Why Van Morrison keeps on ‘Singing’

Van Morrison releases his new album “Keep Me Singing” Friday and begins a tour in New York Oct. 9. He’ll share the stage often with his friend Sir Tom Jones.
Van Morrison releases his new album “Keep Me Singing” Friday and begins a tour in New York Oct. 9. He’ll share the stage often with his friend Sir Tom Jones. TNS

Back in 1982, Van Morrison recorded a song titled “Cleaning Windows.” It celebrated a blue-collar worker, the sort he has often identified with in his career as a musician.

Morrison, over the course of a 50-plus-year recording span, has certainly worked. The singer-songwriter from Belfast, Northern Ireland, will on Friday release “Keep Me Singing,” his 36th studio album. Like its 2012 predecessor, “Born to Sing: No Plan B,” the title telegraphs his commitment to a life in music.

But the job hasn’t gotten easier with experience.

“I think it’s much more difficult now to figure out what to say in a song,” Morrison said recently from the offices of his Exile Productions company outside Belfast.

Part of that, he said, comes from having written close to 400 tunes. The trick is in finding something he hasn’t already expressed in one of them.

“It’s more difficult to figure out what a 70-year-old person wants to say. It’s different than the 60-year-old or the 50-year-old or the 20-year-old. Seventy is a whole different game,” he said with a chuckle.

The dozen originals on the new album circle around themes of letting go of old hurts (“Too Late”), of valuing the bonds of friendship (“Every Time I See a River”), of acknowledging the past without being governed by it (“Memory Lane”) and of remaining open to love (“Let It Rhyme”).

Touring is rare

Morrison will be incorporating several of the new songs on the latest round of shows he’s playing in the U.S. Making a relatively quick return visit to the States after performances this year, his new tour begins Oct. 9 in New York.

Such heavy international touring is relatively rare for the artist these days.

“I don’t like to travel much anymore,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of traveling, and it’s pretty boring now. So I like staying close to home and doing more local gigs.”

These days, he prefers fairly regular stops outside Belfast at the Slieve Donard Resort in Newcastle. It’s a 400-seat room in a swank hotel that draws fans from across Ireland as well as much of Western Europe and the U.S. for the rare opportunity to hear him in such an intimate setting.

During a 2014 performance at Slieve Donard, and again this year in L.A., Morrison, who has a reputation for a sometimes stern demeanor onstage and who also has been a prickly interview subject over the years, exhibited a remarkably buoyant mood, even joking with the audience and band members during the show.

Asked whether something has changed, Morrison said, “I don’t know. I’m sort of too close to it – I can’t see it from my side. To me, it feels the same, but if you tell me something’s different, it must be true.”

Jones and Morrison

For many of his upcoming shows, he’s sharing the stage with Welsh singer Tom Jones. Expect the two to join each other’s sets for a few collaborations.

Morrison is particularly taken with the recent albums Jones has done with English producer Ethan Johns, works that strip away the production gloss that had long been part of the “It’s Not Unusual” singer’s sound. They delve into the blues, R&B, gospel and folk songs that had powerfully influenced both as aspiring musicians growing up in the years after World War II.

Jones, not surprisingly, is an equally admiring fan of Morrison’s work.

“We met in a club in London that was a big showbiz hangout – the Starlight Room,” Jones, 76, said in a separate interview.

“The Stones were there, it was in the basement of the club. Everybody was there – the Animals, all the rock bands. He reminded me of that recently, and told me, ‘I remember walking up to you and that you talked to me.’ None of those stuck-up English rock bands would talk to him, but I would. I liked what he was doing, and we had a kind of a bond because neither of us were English.”

Although Morrison and Jones both were often lumped with the British Invasion by U.S. radio disc jockeys in the ‘60s, Morrison said he felt little kinship with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and other such acts that emerged from England to capture broad audiences in the U.S. and worldwide.

“Neither one of us had anything to do with the ‘British Invasion,’” he said. “Our records were getting played on the radio when I had the group (Them), but we were broke. We didn’t have anything to show for it. I first went to America as a solo artist. I had one hit (’Brown Eyed Girl’) that disappeared and after that I couldn’t get arrested.”

Instead, Morrison put out the jazz-folk-soul album “Astral Weeks” in 1968, widely hailed as one of the most extraordinary works of the rock era. He then released 1970’s “Moondance” as the first of a steady string of albums seamlessly merging soul, R&B, rock, folk, gospel, blues and jazz.

Along the way he charted numerous hits, including “Wild Night,” “Domino,” “Blue Money,” “Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You),” “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile),” “Wavelength” and “Bright Side of the Road.”

But he rarely jam packs them into “greatest-hits” sets when he performs live, preferring to go wherever his mood takes him, which often is to such introspective, improvisation-ready material as “Listen to the Lion,” “In the Garden,” “No Guru, No Teacher, No Method” and his signature reworking of Charles Dawes-Carl Sigman’s vintage pop tune “It’s All in the Game.”

Delving in personal territory

Over time, Morrison has become more interested and adept at delving into deeply personal territory in his songs, even using the compositions as a window into the realm of his spirituality.

“In the early days, I was just finding archetypal songs,” said the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist whose body of work is as celebrated as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and other rock poet-musicians.

“I was writing songs that were kind of idealized, because that’s what was going on in the culture,” he said in the clipped, angular brogue characteristic of Northern Ireland.

“Most of my songs were based on stuff I was listening to by writers like Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and having (songwriter-producer) Bert Berns as kind of a mentor for a while. They were very idealized and romanticized kind of songs.”

Still, as he often has over the years, on the new album he salutes the music and musicians who inspired him. Take this verse from the title song: “Little things that count in life/ Just to know my people got soul/ Sam Cooke singing ‘That’s Where It’s At’/ And ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’”

Morrison once again revisits his blues foundation in “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword” and on “Going Down to Bangor.” The latter references Cavehill, which is overlooking Belfast, and its geological anomaly, a basaltic outcropping known as “Napoleon’s Nose.”

It’s a concrete example of how he views his contemporary work. “Now I think it’s more realistic,” he said.

Yet, he says, “most of the material I’ve written, no one really knows. I’ve written about 400 songs by now. About a dozen of those are songs people really know. There’s a whole underground stream of other material most people haven’t heard.”

Today, he said, it’s thematic and lyrical material rather than musical arrangements that test him. After all, with 400 songs, where does one go next?

“You hit the nail on the head,” he said. “Melodies are pretty easy. But I’d really like to stretch out more, music-wise. I’d like to try some longer pieces where everybody can stretch out.”