Ahead of the release of his 38th studio album, Van Morrison speaks to Catherine Wylie about fame, his relentless work rate and a self-described cult following.
O describe Van Morrison as a ‘spiky’ interviewee may do the word a little disservice. The prolific musician — who will release his 38th studio album on Friday — knows his way around not answering a question directly and ends a nearly 25-minute chat by hanging up the phone abruptly.
The last five minutes of our conversation are an uncomfortable discussion about fame, but then given that it is his first phone interview in what we’re told is 10 years, a little rustiness can perhaps be expected.
It begins warmly enough, with the Northern Irish singer-songwriter recalling a brief chat we had at a Buckingham Palace investiture ceremony last year.
He described himself as just a “blue-eyed soul singer” from Belfast as he was knighted for a musical career that has enthralled audiences and delighted critics.
“You interviewed me briefly, didn’t you?” he says.
But it’s not long before he’s correcting a question about releasing three albums within a year. It’s actually just a little over a year.
Keep Me Singing was finished long before its release, the 72-year-old says. “I had to renegotiate a deal before I could get it out, but it was already done so that wasn’t in the framework of the last couple of years — but these two [Roll With The Punches and Versatile] were.”
When most artists speak about negotiating a record deal, one may expect the details were ironed out by their manager or lawyers. With Van the Man — who describes himself as not a boss but more of a “company director” — you get a sense it is him who is steering the ship.
“If I’m not doing gigs, then I’m going to be probably writing and recording, or doing another project,” he replies to a query about his schedule. “That’s ongoing and then there’s the business.
“The buck stops here so I delegate to people but they have to run it past me, because I’m the one that’s got their name in lights... There’s emails going back and forth all the time, so even if I didn’t do gigs, there’s still business going on.
“I have a lot of product out there so there’s a lot of product to manage at this point.”
Morrison later mentions that he recently corrected a biography published online which wrongly claimed his music career started with the band Them: “I started way before that.
“The message is don’t be successful and then you’ll have an easier life,” he quips.
His new record Versatile sees the musician delve into the jazz archives — the music which first inspired him as a youngster in Belfast, where his shipyard worker father was said to have the greatest record collection in the city.
He covers Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and others while adding six original compositions.
Morrison is happy for people to cover his work and surprisingly, for someone whose work must have been reproduced hundreds of times over, he keeps track of all the covers.
“I have a list somewhere. Hundreds of people have done my songs, a lot of them are really good,” he says.
Van Morrison was just 13 years old when he first began singing and playing the saxophone and guitar in bands, and his musical apprenticeship stretched over oceans.
Mixing R&B, blues, jazz and country, the singer has enjoyed a career spanning more than 50 years as he rose from teenage stardom to innovator and now respected veteran.
His home city was recently named by Lonely Planet as the top place to visit in 2018 and the Northern Ireland once known by him is arguably a different place to what it is now.
What changes to Belfast has he noticed most?
“I don’t really know, because it’s different things to different people at different times. I’m not really in touch with a lot of what’s going on whether it be Belfast or UK or anywhere for that matter,” he says, adding: “I’m just getting on with what I do and my contribution is obviously music and songs and performing.”
Later in the interview, an attempt is made to broach the subject of Northern Ireland again.
Does he think politicians do enough to help working-class people there?
A direct answer ensues: “I’m not really into that. I’m apolitical. I’ve got nothing to say about politics whatsoever. I’m not going to start now,” he says.
When the subject of fame is raised, he explains how little he needs approval. It’s an idea he repeats at least half a dozen times during our conversation.
Seemingly at his most passionate, he turns his attention to the “phoney media”, and argues against a system “trying to goad you into doing something that you’re not”, adding: “I’m not doing that, because I’m not seeking approval.”
Morrison says it is “always a struggle” to do what you want, adding: “They’re not interested in creativity.”
He says the notion of fame being a good thing is sold to people all the time. “It’s not actually great to be famous, unless that’s what you want and that’s what you’re all about. There are people who want that, and that’s probably great for them, I don’t know.
“But it kills a lot of people, but nobody addresses that fact. It ruins their lives. Nobody addresses that.”
I ask about how he is rarely photographed, and whether he’s bothered that he’s commonly portrayed as a very serious man.
Does he have a hobby that would surprise people who think he’s deadly serious?
Quick to answer, he replies: “Not really, because the thing is I’m not seeking approval.”
He says he has a “cult following”, adding that he is “not in that same area” occupied by rock stars.
“I’m not in that arena. I’m not seeking approval,” he repeats.
“I just do what I do. I do my music, and if people like it they buy it, and if they don’t, they don’t, and it’s as simple as that.”
Soon after, the conversation unfortunately comes to an abrupt close — ended by a man who clearly likes to be in control.
Versatile is out Friday December 1.
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