Van Morrison: ‘Being famous is not great for the creative process. Not for me, anyway’
After 50 years in the music business Van Morrison – born in Belfast 70 years ago, on August 31st, 1945 – has no game to play, no impression to make, no line to sell. His music and his creativity are still what matter most
Van Morrison from the cover shoot for his album Moondance. Photograph: Elliott Landy/Rhino
Van Morrison performs at Teenage Cancer Trust 15th Anniversary Year Concerts at Royal Albert Hall earlier this year. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Getty Images
In the age of celebrity nothing is quite so incomprehensible as someone who hates fame. There are many ways to play the fame game: some suck it up insatiably, some hide ostentatiously from it, making reclusiveness an even more elite brand of celebrity.
You don’t have to spend long with Van Morrison to realise that his relationship with fame is one of deep, honest and implacable hatred. He experiences it neither as an addictive high nor as an inconvenience that comes with his territory but as a kind of punishment, the world’s revenge for all those moments of ecstasy and exhilaration he has achieved in his art.
His often difficult relationship with fans and interviewers isn’t mere petulance or arrogance or bad temper. It is a deep dissociation from the whole business of putting on a public face. Paradoxically for such a great performer, he has a complete inability to perform “Van Morrison”, the shaman-like figure of his songs, the conjurer of transcendent moments.
So you take him as you find him. And I find him courteous, engaged, oddly straightforward. All he asks for is a cup of coffee and that we sit at the window of the hotel where we meet with a view over Belfast Lough.
He looks as if he might have come straight from a boat in the bay, dressed in a well-worn green waxed jacket and a fisherman’s cap, a ruddy, wind-blown glow to his cheeks. The only disconcerting thing about him is a kind of simplicity I’ve never encountered in anyone else I’ve interviewed, the simplicity of someone who has no game to play, no impression to make, no line to sell, no image to construct or maintain.
Fintan O’Toole: The obvious place to start is being 70. It takes you back to 1945 and the second World War. I was just thinking about Wild Children, where you actually talk about being the child of 1945, soldiers coming home. How much do you think your imagination was shaped by the war and the postwar period?
Van Morrison: Well, I was a product of the time, you know. Growing up in the fifties, really, I always consider myself to be part of the fifties, not the sixties, because I caught the tail end of the fifties.
When you look back on that sort of postwar Britain, it was an optimistic time in a way. There was a sense of an energy.
Yeah, it was much more optimistic than now, that’s for sure. Ya, it was a very positive outlook, actually. Having lived through second World War, and going into the fifties, the outlook was much more positive.
That phrase in the song The Street Only Knew Your Name, about “the view of the street from your window pane”, when you think back, what were you seeing as a kid? What are your earliest memories of that streetscape? What were the sounds you were hearing?
I remember after the war they used to take the railings away. That’s the first thing I remember in relation to when people were talking about the war. And I remember asking my mother why they are taking the railings away. They were melting down all the metal. I must have been two or three then.
Was it a noisy place?
Not at all, very quiet. It was a village then – cobblestone streets... virtually no cars. Not like nowadays, where everybody is driving, so it was buses all the time – take the bus everywhere – or walk. It was a village atmosphere. Of course, as years went by, there were more cars and more building, and a lot of the countryside was getting built on, so it started to change.
Everybody had their work. That was part of the deal. As soon as you left school that was it: you got a job. Everybody had to work. Nobody mentioned unemployment then. You could always get a job at something, even if it was washing dishes, so that was the mentality, rather than, “Oh, jobs are hard to come by.”
You were always working as a kid?
I had loads of jobs – about six or seven different jobs – before I became a professional musician.
Cleaning windows is one that comes into the songs, obviously.
Well, that was only because I bought a run. This guy I knew, he sold me this run for very cheap, because he was retiring, and so he gave it to me for a few quid. So I had my own kind of business then.
How old were you then?
Were you still in school?
Just left school. No, no, I was older than that. I must have been 16, because I had about five jobs before that.
So you obviously had this work ethic: it was just there.
Ya, but the fact about it is that you didn’t go around saying, “I had the work ethic.” It’s just what people did. People didn’t have time to think about what it is: you either did it or you didn’t do it. There was no time for pondering. I find in retrospect a lot of it is romanticised, and mythologised, but early on there wasn’t any of that. It’s a job like any other job, and if you wanted to do it, and loved doing it, then it was a good job. So that’s the way you looked at it.
It was something that stuck with you, though. You’ve had incredible discipline about work all through your life.
I think it was Germany, going to Germany and going through all that. [When he was 17 Morrison spent nine months in Germany with his early group The Monarchs.] There’s a guy that has a book out. I forget what it’s called [Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, with its theory that virtuosity comes from 10,000 hours of practice], but he talks about this: the people that made it have put in so many hours. So it was all that. Germany is really what did it for me. You couldn’t have done that here. It didn’t exist here, playing seven sets a night, nine on the weekends. There wasn’t that possibility here or in England. That’s why everybody was shipped to Germany. It was really training, boot camp.
Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Cologne.
And it was that grind of show after show?
Ya, ya, ya.
You must have had some sense from pretty early that it wasn’t an ordinary voice.
Not really. I mean, I was just... living in the moment, as they say. You didn’t think about it, you know. I didn’t have any subjectivity on it, really. It was ongoing. It was different stages... I started off and my voice was like a younger person’s voice, and that matured more, and then later on it got lower. I don’t know why, you know? It’s hard to pinpoint what stage... It was when I started recording under my own name probably.
So even with Them you still really felt more part of a collective?
No, I didn’t feel part of a collective as far as singing goes, no. It was just that I didn’t have the chance to open it up, you know? So then I guess when I started working with Bert Berns [the New York producer who signed Morrison in 1966], and then, you know, when I then went solo, my first solo excursion was working with him as well. But then that became restrictive. He was like an early mentor, so he opened me up to what was going on when you get into the studio, what you’re trying to do in there, what the purpose is. But he became too restrictive, so I had to break away from that and basically start again, with just myself and my voice and my guitar, and started workshopping on my own, from scratch. Astral Weeks came out of that.
A lot of kids write poems, just bits of things. Were you one of those kids?
I was writing poems when I was in school, but I wasn’t connecting them to songs yet. I was still in school probably when I started writing my first songs. I can’t remember when I learned the guitar, but I was definitely in school, so, yeah, it was probably that period. The poems I was writing weren’t really songs. They were more like observations, so although later on I was able to combine them, at first they were separate. First there was the poems, and then there were the songs that were totally different conceptually, and later on I was able to join them up.
You say “observations”. There’s some kind of distance that an artist has from the world around them, and it usually emerges sometime around adolescence. And I wonder did that happen to you. Was your own imagination emerging in a way that you were just a little bit outside the world, so that you could observe it and write about it?
Well, no. I didn’t really feel like that till later. Till I, you know, started to read quite a bit – and then I realised that I’m more fitting into this outsider pattern. But initially I didn’t feel that. I felt like I was going along with the herd until a certain point, where I had to make a decision – and I did. So you have to learn to do that: you have to separate from the herd mentality. Which is quite difficult. But the thing about being famous, the problem is, you become objectified, and when you’re writing, if you’re talking about the creative process and being able to stand back, that’s no good, because you need to freely look at what’s going on and observe people: what they’re doing, what they’re saying. And it’s very difficult to do that when people are focusing on you. You don’t have the anonymity which is important for creativity. This is the part that’s never mentioned, because the propaganda doesn’t mention this, you know. It mentions that being famous is great, but it’s not for the creative process. Not for me, anyway.
Did you start out wanting to be famous?
No, no way. Nah, nah, no way. No. I mean, my only ambition was to have a blues club here [in Belfast]. That was it... That was the beginning and the end of it. There was no plan for going any further than that. We got involved with the [Belfast music-business operators] the Solomon brothers here and in London, and basically it was taken over by all that. We moved to London, and that wasn’t in my plan at all. All I wanted to do was play blues and have my own club when I came back from Germany. I did achieve this [Morrison established a blues club at the Maritime Hotel], and then it all sort of went wrong, after Meryvn Solomon found out about it. You know, he came over, and then there were pieces of paper, contracts, and my father had to sign the contract, because I was under age. But he had his doubts about it, and he was voicing his doubts about it, but then he thought, Well, it’s an opportunity, so I’d better sign it. So, you know, you lose control of your destiny. At that point I lost total control. So it was three or four years of being manipulated by the puppet masters, basically.
Would it be fair to say that your imaginative world was even more American than it was Irish or British?
Only musically. Otherwise it was British, you know – and local. I mean, it was more local than British. I loved all the British comedy programmes when I was a kid and all that. The Goons, Round the Horne, Raise a Laugh. There was loads of them. The Clitheroe Kid. There was loads of stuff. The American influence was more the music, you know, and traditional Irish music wasn’t really that big here except for the McPeakes. I loved the McPeakes. But apart from that there was folk stuff, you know. But it wasn’t specifically Irish. It was just folk.
All that British radio comedy had an amazing linguistic invention, playing with words. Do you think that might have been not a conscious influence but something that was creeping into your imagination?
Absolutely, and actually there’s a Seamus Heaney book I read years ago that’s called Preoccupations, and he mentions in the beginning the weather report, and that influenced me, too. If you listen to the shipping forecasts it’s just like poetry.
So all these things were feeding into your imagination. What were you reading? I know Kerouac comes into the songs.
Well, three important books for me. A couple of them were given to me by a window cleaner: one was Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac; the other was Zen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. And the third one I found myself: Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre. So those were the three books that influenced me the most.
Can you define what the influence was?
It was the spontaneity of it. Have you read Dharma Bums? The spontaneity of the writing and just the way that it was unfolding. And you see Kerouac was into Zen Buddhism also, so that was the connection. It was very, very musical, improvisational. His writing actually had a lot to do with jazz, because that’s what he was listening to at the time – and that’s what got me too, you know?
I suppose if you were to think about those three books...
Also, another really important one was Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow.
I was going to say one of the things that seems central to those kinds of books is freedom: personal freedom, freedom as a kind of personal responsibility.
Ya, that’s it.
Is there an element of realising that you have to come to a consciousness at some point that you have an artistic responsibility?
Ya, ya. Well, see, that’s very interesting, because what happened was that that was interrupted by moving from here to London and just being on the road, doing gigs. So that kind of flow, and that intellectual stuff, was kind of stunted by this whole other thing, going on the road and playing every night, which is just repetitive and not creative, right? So that was, like, ya, that’s an important part, actually... I forgot about that. [He laughs.]
The Story of Them, then, that very early song...
Well, that was very... exaggerated... you know? I was just very young, and that was kind of romanticising and exaggerating the situation... those kids.
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Did you know you were romanticising at the time you were doing it?
I wasn’t really conscious, ya... I suppose I was, but I didn’t really think about it...
But it does have a very happy feel of it. I mean, there must have been an element of pleasure in what you were doing.
Well, that was when I was at the club, see. That poem was just about that period, in the Maritime, and then after that it was totally different. So that was my agenda at that time, but then it became other people’s agendas after we moved out of there. It became something else totally different...
At what point did you begin to get that feeling that “this is just a repetitive trap that I’m in”?
It was very restrictive, you know? That’s what I mean. So if you juxtapose it with the creative process, it was done under very restrictive conditions. Other people were in control, and you were virtually told what to do, you know – and sometimes actually physically threatened, also, in the studio... It was a very oppressive environment, and you felt like you were caught up and you were trapped. You really weren’t, but because you were young you didn’t have the perspective that you would have when you’re older. You’re very young. You think, Well, these people, you know? I mean, they would threaten all kinds of things, so you felt like you were trapped in all this.
Even within that environment, when you look back, one of the extraordinary things that you were doing instinctively was that you were writing about your own place. You were writing about your own experience, and people take that for granted now, because everybody else did it subsequently.
That’s right, exactly.
The Americans were doing it because it was their world – the blues was their world, rock’n’roll was their world – but nobody on this side of the Atlantic was doing that. When you look back on it, what was it about you that made you the person who had the confidence to do that? You didn’t feel like you had to imitate somebody else? You didn’t feel you had to pretend to be somebody you were not?
I guess it was all the stuff I was listening to. My father had a lot of jazz records, and loads of blues stuff and folk stuff and, you know, Lead Belly. So it was just the stuff I was listening to. Plus that combined with, you know, reading Kerouac and Really the Blues, which talks a lot about what it is to be a musician and the whole expression and way of life of that.
What was the impact of going to the United States first, for you? Because obviously you had this landscape in your head.
Well, I was relating to the European version of America – and the European musical version of America, too. I didn’t know until I’d actually lived there that the European version of the musical America was totally different than the American version. That was really my version of it, seeing the blues singers that came here and came to London and all that, so I had that version of the American scene, which America really didn’t want to know about. I mean, certainly Burt Berns wasn’t interested at all. He was only interested in having hits, whatever that might take, even if it was singing just bubble-gum lyrics. He didn’t care as long as he got the hit and got the money. He wasn’t interested. This guy had written loads of great songs, with great words, over a long period, but he ended up just being interested in what’s going to make money – and even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep he didn’t care. Whatever made a hit. So that was disappointing.
That whole “British invasion” thing, was that more of a hindrance to you?
Oh ya, absolutely, because I wasn’t part of it. I honestly wasn’t part of it. Because, you know, they didn’t see me as British – they saw me as Irish, anyway – but I was kind of underground, you know? We’d been to California as a group, Them, in ‘66, but that didn’t mean anything, because America is so vast, and if you weren’t on The Ed Sullivan Show you didn’t exist. So actually nobody really heard of Them internationally until I became, you know, an item, with all the hits I had and the albums like, you know, from the Bang albums, with Bert Berns, to Astral Weeks to Moondance. Then, at that point, they start to look up. “Oh, this guy used to be a singer, had this band called Them. Let’s check that out.” So then Decca records started to release that stuff, but before that it was dead and buried until I became a commercial entity. Then they started, “Oh, ya, remember all these tours?” But at the time it was all lies, because the work was going down, and we couldn’t get arrested. And we weren’t making any money, and all these people jumping on the bandwagon, saying how great it was, and all this stuff. Where were they at the time? They weren’t calling out, getting us jobs or giving us a good write-up. There was no interest. Only years later, when it was too late, when it was actually too late.
Some – many – people would have given up. In a sense you were on this track which was a rock’n’roll stardom track, and it was...
Nah, I was never on the rock’n’roll...
I know you didn’t want to be on it, but...
No, I was never on it. I was never on that track. It doesn’t really matter if other people thought I was, you know? That was their problem. That’s the way I looked at it. It is difficult, but I don’t know what else I could have done, because I didn’t really have any alternative, you know? I didn’t know what the alternative would be, because I didn’t have one, because then it was pretty clear cut. It was pretty easy. You didn’t have to make all these decisions. It was clear cut, you know? If you don’t do that, then what are you going to do? It was pretty black and white. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to ponder what are my options,” because there weren’t any options, you know? It was actually good in that way, because it forced you into the position that you had to take because you didn’t have any option. Not like now, where success is too many options.
What kept you going at that point? Because it must have been very disillusioning.
Well, I didn’t get the money. That’s what kept me going, so I had to work. Because if I didn’t work I couldn’t pay the rent. I couldn’t do anything. You just got enough to keep you on some sort of survival. That was what the game was, so you never really got ahead of it until you could manipulate the situation to actually get control by owning the product.
A lot of Irish artists can only really see the place from a distance. I wonder was the American experience liberating for you, in the sense of really opening up your Belfast childhood.
Ya, well, I believe that. Because I think people have a problem if they stay here. If you stay here, everything’s out there. [He points off into the distance.] But when you go out there, then you see that everything’s in here. [He points to his chest.] So I had to go away to find that it’s in here; it’s not out there. I think that’s what you’re talking about: it’s here. It’s not out there.
But the “in here” is partly memory, isn’t it? It’s that experience has been transformed somehow into memory, and then the artist makes that memory partly an invention.
Well, it’s also that there is no... you’re not going anywhere. There isn’t anywhere to go. You’re always here. When you live outside of your home country you realise there isn’t anywhere to go. It’s all the same. And it’s like that with success: there isn’t anything to achieve, because it’s all the same. It’s degrees of the same thing. You might have more money, less money, but there isn’t anywhere to go. You’re always here, you are always you, and that’s all you have. All you have is you. That’s it. There isn’t anywhere to go.
The reason I was asking about memory is to do with that moment in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where he’s trying to describe the process of what makes someone an artist. And he has this moment where he just sees this girl on a strand, and somehow something happens, in that moment where that image comes into his mind and becomes mysterious. That process is the one that seems to be repeated in some of your songs, these moments. And it’s maybe a person, maybe a girl, the way the light’s falling, the way something is happening in that particular moment that just freezes itself in your memory. And I wonder is that something you’re conscious of as a writer, that you’re beginning to access these sorts of images.
Sorry... Was I conscious?
Was there a moment when you realised you had access to those kinds of memories, that you could make something out of them?
No, I don’t think there was a moment... I had to go back and reread Kerouac when I was, like, reading a lot of bleak material. And then there was [Allen] Ginsberg. I was there in the beginning, and then it got cut off by, you know, going to London and being controlled by the puppet masters. So then years later, when I was reading [William] Blake, I find that, ya, well, there were these experiences. I guess what Blake was writing about in his poems I connected with. And then I went really back to Kerouac also. I don’t know when that was – but it was probably the 70s, I can’t recall exactly – but, ya... then I started to become more aware of getting in that space, creating that, opening that space up.
TB Sheets has a kind of freedom to it, a kind of ambition to it artistically, that really is startling. Is it accurate to think of that song as being a sort of a leap?
Ya, I think it was a leap. I guess that’s what they call stream of consciousness or something. But that was interesting, because I wrote that in LA when we were playing the Whisky club [Whisky a Go Go]. I was down in the Tropicana Hotel, and I borrowed a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I think it had something to do with [the pioneering comedian] Lenny Bruce. The sound guy at the gig was living in the same house as Lenny Bruce, and Bruce was going through a lot of bad legal stuff at the time, and he was constantly drugged up. I think that’s what kicked that song off. He never went out. He just stayed in, and he was just reading, like, legal papers all the time. He was reading law books – he was working on this case – and this guy would tell us, “He doesn’t go out. He’s just working on this,” and that was, I think, what kicked that song off. And then he died shortly after that.
So you just had that image in your head, and you just went off it?
Ya. It was that, a culmination of that and, you know, “the cool room is a fool’s room” – a cool room which has connotations of people sitting doing drugs in a room. If you’re in London during the 60s you could walk in somewhere and go, “Where am I?”, you know? You wouldn’t know where you were, because it was so weird. [He laughs.] So I put some of that in Astral Weeks...
That whole world, that sort of hippy world...
Well, it wasn’t really hippy. I mean, hippies took it over, but actually it wasn’t hippy...
Obviously, subsequent songs of yours are very sceptical about that kind of world and what it became. But initially it was probably pretty liberating for you to have a contact with that kind of bohemian world.
I never considered myself a hippy. In fact I hated it, actually. I was actually anti-hippy. I was sort of in the wrong place in the wrong time. I was in California when these people, hippies, were around – and, you know, it was difficult to get away from.
What did you hate about it?
What did I hate about it? It was funny. It was just totally funny... All these people saying that they were different, but they were all the same. They were trying to be, “Oh, we’re different. We’re hippies, and we’re in a commune.” And, you know, they were so different that they were all the same. It was just another badge. And then the record companies started signing them up, because that’s what made money. “Oh, the hippies make money, so let’s sign everybody who has long hair. Whether they can play or not doesn’t matter. Let’s just sign them up anyway.” The whole thing was a farce. It was always “peace and love” but it was really negative, actually.
But I do wonder whether, at least, there was a creativity in that period nonetheless. Things were up for grabs: you could make your own path through the music.
No, I never related to what was current. Never. I mean, to me, if you’re living in what’s current you’ve lost at that point, you know? Set to steer your own course, no matter what. It didn’t get me any sense of freedom. The only thing that would give me freedom was, like, a budget for making a record, you know? That was it.
When you came to write those Astral Weeks songs you had been back to Belfast.
Most of them were written in Belfast apart from one.
And do you think that return to Belfast was actually an important part of that imaginative process?
Well, ya, I was trying to process the last couple of years, probably from 1964 to ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68. That to me was more like a reading of the times... a reading of what was going on at that time, a span of those years, and picking up and trying to put down what was going on in the environments between here and London. The scenarios were moving around like that between here and west London, mainly Notting Hill Gate. It’s the real place and it’s a fictional place, you know what I mean? It was what I was picking up from the observing point of view, which is what I was talking about earlier on. It was a period when a lot of things were changing. I was observing how people were perceiving things, and reinventing things, and coming out the other end. I think that’s what it was about.
In the book of your lyrics, Lit Up Inside, you have the two separate lyrics of Madame Joy and Madame George. What was the relationship between those two?
Well, that was a wild and crazy idea, because that’s when I was thinking about a movie. You see, that whole period was always thought about visually as well, right? So there was a visual arm to it, and a kind of almost Felliniesque thing to it. People were saying, “He should think about filming some of this. Maybe this should be a movie,” or something along those lines. So that other song was supposed to be part of that. Because really I’m singing “Madame Joy” in this song. I never say the word “George” in this song at all, okay? So that was supposed to be the person, and then it’s adding more stuff to it, but then it never went any further than that.
Did you actually have concrete conversations about it as a movie?
Who was that with?
It was with a guy in California that was around at the time, I can’t remember.
So you were thinking visually as much as...
Well, I was always thinking visually, even when I was recording it. Writing it, it was always visual, because it was moving between these locations, so Belfast train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, Notting Hill Gate. There was all this visual stuff in it – so colour poems or whatever you call it. But it has a strong visual element to it, and there were stories, or just free association. I can’t remember, but there was movies like this at the time, probably Fellini and some other people.
Did you watch a lot of that kind of cinema?
Oh ya, there was a couple. [Jean Cocteau’s] Blood of a Poet was one; it was black and white. I saw it at Queen’s [University Belfast], actually. And there was another one by Cocteau.
Would that be true of a lot of your songwriting process, that there’s a visual idea to begin with?
No, not a lot of it. No, just that particular period, it seems to be.
Typically – maybe it changes over time – but do songs tend to start with an image in your head or a set of words?
No, there’s no set things. It could be something you just said and start anywhere, reading a book. It could be anything now.
Does it ever start with just a sound, with a musical phrase?
Ya, there’s A and B. A is you write the lyrics first and then add the melody and the chords. And then B is you’d have the chords and melody first, then write the lyrics. C is a culmination of both – you get melody and words together – which is the best way to go. That’s the best combination, really, you know?
When you’d finished Astral Weeks – because the recording was over just three days – did you realise that this was special?
While recording you didn’t ponder anything. You couldn’t afford it. People couldn’t afford that kind of money. I had no idea. But, you know, it was a long time ago, and everything’s changed since then. I’ve, like, 50 years of experience going through various decades. People bring up Astral Weeks, but I can only relate to it and maybe talk about it in retrospect. I can’t really relate to it as, you know, something now. I’d probably only written maybe a few dozen songs then, maybe 30. Now it’s, like, almost 400, so the other 300-and-something odd songs which people don’t know anything about, that’s what I’m more interested in now, the stuff that people don’t know actually exists, and the stuff I’ve been saying as a more mature and more weather-beaten and more – as Frank Sinatra said – you-have-to-take-the-blows kind of person. And that person is not the same that did Astral Weeks.
One of the things coming out of that period is what you started to do with your voice, pushing it into directions that nobody had ever really gone before. And it relates to a question I wanted to ask you about silence as a theme in your work, which goes all the way through to the much later songs. Would you maybe talk a little bit about that idea of silence and why it matters to you, and how it relates to the way you sing and the way you perform?
It’s a musing and a meditation, you know? It’s like when you meditate you try to stop all this [he gestures around the room] for a minute, or a second or whatever, momentarily switch it all off. And that’s the space, you know? So in music that would be the space. The silence in music would be similar to that – or might in fact be the same as that. There wouldn’t be any music if you didn’t have silence. Music wouldn’t exist, because you need this silence in order to feel music exists. That’s the way it works. That’s just the way it is. Miles Davis talked about this a lot.
There’s a sense – which is so thrilling in your performances – that you’re not willing to settle for repetition. You’re not willing to just do it again. But that must also be incredibly exhausting, that you can never have achieved anything, because everything has to be put at risk every time you go and perform.
It’s so exhausting. Well, it’s fun, actually, you know? It can be fun. I know what you mean: it can be exhausting in certain circumstances. But if you have the right backing people it’s fun; it’s not exhausting. If you don’t have the right people it can be exhausting, because you have to drag it along, but if you get the right kind of back-up, if you get the flow down, then it can be a lot of fun, you know?
You arrange on the fly. You don’t really tell your musicians...
No, they’re somewhat arranged, but they are always changed, too. They’re ongoing, but where you can take it is really live, where you can stretch it more, live, you know?
Is it that you want to keep the musicians alive as well or is that you have to have the freedom to feel what’s going on in the room?
It’s actually both, see. For instance, you’re talking about certain recordings; you see the musicians there weren’t reading, for instance. They were following me, just following me. They didn’t have chord charts in those days. That’s a good point you’re making, because that’s the difference between then and now. Now everybody is looking at sheets of paper, which means... that is restricting. So that’s the missing factor, you know? There’s too much reading and not enough telepathy going on.
Because, for a listener, what transcends the ordinary is when you get into that, where you’re privileged to be part of that dynamic that’s going on between you and the musicians. And even though you listen to the recording over and over again you still don’t know where it’s going, because it has that adventure to it.
Ya, exactly, ya, adventure: that’s a word. That’s a word, ya. It’s important.
But it means that you can’t rest on your laurels at all. You’ve got to continually push it. You have to make it new all the time. Is there an imaginative cost to that? Is it lonely?
Well, it’s jazz, but it can be lonely, you’re right. Ya, it can be lonely of course, but that’s part of it too.
There is that song of loneliness...
Meaning of Loneliness.
It seems like a very revelatory song, a very simple song in some ways, but it seems like you’re saying there that loneliness is part of the business that you can’t get away from. You can’t be an artist without having that kind of loneliness. It comes with the territory, because you’re the only person who can be there at that point.
Ya. It’s coming, you know, from the existential point of view, and, ya, something like what you just said there. How did you put it?
Just that the loneliness comes with the terrain. That, you know, it’s implicit in being an artist, maybe.
Ya, I think so. Because you’re pushed back on yourself all the time. That’s right.
There’s some artists, I’m thinking about Seamus Heaney, for example, had a very strong relationship with his past, comfortable with his previous work. And then there’s some like Brian Friel. Friel is the total opposite. He just thinks about the next thing. It’s always the next thing. And I wonder where you sit on that spectrum. Are you more orientated towards the next thing?
I am more and more going in the Friel direction, I think, ya. One gets fed up with, you know, the promotion of the past and the nonpromotion of the now. Because for a long time now – well, at least a decade; maybe more – there’s a lack of interest in promoting the now with these record companies, you know? They just want to compile the old stuff, put it out again, so what’s the point of doing something new then? They’re not interested in that with, say, an artist of a certain age, you know? You get past a certain age – sometimes it’s people in their 40s, are going, “Wow, they don’t want my recordings any more.” They don’t really care what I’m saying any more. They’re not interested. They want to know what did you say back then, “because we want more of that, because we can duplicate that again”. So this is the dilemma.
People say you have a fractious relationship with audiences, and I don’t think that is true at all. I don’t think anybody who goes to the gigs...
Maybe it’s not the audience but it’s something around that, which is people having an image of you frozen in time – the moments in their own lives when they listened to Moondance, when they listened to Astral Weeks – and they think that’s you, and they’re stuck with that. That must be a burden.
Ya, it is, because that wasn’t even me then. It was ideas, you know? It’s like the world of ideas. That’s what songs are, and it’s like a painting. It’s a blank canvas, and [thinking,] What am I going to do? So songs... can never be real life. They’re just ideas, and sometimes the ideas are like, that week, you know what I mean? The idea comes out of something that week. But trying to relate to it 50 years later is, like, there’s no way. I can’t even relate to some of the stuff I’ve done 15 years ago, even 10... When I’m singing them I change them. Performance changes them. So they have different meanings now, you know?
It must be difficult to have people asking you questions about it.
It is, because that was just a young person, and I didn’t really know very much. I educated myself since then, so I know more. But it’s like the religion thing. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. In one of my songs I do now, “politics and religion, superstition go hand in hand”. That’s my take on it, but nobody knows that song, you know, because they don’t play it on the radio.
Well, the religion thing – would I be wrong if I said that there’s an unresolved creative tension around not so much religion itself but religion as it’s encoded in the music? So much of your musical heritage is gospel music. Even a song like Gloria, which is a sex song, it has a hymn-like structure to it.
I didn’t know it was a sex song. Must check it out. [He laughs.]
One of the things you seem to do so brilliantly is to bring together the erotic and the religious, so these things which were supposed to be opposites – the sinful sexual energy and the religious energy – you bring them together.
I kind of separate religion now from spirituality. Spirituality is one thing, religion... can mean anything from soup to nuts, you know? But it generally means an organisation, so I don’t really like to use the word, because that’s what it really means. It really means this church or that church... But spirituality is different, because that’s the individual. Black gospel music is really great stuff. It’s really good. And if you take the words out of it, or you change the words, what would it be? You know? If it wasn’t about Jesus? Sam Cooke was the secular version of that. Instead of being about Jesus it was about a woman, so that was soul music. But all this stuff goes back to gospel, really. You’re right, you know? Except that you have to ask yourself what was before they started putting Jesus in it.
Do you think in performance or in writing that you can somehow get back to the essence of what that was about? When you strip out the religious apparatus there’s an energy, a spiritual energy there.
Ya, ya. I think so. That’s what I’m going for, ya.
You’ve drawn on the sense of a circular journey: American music, which has come partly from Ireland and Scotland, you’ve brought it back into Irish culture. You’ve connected it with Scotland. It suggests that cultural confusion is not something that we need to be afraid of. It actually can be a source of enormous individual creativity and beauty.
Ya, well, the thing is, I’m not polarised. That’s the thing, and what you’re talking about is polarisation – which, you know, I can’t even think that way. I wouldn’t really know how to, as a matter of fact. See, officially my family were Church of Ireland, but I don’t remember anybody going to church. Really they were very much what you call free thinkers, so none of that stuff, polarisation, was really talked about.
Most of the poets who have been part of that extraordinary flowering of poetry in Ulster think of you as part of their world, imaginatively, and I wonder would the same be true in reverse. Would you think of them as part of your world? Would you relate to them as a generation of poets?
Ya, ya, I would, I would. Michael Longley, actually, he used to go to the shop that my father took me to when I was a kid, the record shop, so he knows all about that scene. So we have that in common. So, ya, I would definitely relate to him. In fact I did a documentary, and he’s in it – and Derek Mahon. Did it a long time ago, the ‘80s. Also, I really like Paul Durcan. I think he’s great. I can’t see anybody to top him performance-wise and writing-wise. But, quite frankly, I relate more to, as far as lineage goes, more to the street aspect of here.
Can I just ask you about now? What kind of things do you think are still to be done in your writing, and do you still find yourself inspired by the same things that have always inspired you?
Ya, but I think I need to create more space for it. I find that now I have less creative space. There doesn’t appear to be any in the last couple of years. There’s been bits and pieces, and trying to fit stuff in, but there hasn’t been a lot of time to open it up. I feel like that’s what’s missing: I need to create the space to create the stuff.
And is that something you do on your own or do you need to collaborate with other people?
I need to create it on my own, and clear a calendar for it to happen. If you don’t clear a calendar for it to happen it’s just not going to happen. There’s a lot of things get in the way is what I’m saying. And then you have to consciously try and create the space for it, you know, get back to the actual process.
Do you still have the energy for continually putting everything at risk, to start from scratch and go and try to take that huge risk of working from the beginning again?
I don’t know, but I hope so. You never know. You don’t really know. There’s a lot of background stuff that’s draining that at the minute. I don’t know when I’m going to clear this drain away so I can get on with it like I’m supposed to be doing.
Does it scare you at all, going back into that?
Not at all. That’s where I live, you know? That’s where it is.