Keeping it in the family
From the record store to the recording studio, Van Morrison’s daughter has found her voice
Being a singer-songwriter when you are Van Morrison’s only child is a hard road to traverse—terrain inherent with lofty public expectations and the hollow trappings of fame. Yet, even with such obstacles to battle, Shana Morrison has met her challenges, distinguishing herself by virtue of a stunningly beautiful voice and original songs that reveal a woman on a path of self-discovery.
After nearly 15 years touring and making records (she began her career as part of Van Morrison’s Soul Revue in 1993), Morrison has developed into a singer of great purpose, strength and conviction, of amazing subtlety and scope (not so much rock-'n'-roll diva or darkly haunted blues-wailer or solitary balladeer as she is an amalgamation of each).
Morrison’s latest solo record, That’s Who I Am, on her own Belfast Violet Records, is her most starkly personal effort to date—a record that reeks of a lifetime of influences, the influences through which she has stretched the thread of her own personal vision. The album comes to us a slow-paced and loping extravaganza of blues-inflected melodies cut with the glorious sacred power of voice—a voice reminiscent of the great Bessie Smith.
Now recast in the image of her father and in the image of 1,000 other musicians who have preceded and influenced her, Shana Morrison is on a journey of infinite dimension. Every day brings with it a multitude of new turns, and she has no idea where this road will ultimately lead. But that’s of little importance. The only thing that matters now is that she just keeps moving steadily forward.
Your musical beginnings actually extend back to your grandparents’ record store where you worked as a child, correct?
My paternal grandparents had a small store, Caledonia Records, in Fairfax, just about 12 miles up the road from here in Marin. On weekends when I was a child, the family would all go up there, and I would work behind the counter, handing out change at the register. I was exposed to all kinds of music in the store—things like Rickie Lee Jones and Steely Dan. I always wanted to get my hands on the KISS and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC albums that all my friends at school were listening to [laughs], but my grandfather would have none of it. He said that stuff wasn’t really music, and he steered me back toward the jazz and blues LPs.
As a singer-songwriter, is there someone with whom you identify strongly, either on an emotional or creative level?
I always identify more with women, but as I’m sure you know, saying you write like someone is like saying you look like someone. We are all unique. All of [my influences] had qualities that I admired as a young girl, though. Ricky Lee Jones was street; Teena Marie was funky even if she wasn’t black; Dolly Parton could tell a story that made you cry and inspired you to be a better person; Iris Dement—who I discovered in my 20’s—was romance; Joni Mitchell was intellect; and Jann Arden was someone who would let all of her vulnerabilities show, who seemed strong for not cloaking her weaknesses.
Your father’s contempt for the music business as a whole is widely known. How has that affected the decisions you have made in your own career?
I have been very hesitant. I grew up knowing a lot of music people and hearing a lot of stories. And it didn’t make the music business seem that attractive to me. I saw it as a corrupt free-for-all without any standards. I wasn’t about to play the game. I formed my own band and my own label. I managed myself, keeping control over what was happening. And eventually I found Vanguard, and was able to make a record with a real producer. But it took me a long time to be convinced. It’s hard to go into this business, picturing yourself as a product, which is what you become once that record is released.
Your duet with your father on “Sometimes We Cry” is a definite highlight of that record and your live performances. Can you talk a bit about how that happened …
Well, [producer] Steve Buckingham and I decided to record that song while we in the middle of making the [7 Wishes] album. I always liked the song—it’s one of those instant classics my father seems to always be able to write. But actually, I didn’t cut the song with my father. Steve and I recorded “Sometimes We Cry” in the studio, and left two holes for solos to be over-dubbed later. My dad’s harmonica solo is over-dubbed. It came out so beautiful. I love the sound and the feel of his harmonica. I was actually kind of surprised he did it. He usually does things live in one take and is opposed to any over-dubbing. I asked him to do it, and he said yes. Maybe he was in a good mood that day [laughs].
John Aiello is a Bay Area poet and journalist whose work has appeared in many national and regional publications. He is also the founder of the electronic fine arts journal The Electric Review.