ONCE home to the Bishops of Down, the graceful Culloden Estate and Spa sits in the shadow of Northern Ireland's Holywood hills. On autumn days Van Morrison might be found sitting in a quiet corner looking out on to the Belfast Lough or walking the nearby coastal path. After more than 50 years in music, during which he has established a canon with few parallels beyond that of Bob Dylan, you could forgive the 71-year-old knight of the realm for taking a break from the stage and the studio to engage with nature, one of the touchstones of his artistic vocabulary, in the city from which he hails and again calls home after spells in Massachusetts, New York, California, London and Somerset. 

Today, however, the journey he is taking is internal rather than external, alighting on a handful of exceptional works, the influences behind them and the misconceptions surrounding them and their creator. While details of his personal life – which includes two marriages, the second to former Miss Ireland Michelle Rocca – are off limits, signs of his reputation as a misanthrope are nowhere to be found as he sits down to a pot of tea with honey and enthusiastically delves into his memories ahead of two Scottish performances to promote Keep Me Singing, his 36th studio album. We begin at the beginning.

HeraldScotland: At 71 Van Morrison shows few signs of slowing downAt 71 Van Morrison shows few signs of slowing down

A short drive from the Culloden takes you to 125 Hyndford Street, where Morrison was born three days before the end of the Second World War. On days off George, his well-travelled father, who served as an electrician in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, would take his only son to the smoke-filled shop Atlantic Records where the access to endless jazz and blues imports built an impressive haul of vinyl at the family home. "It all started with my father's record collection and I went on from there," says Morrison. The genres would soon play definitive roles in Morrison's musical career. "People's influences stay the same. That doesn't change. It's not that you're trying to go back to a certain time – it's just what is." 

As a performer and songwriter he has refused to be hemmed in by his own mythology, often squaring up to the past while keeping "self-perpetuating" rock folklore at bay. "What's relevant is the stuff I have written over this long period, which is now 50 years and about 350 to 400 songs. You need to take this thing as a whole and bring it up to now." 

HeraldScotland: Van Morrison with his daughter Shana after receiving his knighthood in February 2016. Photograph: PAVan Morrison with his daughter Shana after receiving his knighthood in February 2016. Photograph: PA

There's no shortage of material for his ever-changing repertoire as was clear during his compelling performance at the Kelvingrove Bandstand in Glasgow in August. Morrison was clearly buoyed by the crowd that night. "It felt really good," he recalls. "The audience was less inhibited and I got a lot of good feedback from the set, which was geared more to an outdoor gig." The show offered fresh interpretations of lesser-played classics such as The Way Young Lovers Do and Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile). "Yeah, they were more in a jazz direction," he says. "There's stuff I don't want to revisit and there's stuff that works with this particular band. I don't do it all the time but if it works then you do it. They're not going to be the same as they were back then; none of them are but I reinterpret all the time."

Those early blues and jazz records and the well-thumbed Beat Generation paperbacks he referenced on the likes of his 1982 single Cleaning Windows – On the Road and Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – have proved lifelong inspirations. Taking its name from a town near San Francisco where he spent time four decades ago, In Tiburon, from Keep Me Singing, offers another reflective take on Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac et al. "We recorded it last November so some songs are coming up for a year old, [while] others go back further," he explains. "In Tiburon is a tribute to the Beat poets. I was in this house there and the guy looking after the place said to me, 'The woman who lives here listens to your music and looks out on to the bay. When she does, nothing can touch her.' I thought it was an idea for a song – this was back in the 1970s. 

"The second verse is about the Beats. I met people involved with that scene like Vince Guaraldi, who I did some gigs with, he was a great jazz player. I also met guys like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti a few times. I tried to fit Slim Gaillard into the song. I got to know him quite well – he's the scat singer who is referenced in Kerouac's On the Road. Kerouac and all those guys were a big influence on me as a kid starting out."

Another new song, Memory Lane, finds the singer looking back while carrying on the Beat philosophy of everything "being now". "It's the archetypal idea of getting older and in the lineage of songs like It Was a Very Good Year or September Song – songwriters are always kicking those ideas about. There are only so many archetypes so you tend to work from that and study a bit of psychology."

The "tongue and cheek" blues of Going Down to Bangor sounds like Morrison enjoying himself. "Bangor was a fun place to go when I was a kid," he says. "To me it was like this exotic place. I used to go and play the one-armed bandits. If you came from a working-class background then Bangor was a holiday. Today it's going to Spain or Majorca or something like that. Again I'm working around the principle of archetypes – on that it was Howlin' Wolf's Meet Me in the Bottom."

HeraldScotland: It's Too Late to Stop Now by Van MorrisonIt's Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison

The reissue earlier this year of It's Too Late to Stop Now – universally lauded as one of the greatest ever live albums – brought to an end a long period where many of his vital works were out of print. A further three volumes from the period were also released this year. The sets taken from American and British shows in the summer of 1973 find a young man at the peak of his powers, yet three months later Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra disbanded. "It wasn't really meant to stop there," says Morrison. "What happened was the piano player [Jef Labes] was functioning as my musical director because it was a bigger band, and he sort of did a runner and wanted to change his life. 

"He was like a catalyst for me. I met him in Woodstock in upstate New York. This band had developed over a long period of time – it was telepathy, there was a lot of reading what each other was doing, so when he jumped ship it kind of wasn't the same because he was an integral part of it."

Down the line from his home in California, Labes suggests he was "given an opportunity to go and live and work in Israel for a few years". As for continuing to work with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, "I'm not sure he [Morrison] was offering that," says Labes. "From the beginning we had a good sense of what each other was doing; he was the artist and I was a side man and I was very much taken by his art. I found myself totally dedicating my work to being there with him and playing to what he was doing. There was a sense of trying to supply what he needed. Once I opened myself to up to it, I found it a wonderful place to be. Communicating with him on a musical level was very satisfying, exciting and unpredictable. When he gets there live, it is a very powerful feeling of being at one with the universe. I'm glad the record is out again. It was a high point and I feel lucky to have been a part of it."

The 1973 tour created a sea change in popular music, influencing Bruce Springsteen's live sensibilities from then on as well as a post-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie, the latter soon revealing a new soul direction on David Live. Bowie had already paid tribute when he cut Here Comes the Night, a song written by producer Bert Berns and recorded by Morrison's former band Them. "Yeah, Bowie recorded the Pin Ups album as a tribute to myself and various other 1960s groups. He was actually trying out some of my other stuff later on – he told me he was rehearsing some of my songs in the 1990s. I don't know if he recorded them or not." 

I suggest Lulu was devastated when her 1964 version of the song flopped, followed by it becoming a definitive hit for Them. "That's showbiz," he replies. "We didn't get any great shakes or mileage out of it. I didn't hear her version. The first time I heard the song it was being played by Bert Berns on guitar. We were all just kids. We do it now as part of a medley."

HeraldScotland: Van Morrison with his first group, Them. Photograph: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex/ShutterstockVan Morrison with his first group, Them. Photograph: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex/Shutterstock

It's a point of frustration for Morrison that music writers often can't see beyond his 1968 album Astral Weeks and its 1970 follow-up Moondance. "It's very narrow because it's the same albums and the same songs, they don't look at a body of work or even the real story, they look at their propaganda."

The former was regarded as a flop by the record company on release but gradually built a cult following, each passing year adding to the tide of critical and fan acclaim. In the aftermath of its release Morrison was living hand to mouth while commuting from Woodstock to New York to record its more commercially minded successor. Labes suggests that "the label, Warner Brothers, wanted him to come up with something they could sell". "I know he was heavily influenced by The Band," recalls Labes. "They were friendly and he respected them tremendously. We were all living in Woodstock and there was a country feeling around living there in the mountains – it was an artistic community." 

HeraldScotland: Tupelo Honey by Van MorrisonTupelo Honey by Van Morrison

The cover of Tupelo Honey from 1971 featured Morrison leading his then wife Janet Planet (nee Rigsbee) on horseback in an Edenic vision of bliss. "That's an example of what [the mythology] I'm talking about," says Morrison. "It was all staged – I didn't have a horse and I didn't have a ranch but this was kind of put out there. People used to say to me, 'What's your ranch like?' I was I like, 'I don't have a ranch.' I wasn't relatable to that in any way." The couple divorced in 1973, three years after the birth of their daughter Shana, who followed her father into a career in music. 

HeraldScotland: Van Morrison with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others in Martin Scorsese's concert film The Last WaltzVan Morrison with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others in Martin Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz

Morrison's performance of Caravan for The Band's 1976 farewell show was the stand-out moment in Martin Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz. The likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell wait in the wings as Morrison, full of Celtic swagger, wipes the floor with the competition before leaving the stage abruptly. The singer sees it differently. "That was a young guy who didn't have a clue what was going on and was being manipulated, so you don't really get a picture of any of this from that – it's not relevant to me any more." 

HeraldScotland: Veedon Fleece by Van MorrisonVeedon Fleece by Van Morrison

While Morrison has often offered a poetic vision of the north of Ireland his 1974 release Veedon Fleece crossed the border into the bucolic south.

It's largely unacknowledged that the album's impressionistic lyrics and ethereality seemed to pick up the baton from Astral Weeks.

"There was something going on in that it was like writing a short story," says Morrison, "and to me it was similar to Astral Weeks because that record was also written like short stories. It's interesting, what you are saying; I need to take a look at it again." 

Besides blues and jazz, gospel and its secularised offspring soul were pivotal influences on Morrison from early childhood. Around east Belfast today churches display public messages of spiritual renewal, transformation and redemption, just as they did throughout Morrison's youth. Sundays were a cultural shutdown but the influential pioneers of gospel and the undiluted roots of rock and roll could be heard on Hyndford Street. "I was very influenced by Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Thorpe. My father played those records all the time and from there I got into Ray Charles and Sam Cooke." 

HeraldScotland: Common One by Van MorrisonCommon One by Van Morrison

It was on 1980's Common One that Morrison completed his transcendental trilogy. The album took his soul and funk influences further and combined them with a more meditative skein of Christian mysticism than that found in the Protestant, Evangelical or Presbyterian traditions of his east Belfast upbringing. On Common One Morrison again sparked off the relationship with Labes. "We sort of made a comeback when we played Montreux [jazz festival] and worked on Common One," says Morrison. "It wasn't conscious but there is a connection [with Veedon Fleece] because he worked on that album too. The music went through a metamorphosis on that record; we took it a bit higher with that situation." Common One was given a critical mauling by some – like Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece it was largely misunderstood at the time of its release. There's a price to pay, as Labes suggests, for Morrison "speaking from his own views and doing his own thing and not being terribly influenced by anything else that's out there; he's almost working out of time".

HeraldScotland: Keep Me Singing by Van MorrisonKeep Me Singing by Van Morrison

Keep Me Singing is Morrison's first album of new material in four years. "There's more business to deal with than anything else," he says, explaining the reason behind such an uncharacteristic gap. "I write when I get the chance. I don't get enough time to spend on music. Don't be a success, because when you get it there's more business. I thought my life would be recording and doing gigs. I'm looking for a way to find more time to spend on music where I don't have to think about all this crap."

Later, during a performance at the Culloden, he delivers his 2003 song Fame with added grit, barking, "Don't believe all that old Andy Warhol guff." It's one of several tracks that tell the alternative version of Morrison's life. "I could give you a list of songs that would give you a different take on everything, going back to The Great Deception and Wonderful Remark. That song [first recorded in 1969] is as relevant to me now as it was back then." He also cites It Once Was My Life from 1997's The Healing Game. "These songs give you a picture. It's a hard business and it takes a lot to survive."
Morrison absorbed much from his mother Violet, who died in May. She would be regularly "tuning up the wireless" throughout his childhood or leading family sing-songs. Perhaps more significantly she played an array of musical instruments, including the bagpipes.

HeraldScotland: Van Morrison in performanceVan Morrison in performance

Caledonia Swing, the closing track on Keep Me Singing, is a tribute to his own Ulster Scots heritage. "If you go back to my mainstream history lessons at school, we were taught that the Scots came from here and when they went to Scotland they called them Scots. Caledonia Swing is my own take on it." 

HeraldScotland: Saint Dominic's Preview by Van MorrisonSaint Dominic's Preview by Van Morrison

Morrison first sang of "sailing to Caledonia" on Listen to the Lion from his 1972 album St Dominic's Preview. "At the time I was reading a book on this history of the tribes coming here and about the Venetians – some names here locally are Venetian. Northern Ireland was once hooked up with Scotland – the Dal Riata [a Gaelic kingdom comprising parts of western Scotland and north-eastern Ireland]. That stuff is not really out there because it's been suppressed." 

Does the Celtic Revival, Ireland's cultural renaissance of the 18th and 19th century, which proved an inspiration to the singer in the past, still drive him on? "That whole Celtic thing came from Yeats and Lady Gregory and I think it's relevant," he replies. "England doesn't have any identity whatsoever – in England people don't even want their flag, the St George. Surrounding England you have all these allegedly Celtic countries – Scotland, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, southern Ireland, Brittany and Wales – and they have an identity. England has lost that. You don't have to say you're British any more, which was another myth." 

So how does Morrison feel about going back to those ancestral roots to perform, as he will this week? "The [Edinburgh] Playhouse is a good venue – I've played there a lot. It's ideal for what I'm doing because it's not too big and there's more communication ... and history." After five decades on his restless quest for musical expression, few could deny Morrison knows the truth of that.

Van Morrison plays the Edinburgh Playhouse tomorrow and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Monday. Keep Me Singing is out now.