- 16 Jan 13
Critics have hailed Van Morrison‘s new album as his finest in years. In a rare interview, Hot Press talks to him about the creative process – and why he’s as excited about music today as at any time in the past.
“Singing is my profession – there is no plan B,” says Van Morrison, explaining the title of his new album. “When I heard ‘Goodnight Irene’ by Leadbelly, with Sonny Terry on harmonica, that was it. Everything else went out the window.”
This sense of absolute conviction, which has defined Morrison’s revolutionary work for almost fifty years, runs throughout Born To Sing: No Plan B, his 35th studio album as a solo artist. Morrison’s career – which has seen him honoured with a Brit Award, an OBE, an Ivor Novello, six Grammys, honorary doctorates from Queens and the University of Ulster, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the French Ordres Des Artes Et Des Lettres – has done nothing less than redefine the possibilities of pop music. The ten original songs on Born To Sing, his first new album in four years (the longest he has ever gone between recordings), reveal an artist continuing to test his creative parameters.
When Don Was (Grammy-winning producer of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and many more) took over the reins as president at the legendary record label Blue Note earlier this year, one of his first decisions was to sign Van Morrison. With this album complete, Was identifies closely with the central theme.
“The idea of being ‘born to sing’ is a concept that I think all musicians can relate to,” he says. “I kinda feel the same way. In my own case, I think it was as much an aversion to lifting heavy boxes – you play music, you don’t work music. And there is no back-up. I think that’s essential.”
Recently, Morrison sat down in Belfast with Was – who also interviewed The Rolling Stones for Hot Press, back in August 1994 – for a very rare interview, in which they spoke about the album, Morrison’s storied career, and the mystic possibilities of music. At age 67, the singer is as singular and as defiant as ever.
“I know who I am,” he says. “I know what I’ve done, I know what I’m doing, so I don’t have to buy into other people’s baggage. I know what’s going on, I know what the game is, I know where I fit, I know where I don’t fit. I know all this.”
Was: When did you first feel like you were ‘born to sing?’
Morrison: When I was a kid, I was singing in the pram, apparently. But I didn’t really know – when I was at school, I wanted to be a vet. Actually, one of the teachers said I was going to be a singer. One day he was going ‘round the class and he said, “This guy at the back is going to be a singer.”
And I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah. You’re going to be a singer.”
My first gig in school was a skiffle group – a couple of guitars, washboard, tea-chest bass – but I’d already been doing gigs before that, youth club gigs. By the time I left school, I was already playing in bands, so I think I knew when I was about 15. First it was skiffle groups, and then there was what you call rock ‘n’ roll groups, but not what they call “rock” nowadays, that didn’t exist. When we went to Germany it was seven sets a night, and nine on weekends, no days off. So it’s about fifty-five gigs a week.
You must pick up skills, as far as communicating with an audience, by playing that much.
That’s why I never bought into the “pop” mythology, because when you’ve done that, it’s like boot camp training. I came back and started the R&B Club at the Maritime Hotel. We were asked to do a TV show and I thought, “Nah, I can’t do this, it’s too phony.” And a lot of these TV shows wanted people to mime. I said, “Why?,” and they said, “Oh, well, some of these people have to mime ‘cos they can’t play it live.” I just came out of Germany where you had to play live, in your face, all the time, from eight to three in the morning!
So I never bought that whole pop thing, and I still don’t, ‘cos after you’ve done that kind of boot camp, you’re not impressed by any of this ‘star’ stuff. I mean, they just look like idiots to me, all these so-called people who are stars just look
Do you remember it fondly, playing seven sets a night?
It was hard! I’m not saying it was easy, but that’s how I learned to do what I do. If I hadn’t done that, I would not have been able to keep it going, I wouldn’t have been able to have the stamina.
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing you play over many decades and you never feel like you’re on auto-pilot to me.
You learn to read the audiences after a while, and there are all different kinds of gigs. When I started, it was dances, really. I remember the first time I played a concert was somewhere in New York and I was totally freaked out, ‘cos I looked out and all these people were sitting, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. For a long time, I couldn’t actually deal with playing concerts, it was a totally alien concept to me, ‘cos I was used to playing in clubs and dance halls.
At what point did you start to become conscious of the sort of transcendental nature of music, that it could have a deeper impact
My father had Mahalia Jackson records, and when I heard Mahalia Jackson sing, it was like wow! They weren’t using the word “spiritual” then, it was gospel, but it wasn’t the gospel I was hearing in Sunday School. I realised, this is coming from somewhere else completely, y’know? So that’s when I first became aware of it.
And then, after that it was soul and Ray Charles and all that. When we were in Germany, there were a lot of GI’s. There was this tiny record player at the hotel, and some black GI’s brought these 45s in and they played this Bobby Bland thing – ‘Stormy Monday’, the B-side was ‘Your Friends’. And something happened. It was the same as the Mahalia Jackson thing, only it was different, because I felt like it was actually happening to me – whatever you want to call it, a spiritual experience or whatever. That’s when it started, but it was a gradual thing to actually get it in the performance. It took until the ‘70s until I had the right musicians to do what I wanted to do.
Which record was that?
The record was Moondance, but the live thing was much different than the record. The record was three- or four-minute songs, but the actual performances were much more stretched out, there was more going on – more, like what you say, transcendent. I had a band of musicians who got what I was doing. It just sort of clicked, because to me it was my version of gospel, but it wasn’t about Jesus. It was my version of what that Bobby
Bland and that Solomon Burke thing would translate into.
What do you think it is in humans that responds to that?
I think it’s another level. I don’t know what it’s called, nobody can really name it. I can hear, say, Mahalia Jackson, and she’s singing about Jesus, but it doesn’t really have to be about Jesus. It has to pre-date all that, anyway, y’know what I’m saying? I’ve had a similar experience sitting in the middle of a Free Church in Stornoway, so that pre-dates any of the other stuff.
I love that you’ve always addressed that – a song like ‘Into The Mystic’, it’s the post-conversational emotional exchange, it’s using something mystical…
See, ‘mystical’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘religious’. But if you start getting into words, it’s a problem, ‘cos one person says mystical is that, the other person says this, different versions depending on what book you’re reading at the time. But then it all becomes just words – it’s like “spiritual,” that becomes New Age. No, it’s not. That’s why I think you find it more in other cultures, in what they call Shamanism, where they have people that can go into these altered states. That’s pretty much died out with modern culture, but there still are some practicing Shamans in places like Tibet.
Aristotle said something along the lines of musicians using a tonal reality to give you a deeper understanding of what’s going on, a level beyond verbal communication. You’ve addressed it in songs like ‘Caravan’ or ‘Wavelength’, where you’ve used the radio wave as a metaphor.
I always end up dealing with – if you break it all down, it’s about energy, because the words keep changing all the time. I mean, ‘R&B’ doesn’t mean what ‘R&B’ used to mean, for instance. ‘Soul’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Words keep changing all the time, even in religious organisations.
But now it’s all just to entertain people, and keep them preoccupied with stuff like reality TV, which is people in a room ‘acting’ like it’s real, keeping everybody distracted so they don’t really know who they are, so they can’t even stop to think, “Who am I? What is it I’m feeling?” Everything is distraction, selling clothes and cars and all that. I think it’s a way of keeping the population under control – keep them preoccupied all the time.
On this album you address a lot of these themes. In ‘Mystic Of The East’, he can’t speak, he’s disgruntled, he’s had it up to here with the world. I found that curious. Are you the Mystic of the East?
‘East’ meaning East Belfast. But when you’ve had a conspiracy against you, then you can’t speak, because nothing that you say will be even taken on board. If the media wants to bring somebody down, which is what they were trying to do to me at the time, you can’t fight that ‘cos it’s too big. So that’s what that’s about.
A buddy of mine was talking about Bob Dylan and he said that he thinks that Bob’s addressing himself in most of his songs, he’s talking to himself about himself. Do you do that?
I don’t do it consciously. When I say ‘you’, I’m talking about somebody else, I’m not talking about me. But other times when I say ‘you’, I am. So it’s not clearly defined. But all the songs aren’t about me. Some of them, parts are about me. They’re mainly concepts, ideas, and sometimes about other people or things I’ve read.
If you follow the sequence of the album, I see a real dramatic curve where you’re fed up with greed, fed up with entitlement, and the mystic has got nothing to say. But then in searching for something, you go into retreat, and withdraw a little bit.
Yeah, it depends how hard you wanna go. When you’re famous, then you automatically become what they call a ‘mark,’ a target for grifters. And the world is full of grifters, and the music business attracts grifters. You get hustled by people, and you need to have eyes in the back of your head. So that’s what some of the songs are about.
And some of the songs are about money! Let’s just tell it like it is. It’s just observation, it’s just what’s around you on the most mundane level. If you turn on the box you get it, if you turn on the radio you get it. It’s money, money, money, money for several years now, non-stop.
I found it curious that to seek some peace you were ‘Going Down to Monte Carlo’, when normally you’d expect to hear someplace like Clarksdale.
I’ve been in Monte Carlo a few times and I like the place. It’s got a nice vibe, I think. It’s wintertime here, it’s not there, so usually it’s warmer for a start!
But also, the songs are just, like, windows. It isn’t actual reality. Some guy was asking me about saying “phony state of jazz” (in the song ‘tktktk’). That’s just a line I put in. It just seemed to fit the song – this guy who’s sitting in a restaurant and he’s hearing stuff and it’s not real jazz, and I stuck that in. There’s stuff that you put in songs, they used to call it poetic license, but those two words seem to have disappeared from the vocabulary. That’s what they called it back in the day.
My favorite line is in ‘Born To Sing’ – ‘When the band starts to swing/you know everything’, and I thought that’s the key line of the song.
Yeah, that’s right. ‘Cos then you know what you are. That’s all you need to know.