James McCartney: Thinking About Rock 'N' Roll

Music Features James McCartney
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James McCartney is amazed by my typing skills. We’re sitting in the hot sun, outside Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga. as his crew sets up for soundcheck. My fast clicking is distracting him. “Dude, wow. I want to type like that.” He asks if there’s a course he could take online to “get on” like I do with my words-per-minute. I tell him no, unless he’d like to learn the way I did—over a two-year stint as a desk clerk in the United States Army.

McCartney is in town in support of his first full-length album Me, which follows the 2011 compilation of his two previously released EPs. Though the title suggests a clever declaration of independence, he doesn’t shy away from his family legacy when it serves the music. His father Paul is listed as a producer and sings backup on two of the album’s best tracks, the haunting “You and Me Individually” and the bouncy “Thinking About Rock and Roll.”

People comment on McCartney’s resemblance to his famous dad as if it’s miraculous for parents to pass genes on to their children. To be fair, he does share his father’s uncanny gift for melody, but stylistically and vocally, he has more in common with Heatmiser-era Elliott Smith. And like the famously reticent Smith, he’s also shy. His eyes avert as he plays, but he gives a strong performance, playing his guitar with a confidence that impresses me as much as my plunkering at the keyboard thrilled him earlier.

Paste : How’s the tour going?
McCartney: Good, man. It’s got its up and downs, but it’s good. I’m on an up now, and generally they’re ups, but once in a while it can be tough in the van, you know. All that kind of stuff. The reality of not being the most established artist ever, not having the largest fan base ever.

Paste : You seem reserved and guarding of your privacy, and I was wondering how you get the courage to step out in public like this, especially considering your background.
McCartney: I’ve been doing it for a few years now. But for a while, I would kind of run away from myself. I would want to focus on Nirvana and being very skeptical about the music industry and commerciality. But after a while, when I hit 30, I couldn’t keep waiting forever to do my music, so I’ve been doing it for about four years. And now it doesn’t matter. I’ve been doing it for a little while, so I’ve gathered the confidence to do interviews and stuff.

Paste : Was music something you’d always been interested in?
McCartney: Yeah, I always wanted to play music, but I wouldn’t let on. Before that, I was focusing more on college and school, which I had to. Everyone has to focus on school. I was working on a sculpture degree, which I didn’t finish because my mum died. That was a difficult time, but then it was a good time as well, because it just gave me the freedom. I thought “Okay, if she’s rocking and rolling, I’m gonna rock and roll as well.”

Paste : When did you start writing music?
McCartney: I’ve been writing music since I was 17. The first one I ever wrote was ‘Wings of a Lightest Weight.” I’d been listening to a lot of Jackson Browne at the time, Late for the Sky. And then that inspired me. I always felt like I had a lot of pressure on me to write music to begin with. And when I wrote that I was like, “yes, I’ve written my first song.” It wasn’t difficult to write; it was just that I put a lot of pressure on myself to write a song. But eventually I did.

Paste : That’s a pretty incredible song. I’m impressed that it was your first. Did you play it for your parents? What did your dad think of you writing a song of that quality for your first?
McCartney: Dad wanted to record it right away. He was happy and wanted to go into the recording studio and record it, that was his main focus. And once it was recorded, I can’t remember if it was recorded or if I played it for her first, but it made my mom cry. In a lovely way. Tears of joy. I think she was happy. It was a lovely song.

Paste : You seem to have had a very special relationship with your mom. What traits of hers do you see in yourself?
McCartney: I have the same color hair. I have the same hands, long fingers, same kind of skin. I think there’s a little bit of me which looks like her. I mainly look like dad, but I do look like mum a bit. I have her mannerisms, and she had a lot of love to give. Hopefully, I have the same qualities to give to people as well. Being kind and compassionate. And vegetarian. She rubbed off in a good way on a lot of people. She was like a mother earth kind of person. Mother nature.

Paste : Is it weird that people constantly reference your family history, that so many people have their own memories and feelings about your parents?
McCartney: It’s all right. I’m getting used to it. I need to acknowledge that. Sometimes, it has been like “Let’s focus on me.” It’s not like I want to focus on me, it’s just more… trying to accept other people’s lives. It’s like there’s a shadow. It’s a good shadow, but I’m trying to figure out the light in that darkness because I have my own identity as well. And I’m trying to create that. A fresh canvas.

It feels good to get positive reviews. It’s all part of building a positive campaign. But it’s a bit of both. I want to respect and honor my dad and my mum and my family, but at the same time I have to be creating my own thing as well, so I can’t get too involved in either all. But it’s part of the same package. I have influences, interdependence, all those things. But it’s more about trying to write new stuff on tour. Hopefully I’ll come up with new songs and lyrics and art and stuff, because that’s basically what my career is, isn’t it? Basically.

Paste : You did the EPs and album and have shown an incredible amount of growth for someone who began their career four years ago. How long until you have another record?
McCartney: I’m working on my next album. It will be more grungy. I wrote a bunch of songs after mum’s death, sort of in grief. I was heavily into Nirvana and still am. I love bands like The Cure and Radiohead. At the time I was more into Nirvana and The Cure and a band called Jack Off Jill. Goth, grunge, Hole, Marilyn Manson… those kind of bands. TAD. The Seattle scene. Mudhoney. So I have these older songs, which I need to pay homage to. I think for the next record, that’s what I’d like to do. Yeah, I will do it.

Paste : What amazed me was the quality of some of the tracks that didn’t make it on the official record—the very fun “Spirit Guides,” the beautiful “I Love You Dad” and “Virginia,” which almost has an acoustic Led Zeppelin flair. How do you choose the B-sides?
McCartney: We had a conference call with the record guy, Blake and David Khan, the producer. We picked the track listings. It was difficult, but we just had to do it. It was one of those things. I’ve had a tendency, and I do have a tendency of… not procrastinating, but letting things fall into place a little bit. Leave it to God. Fate. Destiny. Nature/nurture. However you want to put it.

Paste : The music you’ve created shows an incredible range of influences. I’m assuming that, considering the way you grew up, you must have had the opportunity to meet people most rock fans could only dream of… like Dylan or The Rolling Stones.
McCartney: I’ve never met Dylan. I would love to, but I’ve met the Stones. Kind of. I’ve certainly met Ronnie Wood. We played together a little while ago. Keith, I met kind of. But I didn’t really talk to him because I was trying to be respectful and not be a fan and stuff. That was at my dad’s wedding party. And Mick, I kind of saw from a bit of a distance. I was kind of in the presence of Mick at a party. Charlie…I’d love to meet Charlie. But yeah, Dylan I haven’t met.

Paste : You understand then, what it’s like to be a fan. It sounds to me that you have that kind of reverence for the Stones.
McCartney: No, I totally understand that thing with dad. Completely. He’s amazing. He’s an icon. He’s a genius, isn’t he? Totally. As far as I’m concerned, he is the man.