Morrison and his collaborators lift the lid on his extraordinary art
Morrison hooks up with The Chieftains and Clannad bassist Ciarán Brennan to record eight traditional Irish songs, by turns raucous and mournful, as well as radically reinterpreting two of his own. The results are an unexpected thrill.
BRIAN MASTERSON (ENGINEER): It was a strange coming together in many ways. Given the whole situation in Ireland at the time, here were two parties coming from two very different cultural ethoses, shall we say. Those two threads of Irishness don’t usually overlap. The Protestant community in the north doesn’t really have much to do with Irish traditional music, but I don’t think those thoughts were ever on the table. Musicians can leave all that kind of baggage at the door. I’d worked with Van a little, and a lot with The Chieftains. It was not a meeting that I thought would bear fruit, and yet it was a wonderful marriage. It was done at the ‘little’ Windmill Lane, our second studio near Stephen’s Green, in two distinct halves. I think the idea was, “Let’s try three or four songs, and if it goes well, we’ll come back.” We started in the autumn and returned in January to finish it. It was full of energy and adrenalin, as nobody quite knew how things would go. Van could be volatile to say the least, but I don’t remember it being contentious. Paddy Moloney was the instigator, he was always looking for angles, but the conduit was [Chieftains multi-instrumentalist] Derek Bell. Derek and Van were very much kindred spirits, and Paddy had such respect for Derek, so if any oiling of the wheels were needed, Derek did it. He’d gather all Van’s chords and make sure the band weren’t transgressing.
CIARÁN BRENNAN (BASS): I’d get a chord sheet from Derek, Van would mutter, “Turn on the Grundig,” and we’d do it in one or two takes. It was so spontaneous and uplifting. The way Van nodded or gestured drove the recordings. You don’t say much to Van, you prove yourself, but it was fun. One time I placed a bet because The Chieftains weren’t tuned up. I put a fiver on Celtic Mist at 33/1, and Van was more interested in the bloody horse than whatever we were playing. It came in last and he laughed his head off. On a couple of songs he and I were the rhythm section. I played bass and Van was singing and playing drums at the same time. We had a Perspex screen in front of us, and someone mentioned ‘spill’. He said, “Ach, that’s what a cat does to milk.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
MASTERSON: There had been no mention at all of drums, then on “Irish Heartbeat”, or perhaps “Raglan Road”, you could see that Van wasn’t quite happy with the way things were going. He looked at me and said, “I need drums. Drums! Drums!” He asked me to recommend a drummer, which was fine, but when the kit arrived he just said, “Oh, I’ll play them myself,” and plonked them down in the middle of the flipping band. I said, “I can’t record them like that,” and he said, “That’s your problem, work it out.” He was really bashing the high-hat, it was so loud. In the end I prevailed on him to move to the side of the room, but, oh God, the drums really were a nightmare. Then again, there was genuine magic. I’ve recorded “She Moved Through The Fair” with so many people, and I still think Van’s version has it. Everything that that song should be is in that performance.