Paul McCartney on Songwriting, The Beatles and Revisiting Old MaterialMusic Features Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney’s 2013 album, New, should rank as one of his best solo works. Showcasing everything from glam and big rock to more personal and introspective tunes, the LP encompassed everything great about “The Cute One” in one package. But even at 72, McCartney is by no means at a stopping point. The former Beatle spent the bulk of 2014 on a whirlwind tour around the world and even released a song written specifically for the video game Destiny. Paste caught up with him to talk about the science of songwriting, his endless supply of hooks and downtime back at home.
Paste: Congratulations on New. What a great record.
Paul McCartney: Thank you, man. I will say it’s always great to make. It’s always great to have a new bunch of songs and then get together with some people. It’s like the best period, making the record and then getting into it. This is very exciting to get to do this one. I had a lot of fun making it and it’s been received very well, so I’m very pleased.
Paste: There’s this fire in it. I think it might have been the perfect Paul McCartney album for this era. It has those classic sounds that your longtime fans have yearned to hear, but there’s a real freshness to it. Is that difficult, knowing you’ve got to speak to older fans at the same time as trying to do something new?
McCartney: The truth is the problem’s always been the same, really. When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love. It’s the same now. It doesn’t get any easier or harder really. Sometimes you get really lucky and you go, “Whoa, that one slipped out easy.” And then some other times it’s a bit more of a grind, but it’s something I love doing. Whenever I try to do it, there’s a sort of fascination to it. Like “Wow, two seconds ago there wasn’t a song, and now we’ve got something.” It’s kind of a magical thing. I love doing it.
Paste: I know songs seem to arrive out of nowhere, and there’s never a way to explain that, but I expect there is a science to a song. In this record, it’s full of hooks everywhere. I don’t know a lot of people, especially over a lifetime or a career, who have been able to produce so many catchy moments. Is that accurate? Because again a song idea kind of arrives from the universe but at some point, you have to know how to build a house.
McCartney: I think that’s right. Both of those things are right. They definitely just arrive out of thin air, but I think you have to know how to spot them. I think someone building a car suddenly knows when the design is right or when the engine sounds good. After a while you get used to that, and you say, “Yeah, this is the way you go.” As far as hooks are concerned, I must say I just love them. I love them on other people’s records. I love it. You find yourself whistling it or wake up thinking, “What’s that? Oh I love that. What is it?” The best scenario is when you realize it’s one of yours. “Oh, it’s the one I’m writing currently.” That’s the right sign. But I tell you what, it beats working.
Paste: Does it ever get to a point where it’s a bit mathematical when you are writing a song? Like you know the tricks that work.
McCartney: Not really. You try and avoid that. If that happens, you back off. You start to think, “No, I don’t want to do that.” It’s actually not a good thing to do because you mathematically work yourself into a hole. So you don’t want to do that. If you find yourself doing that, I always kind of pull up and go, “No, let’s go somewhere else with that.” Then you kind of surprise yourself. You go, “Well, I wouldn’t have gone there, but it’s kind of cool.” That’s what makes it a fascinating process.
Paste: It’s seemed to have worked out pretty well for you. You’ve done a really great job through the years of not just sticking to one style either. Is it accurate to say that all music is pop music and it’s just mixing around the structures of what you want to do? If all music is pop music, and we’re not talking about classical, but if all music is pop music, it just becomes a process about how you structure this to make it a glam song versus something like Kisses From The Bottom where you were doing the standards.
McCartney: People used to ask me and John [Lennon], “Who does what? Who writes the words? Who writes the music? How do you do this?” And we say, “There’s no one way.” Sometimes it will be me. Sometimes it will be John. Sometimes I’ll do the melody. Sometimes he’ll do the words. Sometimes words come first, sometimes melody. We hoped we never arrived at a formula. You don’t want to. We used to joke if we ever arrived at a formula, we’ll bottle it and sell it, but the truth is you don’t actually want to arrive at a formula. There were a lot of records in the early days of The Beatles where a lot of people would find a formula and stick to it. Bands like The Supremes, there was a very similar sound to their records and as much as I loved them, we used to think, “no, you have to avoid that.” So you think about what we put out then and really the truth is there were no two songs that were the same. Actually, on this new record, I kind of worried about that at one point. I said, “Whoa, I got all these producers and these songs.They’re not all alike. They’re not coming out of the same room.” But you know what? I thought that was actually a good thing, because I check some Beatles records and you got “When I’m Sixty-Four” or you got “She’s So Heavy,” “Blackbird.” You know, these things weren’t really coming out of the same box and yet it was the same singles, the same band playing them so it worked. It was a continuity.
Paste: It’s such a rare talent for anyone to pull out that many sounds. Most songwriters are stuck in a box. They find their one sound, and that’s what they can do.
McCartney: Well, I feel very lucky I never got into that. In fact, I’ve been very careful in a way, but I’ve just sort of known you have to avoid that. Because that other is that it kills it for you. That’s the worst thing. If you make a song and you go, “Oh, this is very similar to the last one I did.” Then yeah, ultimately you’re going to think, “I’m really bored. Why am I doing this?” You don’t want to think like that. And so for me it’s always, “Okay, now I wrote that. Let’s see what we can do that’s completely different.” That keeps it fresh for you, and I think if you like it, it communicates itself to your audience.
Paste: With that in mind, when you are in the studio, when you’re by yourself, you can be anything you want to be. But it does seem like when you get to the stage and people have bought the ticket and they’ve come to see Paul McCartney, there’s a certain expectation of what they want. They want The Beatle. They want the guy from Wings. And for a person like you, a person who is so much about moving forward, does it ever seem like there’s a legion of fans that force you to live in the past?
McCartney: Not really. I know exactly what you mean. It could seem like that, but really the way that I look at it is, I used to go to a lot of concerts, particularly when I used to be a kid, so I didn’t have any money. So I’d save up for forever just to go see an artist I really loved, and I realized that people do that. I was there. I did that. If ever I went to see an artist that didn’t do the songs I wanted to hear, it was like, “Hmm, okay, he’s cool but I’m not coming again.” It was a disappointment, you know. I go see The Rolling Stones, I want to hear “Honky Tonk Women.” I hope they do “Satisfaction.” That’s what I try and do. I write a setlist. I look at the songs as if it was me going to see me. What I would hope I would do. So I get those songs, and that involved a lot of Beatles and Wings songs, and then I just look at the songs I want to do now, because that’s going to break it up. It’s going to make it not just a Beatles show or not just a Wings show. And so we kind of sprinkle through songs people don’t necessarily know so well, probably the real hardcore fans know them. But that’s what happens. You keep it fresh and the moment you’re almost going to get bored, you stop. You switch gears. I’m very happy with the setlist we’re playing at the moment actually, because often us guys will come off stage and “My god, that went fast.” It’s a good sign. You think, “Whoa, we are at the end of three hours already. How did that go so fast?” It’s because you are just enjoying it. A lot of things for me, a lot of interest occurs, because I’m playing let’s say an old Beatles song. Let’s say something like “Eleanor Rigby.” I’m doing it from this perspective of who I am now, so I’m listening to this kid’s song. This is like some 24-year-old kid who wrote this.
Paste: Like covering yourself.
McCartney: Yeah, so I’m listening to it and going, “Now this is okay. Wow, how did he think to say that? She’s wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door? That’s cool.” It’s nice because you are rediscovering some of these songs. So it doesn’t just get to churning them out. I think there’s such a variety in playing them. And like I say, there’s the ones that we put in there that were hits. But not as well-known and that kind of keeps it—
Paste: Those are the magic moments of the concert right there.
McCartney: Well, that is an interesting thing. You play something and think, “Oh, you know people are just going to suffer through this.” Then you suddenly get a really great applause and you go, “Well wait a minute. They really like that.” So it’s great, man. I’m really not just touring every single day of the year. I actually kind of do a week on, week off sort of thing. It’s because I’ve got a little girl. When I get back to England, I’ve got to take her to school, so I’m kind of half-time dad in that respect. And then, you know, major rock star. So it’s crazy, but I like it. It keeps it fresh.
Paste: With the Wings reissues you’ve been doing over the past year, do you see this as a chance to finally set the record straight?
McCartney: It is one of those things. We followed up The Beatles.
McCartney: In my mind, it wasn’t as a good, and it never was going to be as good, but you kept plugging on. You kept thinking, “Oh, I’m going to do this thing.” And then years later, what happened was, years later, once we were done with The Beatles and Wings, I would talk to some guys and we would go, “Sgt. Pepper’s man.” I remember a journalist saying, “Yeah, I wasn’t that into Sgt. Pepper’s. Band On The Run was my favorite.” And you go, “Whoa!” A new generation has come up, and they appreciate this Wings stuff. So now looking at them through the archivist’s eyes, I find new stuff in it all the time, you know, tracks I hadn’t heard probably since I had recorded them or since I played them last live. A lot of them I haven’t ever played live. I’m just listening to them and thinking “you know what? That’s a pretty good track.” I’d written it off. But somehow you see what’s good about them. So I can see it through a Wings fan’s eyes, and that’s nice.
Paste: It’s nice how time finally validates some of that stuff in there.
McCartney: Yeah! Hey, we’re just going on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Give it up for Muhammad Ali. I love that guy.
Paste: There’s a great picture of The Beatles with him, a very old picture with Muhammad Ali.
McCartney: It’s funny someone e-mailed that picture to me this morning because they knew I was coming to Louisville. I was at a function many years later where Ali was getting honored and I was getting honored, and I said in my speech that it’s particularly great because Ali’s here and I really respect him. But you know looking back in time to the first time I met him at the training camp before the Sonny Liston fight, I said, “You know, I was in pretty good shape. I could have taken him,” and he gave me a look from the audience like “You crazy man.”
Paste: It would have been great to at least hear you guys trash talk each other since you’re both masters of words. Can you tell me about the videogame that you are a part of?
McCartney: Yeah, the people that did Halo, they asked me if I would like to get involved in a collaboration with the guy Marty O’Donnell that does the soundtrack and did the soundtrack for the Halo games. So I just said, “Okay, talk to me. What’s going on? What’s involved? What do we have to do?” It was basically help him on the soundtrack, which I was excited to do. Like you say, I like to keep things fresh. So that was interesting, and then the other thing he said to do was like, a song. At the end of the game, there’s a song. I think it’s over the end credits. When you’ve finished the game, you get the song. But it was great to work on that. It was another world, really.
Paste: You’re not exactly known for angry music, which is what I might associate with something like that.
McCartney: In truth, it’s more epic music that you get in those games. It’s more like a big movie score. It’s not necessarily angry, but it’s epic. How it worked is just I used to send Marty ideas and little thoughts that I thought. And then he would orchestrate a version of it and send it back to me and I would say, “Oh that’s great.” Or “use a bit more of the theme,” or whatever. And we just kept ping-ponging ideas at each other until he actually orchestrated the final score. I just probably threw him a dozen ideas or things I thought would work, and then he put the epic anger in it all. But it’s great to do, and the idea that people are going to hear it while they are playing a videogame is a whole new ballgame for me.
Paste: So you never really sat down yourself and became a gamer?
McCartney: I tried it, but I got killed within the first 30 seconds. Aliens got me, man!
Paste: This far into Paul McCartney’s career and he becomes addicted to a videogame.
McCartney: I got a lot of kids. I got grandkids. They’re the ones who want a free copy.
Paste: How is life outside of music? You were talking about that a minute ago, doing the couple weeks on, couple weeks off. Is there a lot of life that has nothing to do with music?
McCartney: Yeah, that’s the balancing thing. To get home, really it’s a completely different kind of life. I say to people, “you can either call it balance or schizophrenia. It’s one or the other.” In my case, I think it’s a great balance. So I go home, I’m Mr. Ordinary. I’m talking to all the moms at the school, and I just lead an ordinary life really. And then I get back on the road and I’m playing Louisville, playing to crowds, and I’m loving it. So it keeps the both ends of it fresh. I think if you’re out forever, if you’re out for three months on a tour, you forget where you are even playing. You know, “where are we? Is this Des Moines or Delaware? Where is this? Where am I tonight?” You keep interested. We were just in New Orleans and you’re like, “Hey man, this is New Orleans!” You appreciate it more, I think.