeling good about myself, I think that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do with my talents.

On particularly heavy news days, like we've had as of late, when you get home do you start writing and pick up the guitar immediately to shake it off? Is there a direct line?

There used to be a direct line to my amount of stress and the music, but now because I've cleared the decks and because music means so much to me, I always pick up an acoustic guitar and try to write the next song. Every day I'm picking up the guitar. It's just such a part of my life, it doesn't matter what's going on in the news or at work, I'm always going to be either writing or working on something.

I hear your new song and video for "Blue Dawn" was, in a strange way, was inspired by CNN's morning show New Day. Is that true?

It is. I don't know if you remember, when CNN launched their new show it was going to be their response to Morning Joe and they just openly said it. The hosts that were on before New Day was launched, they would say, "I'm now going to be reporting the news without a tie…" and they'd sit there and explain how they would be spontaneous in the most calculated of ways. Meanwhile (the reason why I never wore a suit) is I would wake up at 4am and say, "There's no way I'm wearing a suit." So they spent millions of dollars in promotions and they'd have the hosts sit there and talk about how wonderfully sunny things were and how they got along and they would be joking with each other. I just looked at it and thought, what if we went the other way and I wrote a song for a Morning Joe promo and it'd be as dark as theirs is chirpy. That's where the idea came from. I actually did a demo of it and I thought, "I'm way too white to do this song." (Laughs). I had grown up in garage bands and I always tried to sound like The Clash or Elvis Costello and it was always three guitars and a drum set. But with this song I said, "Wait a second, if we're going to do this right, let's get a great blues singer and guitarist and start with a gospel prayer at the top." It was the first time in my life that I thought that not only did I not have to sing the song, but I could do what I really love doing which is writing and arranging and producing. It was a total blast for me.

You once said, "It's one of the great tragedies of my political life that Democrats get all of the great musicians." Why do you think it is that the Democrats have people like Springsteen, and Republicans have people like Kid Rock and Mike Huckabee?

You know, I've thought about this a lot. I must say that at the end of the day, it probably would have been a buzzkill if the Beatles had played Goldwater's convention in '64. It's just the way it is. I never quite understood that every single great artist that I loved was a Democrat. But they just are. I'm an Independent now, so I'm a little closer to them.

You famously switched parties from Republican to Independent in July 2017. So, tell us: was part of the reason why you changed parties was that most good musicians are Democrats?

That's an added benefit, I must say. But it was all Donald Trump and the Republican Party's failure to stand up to the guy that did it. But it would have helped when I met my idol had I already made the move from Republican to Independent. Paul McCartney was the only person I ever met in my entire life where I was so nervous going into the room that I almost turned around and walked away. I've met presidents, prime ministers and movie stars, but for McCartney, the guy was my idol. So I walk into the room and I'm so nervous, and somebody shouted from the back as we're getting our picture taken: "Hey! He's a Republican!" McCartney freezes, the whole room freezes and I'm just like, "Oh, shit." If only he would have shouted out, "Hey, he's an Independent," maybe that chance meeting would have gone better.

Which president was the best musician? I'm thinking of Bill Clinton on the sax, Nixon was a piano player, Obama's a singer, he has a great voice.

You know, I can't think of anybody. So just based on the people you mentioned, I will just say, though he's not a musician, Obama singing "Amazing Grace" in that South Carolina church was an extraordinarily moving moment. It was transcendent. He'd get my vote on that performance.

And who knew there'd be a better presidential music moment than Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio? That was the most memorable in that category for so long.

Yeah, it was a whole new level. The Clinton moment on Arsenio was certainly iconic with politics and pop culture colliding, but there's no doubt that Barack Obama singing this 300-year-old song with this beautiful, simple melody and beautiful simple message, stripped down. It was everything that music is supposed to be.

You've written hundreds of songs. I'm wondering how many have been inspired by President Trump, if any?

Well. I will say… I hate to admit it, but quite a few. I say I hate to admit it, because I hate to give him credit for anything. But it's been really tumultuous and I think that (times like these) inspire songwriting. Like my song "Lift Me Up," which we released in July on Spotify and Apple and everything else. When I play shows, we have a lot of the same people coming. So we'll sit and talk and everybody always asks, "Are we going to be okay?" So I actually sat down and wrote "Lift Me Up" which answers the question of "Are we going to be okay?" As I started writing the song, I realized it was spiritual and I needed a choir, so by the end we had one from Harlem come up and we sang the song. So that was inspired by the trials the country is going through right now. There's another song I wrote called "Stand" in 2017 that was an acoustic song inspired by Trump.

Do you see music live a lot?

No, I really don't unfortunately and because I have four kids, I try to get to bed by 9 or 9:30 and wake up at 4:30. My goal for the new year is actually to get out and do a lot more concerts. I do enjoy playing at the (New York City venue) The Cutting Room, but lately we started playing at the Upper West Side bar Prohibition. I started doing acoustic sets a lot more, though. In the beginning I'd try to play all original songs, but now I get up, have fun, tell stories and if I feel like doing three or four Beatles sing-alongs, I will. I actually just broke out a "Yellow Submarine" cover a month or two ago and I never played that song. When I get up and play, I have a good time.

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