Van Morrison interview: Astral Weeks 50 years on and new LP The Prophet Speaks
With what is for many his best-loved album, Astral Weeks, celebrating its 50th birthday this week, and a new LP – the fifth in two years – released next Friday, Van Morrison is as prolific as ever at 73. Richard Purden met him to talk about (what else?) the music
FIVE albums released in just over two years is a notable output for any artist but for Ireland’s greatest living singer-songwriter to be releasing this amount of work at 73 is considerable.
Van Morrison’s response to this suggestion when we sit down face to face is typically pragmatic: “When you’ve been doing it a long time it’s nothing special. When you start out it is but you soon get over all that in a couple of years so to me now it’s nothing special. There’s a lot of mythology but you just do it, it’s not an analytical thing. If you think about it, it’s gone.”
There is,of course, the Van Morrison that exists in wider imagination. His songs have created a world submerged in as much myth and legend as the Titanic. Travellers visiting Belfast to see the singer perform in a cabaret club environment at the Europa Hotel, for example, will routinely hit the Van Morrison Trail around the city and visit the many sites associated with the man and his music. This only adds to the sense that Belfast is a magical place of wonder and folklore illuminated by Van Morrison.
Today we sit in the lounge of the Culloden hotel, just outside the city on the shores of Belfast Lough, overlooking its lush grounds. Across from us are a group of fans who have travelled from far and wide to see him perform where it all began. One, from Detroit, later tells me about his first-edition signed copy of Astral Weeks. No amount of money will see Mike part with the prized possession – and he reveals some very significant offers.
Yesterday marked half a century since the seminal work’s initial release. Widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of the past 50 years, how does Morrison feel about the record’s ever-growing status?
“When I get people saying ‘that’s my favourite album’ my feeling is that I was just a kid when I made that record; I didn't know what was going on. It’s something that’s there. If I do that stuff now, I do it as a 70-something-year-old.”
Astral Weeks was said to have been recorded in two eight-hour sessions in the autumn of 1968. Although recorded in America, the songs were rooted in Belfast and written as a series of coming-of-age vignettes, portraying the city’s people and their context shortly before what would become known as the Troubles began.
“I wrote it when I was a teenager but I didn't record it until 1968. Some of it was recorded with Bert Berns [legendary writer of Here Comes The Night and producer of Brown Eyed Girl] but it never came out because the songs weren’t right.
"There’s all this mythology about it but a lot of the record was written between 1964 and 66. Some of the songs were longer, others were edited down; that album went through many forms. When the record did come out I was just 23. I thought I was being cutting edge and pushing the envelope for that time but by 1968 it was all over.”
The promise which had emerged at the launch of his career with Them in the mid-60s was just a distant memory by the time of recording Astral Weeks at the end of the decade.
“I was a hungry young guy; I was starving, sleeping on couches and doing albums on a low budget. It was a lot of hardship which I don’t even like to think about now. In the old days I was putting out two albums a year because otherwise I couldn’t survive. Warner Brothers were getting all the songs and publishing.
"Now it depends on what I want to say at the time, my relationship with a song and who is recording with me. My writing is just a continuous thing; it’s always whatever I want to say at the time. There is always stuff being written and demoed in the background but now it’s just stuff I want to put out; it’s not a knee-jerk reaction anymore. Some of the songs on Versatile (2017) were recorded 10 years ago but we decided to put it out last year.”
In April Morrison released You’re Driving Me Crazy, recorded with Jazz multi-instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco. As well as covering a number of Jazz and Blues classics they tackled The Way Young Lovers Do, taking the Astral Weeks cut in a new direction.
“It evolved; Joey put the contrast of a John Coltrane spin on it. It’s more like something he would play in a minor key.”
There’s something of Miles Davis's style with the reference to So What?
“Exactly – he worked with Miles so I put that in but we’ve had that for a while now.”
Released this month, The Prophet Speaks features six new Morrison compositions, among them Spirit Will Provide, a song that “changes the dynamic,” while returning to more ethereal themes.
“There’s nothing new; it goes back to Into The Mystic and various things I’ve written so it’s new and old; there’s a thread which is ongoing.”
Similarly, Got To Go Where The Love Is recalls Jackie Wilson Said, with its driving soul and gospel flavours.
“I was going for a Bobby Bland angle. Lyrically it’s about the way human beings are; the lyrics say it all.”
Elsewhere a raw, formidable version of Worried Blues/Rollin’ and Tumblin by JD Harris confirms the fire in his belly continues to flame.
While Morrison shared the cover space with DeFrancesco on the previous album this time it features a facet of his childhood in the form of a puppet.
“It’s from a radio show (Educating Archie) a long time ago. We were going to do it before but couldn’t get the right dummy of Archie Andrews but we found the guy who had the original from the radio programme.
"I liked the idea of a radio ventriloquist [laughing] – the title is a play on that.”
Morrison admits to perhaps “giving the game away” but setting himself a new challenge has been vital to the new works. Taking his cue from the iconic Bluenote Jazz label, You’re Driving Me Crazy and The Prophet Speaks were both promptly recorded.
“On the records with Joey we don't mess about; we record the thing in a couple of days. When I’m working with other people it could take a year but Joey and I work the old way, the Jazz way, that’s how people recorded back then. You get more done and you get it out there fast.
"Roll With The Punches (2017) took six months but these records are recorded, mixed and turned around really quick.
“These guys know exactly what they are doing so I have to step up to that. It’s challenged me to go further because they are on the same page; they know we are going somewhere and that we are making something happen together – that’s the difference.”
:: The Prophet Speaks is out on December 7.