Van Morrison talks about the new album, ‘Keep Me Singing’. Interview by BBC Radio Ulster’s Ralph McLean – August 2016.
Tell us about the origins of “Keep Me Singing”? How long back are we talking for the songs?
Well it’s about keeping the work interesting for me, who’s doing it. The work’s not enough after a while. One has to make it interesting for one’s self, well I do anyway to keep doing it you know because if it’s not interesting then I don’t want to do it. You’re competing against yourself like I think and trying to make it interesting for one’s self.
So the songs on the album, how far back are we talking? How long have you had these songs? Are they fairly recent?
Well some of them are fairly recent and some of them are older. I guess the most recent was “Memory Lane”, which I wrote on the way to the studio. I wrote that last year, November it was. So that’s the most recent. “Let It Rhyme” was around the same time period. “Every Time I See A River” that’s recent. The other songs are over various periods of time. Some of them are older, some of them are like two years, some of them are one year, some of them are older than that. I can’t keep track.
I think “Memory Lane” is a central track. There’s a poignancy in it, a world weariness, which I think is part of the album’s feel as well.
Well it’s basically just a story that was running through my head that day. So I just pulled the car over and wrote it down and then I put the melody to it when I got to the studio. As to what it’s about, I myself am wondering. I think it’s about asking some strangers is this the place that was once called Memory Lane. You know, changes your perception of the past and looking at site places now, which are obviously going to be different. For instance, you go and look at a place that you remember from way back and all of a sudden, it’s either not there or it’s been replaced by something else, so I think that’s what it’s about. To me, it’s like a black and white movie kind of thing. It’s getting dark on Memory Lane.
Does it sadden you, the changes that you’ve seen?
Well I think yeah on a kind of musical level yeah, I think it’s much more oriented to pop music. I don’t think I could have done what I did when I started out south the R’n’B Club. I mean I don’t think that could be done nowadays. There was a whole different time period with different values, different rules. There wasn’t as much going on, you didn’t have the future shock of a thousand albums a month or whatever it is now. Do you know what I mean? And there was space to do things in experiment. That’s obviously happening a different way now.
People don’t have time anymore do they?
That’s right I mean… I remember John Lee Hooker sang that in the 70s that in ten years’ time, nobody’s got time for anyone else and that was in the 70s he said that so now it’s like really really speeded up.
Like the whole recording thing is totally changed, because it’s more long winded now recording an album, putting an album together. It’s much more complicated now. The kind of new kids on the block, they don’t relate to how everything was done live and all that. I mean, they’re kind of scared of that because you didn’t have all these things like “Oh it’s ok, we’ll overdub that”, where now somebody mixing it a mistake or plays a wrong chord or wrong note it’s like “yeah we can do that again.” So the whole thing to me is very boring, in the early days it was much more exciting, it was like all fresh, it was happening now. Everything was happening in present time including the recording.
So you recorded and then you forgot about it and you went on and did gigs. There was no such thing as mixing because it all went on one tape so there was no mixing involved. Now, like the mixing takes longer than the whole recording process. The mixing is about three times as long as recording it. You talk about James Brown, at one point, James Brown was putting out about six albums a year. That couldn’t be done now and at least two of those were instrumental albums, right? That could never be done now, it would just be impossible. To get one out in a couple of years… maybe…
It’s four years since “Born To Sing”. In terms of getting this together, when did you feel you had this album together?
Well not until the beginning of this year really. The gigs seem to be the easiest part now because it is what it is. It’s in present time, you do the gig, you pack up and you’re gone, you go on to the next one. It’s like instant communication and it’s all about communication. Whereas now, the recording process it’s not about communication, it’s about technical stuff. It’s not about communicating anymore.
You can’t keep yourself away from it because the bottom line is me, it all comes back to me. But anyway, it’s boring even talking about it, but no I have to make the final decision is me, whether that’s mixing or whatever it might be in the studio, arrangements or whatever. The final thing is up to me, because it’s my name on there so there’s no way of getting away from that, but the thing is what I’m talking about is the process is completely devoid of any kind of semblance of what it should be and what it was back in the olden days. Like I said, I couldn’t do what I did then, it wouldn’t be accepted now. That’s why people get fed up in this business I’m in. A lot of people just get enough money and then they retire. I still need to play music and I can do that live, I don’t really need to keep recording if it’s this boring.
So the live arena is where you’re most comfortable still?
Well it’s not where I’m most comfortable, it’s where it’s real. I mean it’s never comfortable because it’s always a job and every gig is different and you have to know which audience you’re dealing with and different kinds of gigs, festivals and theatres, but it’s real you know playing live is real. Whereas the whole process of making a record, getting a deal, putting it out, for somebody who has been in it as long as me, it’s not interesting. It never was that interesting, but it’s even kind of less now. As far as metaphors, jazz as opposed to rock, that’s what I keep saying but you know most of the time it just falls on deaf ears. You know they think it’s oh I’m being funny or something… you know… I’m not.
“Every Time I See A River” written with Don Black, brilliant lyricist. How did you come to know Don and work with Don - and want to work with Don?
Well I met him, I met him at the BMI Awards several years ago and we just became friends. We just started talking about songs, you know and songwriters and he knows a lot about…tremendous knowledge about songwriters and we get together and have lunch and talk about song writing and I said you know if you have any ideas, get them to me. He had a couple of things, that was one of them and then he wrote most of the lyrics and I added some and did the music. So that’s how it came about.
What about the writing process for you Van, how has it changed?
Now I just kind of do it in between life, do you know what I mean now? It’s just when I get enough space.
“Share Your Love With Me” is the only non-original on “Keep Me Singing” Van and it’s a song that’s been covered by many people.
I recorded that for a Bobby Bland tribute that never happened. They couldn’t get it together so I just put it on my album.
What appealed about that particular song, what appealed about “Share Your Love With Me”?
I’ve always loved the song, I always liked it from way back then when I first heard it.
The single “Too Late” which is on “Keep Me Singing” as well, what can you tell me about “Too Late” as a track?
Well that was… the song was written a while ago, I can’t remember. I only got around to recording it now, I’d actually forgotten about the song. I came across it in a notebook and I thought well, what happened to this one, I never recorded it. Years ago, I used to be more focused on writing and in fact I used a typewriter, an old typewriter, but since I’ve been moving around too much in the last decade or something, I’ve lost track of my typewriter and I lost track of that discipline.
“Keep Me Singing” the title track is a kind of joyous thing Van.
Well yeah that’s about people who knew me before I was famous and there’s less and less of them now. So, it’s good to see people who knew me before I was famous because they relate to me a completely whole different way which is more real, realistic, quite different that people who relate to me after I was famous. I don’t buy into the fame thing but unfortunately, everybody else does.
What’s the magic of Sam Cooke?
Well he’s still inspiring and he’s still an influence and have you found anything better? I haven’t, do you know what I mean. I haven’t found anything better yet or with that kind of edge.
Let’s talk more about the album and I particularly love “In Tiburon”. I love the fact that it’s again something that you turned to quite a bit, that era of The Beats. Of Chet Baker and The Beats….. And Jack Kerouac, but it’s a beautiful little picture, it’s a gorgeous little picture so tell me the background…..
That era really influenced me although I mean it was before my time which I have to point out, I wasn’t around it. The closest I got to it was (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti, I met Ferlinghetti a couple of times and had quite good talks with him and I met Ginsberg several times also and Vince Guaraldi oddly enough. Vince Guaraldi did some gigs with me actually. He was really an excellent jazz player, that’s really what he did. He did the cartoon stuff to get royalty cheques so he could play jazz. And I’d always been a fan of Lenny Bruce and that whole thing was where Lenny got busted at the Hungry i, which is still there beside The Beat Museum and across the street from City Lights. The area is still pretty much intact. I don’t think that’s changed as far as Memory Lane goes, it’s probably still the same.
What is it about The Beats, what was it about The Beats that sparked something in you then?
It was reading “On The Road” and “Dharma Bums” by Kerouac. It was reading those, being in the now, I think that’s what Kerouac was…. Could do that with writing. Well it just had a great influence on me.
It’s a beautiful song, it creates a beautiful little picture…
That sound started out in a weird way because a long time ago, it was actually in the 70s, I looked at this…I was in this house and it was overlooking the bay. The lady of the house wasn’t there, there was kind of a helper there, assistant guy and he was talking about the house. It was like a great place overlooking the bay and he was saying: yeah in the evening she just sits here and looks out on the bay and she plays your music and nobody can touch her. I thought well this is a song… this has to be a song. But it didn’t come out until.. I mean that was in the 70s, I thought there’s some song here. So that kind of... I remembered that whole thing and then I thought well this is a take-off for a song an then it became about The Beat generation.
Tell me about the voice Van, even Sinatra was very keen on techniques and finding ways to strengthen the voice. Do you do anything because you still have a phenomenal….
I do it live. You see I’m always stretching it out live, I’m always reaching for it live and I’m always… I think my voice is getting better in a lot of ways you know, the more I sing.
You feel that yourself? In what way, it’s getting more expressive?
Well it sounds better, it’s sounding better.
Yeah well I’m basically doing them all you know in the now because obviously they don’t….something I wrote when I was 20, I mean is not going to have any relation to me now. Those songs weren’t really worked until much later on and you know that’s what I like about live now, is working the material. For instance, take Moondance, I mean Moondance is now a take-off for featuring the band really. Stretching out, the emphasis is more on the music than the lyrics, I just wrote those lyrics because I thought: well this works. Five years before that, it had been an instrumental that I’d put words to anyway. So that’s a whole new meaning now because it’s a chance to stretch out musically really. It’s a vehicle for that now.
What’s your feeling on Astral Weeks now. It’ll have a significant birthday in a couple of years. It’s an album that hasn’t been worked too much live in its entirety. You’ve done it in its entirety in the past, would you reconsider returning to something like Astral Weeks at any point in the future as a body of work, as a stand-alone piece?
Well I think I did do that, it worked to a certain degree but again I can’t really relate to the songs, because I was just a kid. I mean I wrote those songs between ‘66 and ‘68, I mean I wasn’t even 20. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the world you know. I was just doing what I thought I should be doing then and it was very idealistic.
For instance, Young Lovers is a good example too because that’s again a jazz feature. You know somebody’s like… well this is… you can frame this into a jazz setting and you can… all these guys like to play that kind of stuff and it works. And Ballerina, that works too.
You mention Moondance originally being an instrumental Van and “Keep Me Singing” closes on “Caledonia Swing” so tell me about that piece and the origins of that.
It’s Caledonia as opposed to Celtic Swing, which I’ve already done, I’ve already done Celtic Swing so can’t do that again. It was called Lester Scott Swing originally, but it’s interchangeable with Caledonia Swing you know, but it’s just different that Celtic Swing, slightly different.
When you’re formatting an album, you’re really working on where tracks go. Do you want it to close on an instrumental?
It was just shuffled that way.
I know sometimes in the past and I remember it Lit Up Inside, one of those Lit Up Inside nights, you were talking about a song like “Tore Down A La Rimbaud” which took 8 years or something like that to complete. What about the songs on “Keep Me Singing”, any troublesome ones, any ones that you kept coming back to or where they fairly quick in their completion?
They were all fairly quick… yeah.
We come on to “Going Down To Bangor”. What did you want to achieve with “Going Down To Bangor”? It’s a great tune - I think it’s a song which changes the mood in the album a bit, but I like it a lot.
Well I wasn’t trying to achieve anything, it’s just what came out. Just these ideas came out and it was fun. You know getting to Napoleon’s Nose, which somebody asked me the other day what that was.. I thought everybody knew what Napoleon’s Nose was.
I hope you stayed mysterious with them, don’t give away….don’t tell them.
It’s on the way to the airport, if you’re going to the international airport, go and have a look. It’s all there.
“The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword, it has an almost spiritual vibe to it as well in the repetition of it. That expression, there’s a line where you change it to “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Law”?
It can be sometimes, not always.
This is a lot of mythology going on because the blues were always more accepted in Europe so people ask me about my version of the blues is that… because those guys seemed to be much happier playing in Europe because they didn’t get, they didn’t really get an audience in America.
A lot of them came here didn’t they, the Memphis…..
They were more appreciated and maybe that’s why and maybe people didn’t really think about the poetry of the blues, which seemed to let go by everybody but there was… I think there’s much more of the European tradition in the lyrics actually. If you listen to blues lyrics, they’re very relatable to European poetry tradition really. When I first met American producer Bert Burns, we were talking about what kind of music we were into and I mentioned Sonny Boy Williamson and for him that was like a put down because he doesn’t sell anything so you know. So that’s how he would relate too… he was unheard of in America. He doesn’t sell any records, so let’s just dismiss it. So there wasn’t really a blues scene in America then, which is another myth now. You know now, there’s all this mythology about blues, it didn’t happen in America then, that’s why those guys came to Europe. And even jazz was more acceptable in Europe than it was in America. You have a lot of re-written mythology now. I mean even about the blues here, now it looks like everybody was…. You see these interviews with people that were in pop groups and now they’re saying “oh yeah I started in blues” and all that and you go “what???”
If I was to take music away from you now, what would it do for you? What does music give you on a day to day basis if you were suddenly denied music?
Well it’s kind of more what I’ve done with it you see. It’s more what I’ve done and ok you can look at it as just… well let’s just kind of learn this song and play it from A to B or you can use it for other purposes, utilising it for healing purposes, for myself and others. So it has a whole different meaning than see what… you know… cultivate it. It’s a bit like that parable where you have to use what you have, I mean a lot of people have talent and they throw it away for whatever reason. I don’t know, it’s always baffled me, or they’re afraid to bite the bullet and put their head above the parapet.
It’s a big commitment though?
I didn’t have that choice because I had to survive and people were relying on me, I had a responsibility. So I couldn’t afford to be that kind of blasé about it, but I was able to do more with it than most people. You know people write to me all the time saying that they had a healing listening to my music and you know and also the process in a way heals me too at the same time.
Music gets you through tough times.
That’s why we talk more about live because it’s more like that live because there’s more communication whereas when you’re in a studio and the way things are done now in recording, you don’t really have that kind of vibe anymore.
Well another guy that I know said to me that he used to come to my gigs and he said it was a communion… that’s what it is: a communion.
“Holy Guardian Angel” is a great track on the album.
Well I see, when I write a song, it’s not like I’m trying to achieve anything, it’s like therapy or something. I just always like the concept.
“Look Beyond The Hill”
Again, that was… that’s been an instrumental for actually 42 years or something. It was called various things, it was called “Yo” at one point in the 90s, it was like a B side or something of a single, but I’ve just decided to write lyrics this time. So I do the instrumental section at the front, then I do the lyrics.
“Out In The Cold Again” in all gáireness, it’s quite emotional as well and you’re opening yourself up a bit aren’t you as well, which you have to do I suppose.
Well yeah, I’m acting, I’m performing - I’m performing the song. See the thing is, whether I write, I mean I didn’t write “Share Your Love”, but that’s emotional too. So whether I write them or I don’t write them, you’re dramatising the situation.
Where do you see things going from here Van, the last time we spoke, you weren’t sure about another album? You know, you didn’t necessarily enjoy the process too much. How do you feel now with “Keep Me Singing”, do you feel another album perhaps?
Well I feel better about this one. I just feel the majority of the songs are much better I think and it’s more expansive, I think it opens up more. So I think just keep going. I think there’s a flow with this, there’s sort of a flow so… go with the flow kind of thing is that’s what I’m getting, you know.