Entertainment

Sunday 15 September 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'After 20 years trying, I finally get to meet Van Morrisson...'

I've loved his music for decades, so winning an interview with Van Morrison was an unforgettable moment in my life, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan and Van Morrison
Miriam O'Callaghan and Van Morrison
INTERVIEW: Miriam and Van
Van Morrison

Miriam O'Callaghan

I have been in love with Van Morrison and his music for decades. For at least 20 years, I have been trying to get an interview with him, but he rarely gives interviews, and in recent years I had almost given up trying. And then it happened, when I least expected it.

It was in the early 1990s while I was working for BBC Newsnight and responsible for all of their Northern Irish coverage, that my love affair with Van began. Here was this remarkable Belfast talent, who sang about his home place with such beauty and tenderness and reverence - it made me realise that one day things could be better there.

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And they are.

When peace did eventually come dropping slowly, it was Van Morrison's song Days Like This that became the unofficial anthem of the Northern Irish peace process right across the world. The lyrics just fitted perfectly…

''When no one steps on my dreams there'll be days like this

When people understand what I mean there'll be days like this

When you ring out the changes of how everything is

Well my mama told me there'll be days like this'.

It was also around this time that I first tried to get an interview with Van and over the following 20 years I never gave up, believing one day that he might say yes, but all to no avail.

In recent years, I was lucky enough to go to some small concerts Van gives in Belfast, mostly in aid of good causes, with my husband Steve, another Belfast boy. A sensational day was when Van went back to near his home where it all began and had a special concert on Cyprus Avenue organised by East Belfast Arts - the sun shone and at that moment, it was the best place to be in the world.

I remember being at one of the small concerts in The Europa Hotel in Belfast a few years back again with Steve, and met Van just before the gig. I hadn't asked to meet him, I just enjoyed the moment. It turned out to be a particularly precious meeting as his Mum was standing alongside him and he introduced her, Violet Morrison. I asked if it was from his mother that Van got his majestic voice, and he said probably yes and that his Mum had a beautiful voice. I returned to my seat more determined than ever to pursue an interview with Van, if only to talk about his Mum and his and her voice.

I think, like many people, the music of Van Morrison has been an incredibly important soundtrack to my life. Different songs at different times, and for different reasons, many very romantic, others incredibly soothing and healing, some exhilarating, many mystical. I can play his songs over and over again, never tiring of them. I was too young when it first came out to be aware of Astral Weeks, but in recent years I have realised that it is regarded by many as perhaps the greatest album ever made.

But Van does come with a reputation, for being very difficult, rude even - apparently he loathes the media most of the time. That's probably why he rarely gives interviews.

In truth, in recent times I have been so busy that I stopped asking for him.

Then on Friday, November 30, at 9pm I was sitting at home in my kitchen drinking a glass of wine when I got a text from a great RTE radio producer called Alan Torney, who used to produce my Sunday with Miriam show, wondering if I had put a bid in for Van recently as he noticed that he had a new album out. He also sent me the email of the person now looking after him. So, thinking that after 20 years of trying I hadn't anything to lose, I sent a short paragraph to Kerry - the person looking after Van's requests - asking for an interview. I let my wonderful radio producer Sian O'Gorman know, then I went back to my wine and an Indian takeaway, and I thought no more of it.

The following Thursday, when I was preparing to present that night's Prime Time, I got a really lovely mail back from Kerry saying yes, Van would be very happy to do the interview, and would December 15 at 3pm in The Culloden Hotel in Belfast suit? Happy days I thought. I let Sian know immediately and we were both very excited. Mick McLoughlin, a superb RTE Radio sound OB engineer, was brought on board and we all looked forward to our date with Van. Sian produced a wonderful interview brief for me, I added some questions, the day arrived, and we all headed up. My daughter Jessica, who is also a big fan, came along too and helped share the driving so I could concentrate on my questions.

I was nervous, very nervous, and I don't do nervous. But this man rarely gives interviews and I have loved his music for years. Also, almost every person I met spoke about how difficult he apparently can be. The general consensus was definitely that it's great he was doing an interview, but it was unlikely to go well.

So in that room in The Culloden last weekend, I was excited but worried - and so was everyone with me - that he would live up to the difficult reputation. I prayed it would go really well.

At 2.50pm exactly, I heard him outside the room talking - it's such a distinctive speaking voice - and then he and Kerry came in. They could not have been nicer. Van was very warm, chatted to everyone and we did the interview. It lasted for nearly an hour and I honestly think he would have been happy to chat for longer. He wasn't plugging his album at all - I brought it up - he was just happy to chat about music, his influences, his work, the Belfast of his childhood and his parents. He was gentle, thoughtful, kind and oh so polite. Reserved, even a little shy.

Van was everything I prayed he would be. At the end, he was very happy to pose for photos, sign some vinyl, and even said he enjoyed the interview.

Everyone has a favourite Van Morrison song and in my last question, I told him that mine was his love anthem Have I Told You Lately that I Love You. I fell in love with my husband Steve listening to that beautiful song. I didn't tell him that, but I did ask Van if it meant a lot to him that so very many people have fallen in love listening to that song, and, really gently, he said yes. Also many people who had spoken to me beforehand said how some of his songs had helped them through very difficult times, so I also mentioned this, and he responded again very gently saying that it was good to hear and that things like that keep him going when the going gets tough.

As a touching postscript, on Monday afternoon last week, Sian and I unexpectedly received an email from Kate Cody who works with Van. In it, she attached a beautiful old recording of Van's mother Violet, who died in 2016, singing a song called St Louis Blues. Kate said Van asked her to send it on to us, as Van and I had talked about his Mum during the interview.

I had heard, of course, that she had a great singing voice. When you listen to this recording, which we have now included in our interview, there is no doubt where Van Morrison got his majestic voice.

Do meet your heroes. Van the Man was a joy to meet and interview. There are Days Like This.

'Sunday with Miriam' goes out on RTE Radio One at 10am this morning. The show is also available online from 10am on the RTE Player at RTE.ie

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