Sir Paul McCartney chats about his new record as it's crowned The Sun's album of the year
“I KNOW we’ll come through this,” says Paul McCartney of the pandemic that has upended both his and our lives.
“It is great news about the vaccine,” he tells me. “I’ll have it as soon as I’m allowed.
“I’m a grandad and you don’t want grandad to collapse. You’ve got to stay strong, that’s all you can do, or you go under.”
Right back to when The Beatles burst on to the scene in the early Sixties, McCartney has embraced the power of positive thinking.
At 78, his passion for life and music remains undimmed. No better example of this is his reaction to the very challenging 2020.
On Saturday, June 27th this year at roughly 9.45pm, Britain’s greatest living songwriter should have walked out on to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in front of a crowd stretching back as far as his eyes could see.
Now he doubts he’ll get there until at least 2022, the year he turns 80.
“Glastonbury, where you’ve got over 100,000 people packed into a field? That’s a super-spreader,” he decides.
I’m a grandad and you don’t want grandad to collapse. You’ve got to stay strong.
The Beatles icon, knight of the realm, had been Michael and Emily Eavis’s “absolute dream” choice to headline the festival’s 50th anniversary spectacular.
Maybe he would have kicked things off with the immortal opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, a favoured first song at his shows in recent times.
But, instead, stuck at home in lockdown, he was busy creating one of the most rewarding albums of his storied career.
Regarded by the man himself as a bona fide sequel to 1970’s debut solo album McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, the free-flowing McCartney III emerged from his Sussex studio.
He wrote the songs, sang the vocals, played all the instruments (including the stand-up bass once owned by Elvis sidekick Bill Black) and assumed the role of producer . . . an extraordinary testament to triumph over isolation.
Released today, SFTW’s album of this strangest year includes the infectious, largely instrumental Long-Tailed Winter Bird, the soulful, experimental centrepiece Deep Deep Feeling, as well as gorgeous unadorned songs for voice and piano or voice and guitar . . . Women And Wives and The Kiss Of Venus.
There’s also an anthem for troubled times, Find My Way, and an emphatic call to arms for those gripped with doubts about the future, Seize The Day.
I’m speaking to the irrepressible McCartney to reflect on his latest endeavours, remotely of course as is the norm right now.
He’s in Tier 2 Sussex and I’m in wild and windswept Tier 1 Cornwall, standing in an upstairs bathroom to get a decent signal.
First, he describes his response to lockdown in April: “We were shocked to find ourselves in the middle of this but, for some creative people, it gave us unexpected time.
“I should have been rehearsing for my shows, culminating in Glastonbury, and suddenly all of that was knocked out, so I was able to do some recording.
“I was just making music purely for me that no one really was going to hear, except me and my family.”
But this is Paul McCartney we’re talking about. “I suddenly had about 11 or 12 tracks, not knowing what to do with them . . . but then the penny dropped,” he continues.
“I thought of McCartney I and II. I’d played all the instruments on those, which put this in the same class, so this should be McCartney III. I’d found a place for it.”
He revelled in the “freedom” to do his own thing, without the input of the outside producers and other musicians that he might use on what he calls “a proper album” like 2018’s Egypt Station.
He also had to get used to the pandemic forcing him to “stay home, limiting what I might normally do.
“A lot of friends were saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never spent so much time with my wife!’” he says, referencing his American third wife, Nancy.
“And it was great because I got to spend time with my daughter Mary and her family. So that meant I had four of my grandkids together, which was really nice.
"Great family, very loving and we’re in the countryside so, if we went out to get a breath of fresh air, we didn’t meet anyone.
“I was a little worried about telling anyone I was having a good time because I knew so many people weren’t but most people I talked to said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a silver lining’.”
That said, McCartney makes a more general point about the restrictions Britons have endured since April. “You can’t just lockdown a whole country. . . unless you’re China,” he insists.
“We’re all brought up to enjoy the great freedom that we have in a democracy.
“I’m not sure you can say to all those girls you see in Liverpool in the freezing cold in the tiniest of miniskirts on a Saturday night in the middle of winter, ‘Look, you’ve got to stay home’.”
One of his new songs, Find My Way, appears to directly address those finding the pandemic extremely stressful.
“I know quite a few people who have been really overwhelmed because we’ve been through, and are still going through, a very frightening thing,” he says.
The song explores “the idea of trying to stay positive”.
“When I was a kid, any song that was uplifting was a real bonus, so I’ve taken that to heart.
“In Find My Way, the me character is singing about how he’s confident he won’t get lost at night, but he’s also talking to the person filled with anxieties.
“So I suppose, in a way, I’m trying to encourage them to keep their head up and get through this thing.”
Before even the idea of McCartney III took shape, he would use his family as a sounding board for his fresh recordings, an experience he found relaxed and pressure free.
“I’d do a day in the studio and then come back in the evening and be hanging out with the kids,” he says.
“Maybe one of them would say, ‘What have you been up to?’ and I’d say, ‘I’ll play it for you if you want’.
“They got the inside scoop on the whole album, hearing it all before anyone. I wasn’t asking for serious feedback but if anyone danced around, I’d go, ‘Oh, that’s good’.
“One song, The Kiss Of Venus, has a very catchy little melody. I’d hear my family wandering around doing the cooking, singing that.”
Albums of the year
- Paul McCartney – Paul McCartney III
- The Killers – Imploding The Mirage
- Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways
- Alicia Keys – Alicia
- Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
- Biffy Clyro – A Celebration Of Endings
- Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts
- The Weeknd – After Hours
- Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
- Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot
- Taylor Swift – Folklore
- Fleet Foxes – Shore
- The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You
- The Pretenders – Hate For Sale
- AC/DC – Power Up
- Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
- Halsey – Manic
- Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
- Gregory Porter – All Rise
- Eels – Earth To Dora
- Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
- Willie Nelson – First Rose Of Spring
- Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
- Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels
- Haim – Women In Music Pt. III
- Marcus King – El Dorado
- Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
- Toni Braxton – Spell My Name
- Yusuf/Cat Stevens – Tea for The Tillerman²
- The Strokes – The New Abnormal
- Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You
- Sault – Untitled (Rise)
- Bill Callahan – Gold Record
- Georgia – Seeking Thrills
- Yungblud – Weird!
- The Chicks – Gaslighter
- Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 4
- Nothing But Thieves – Moral Panic
- Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
- Rolling Blackouts C.F – Sideways To New Italy
- Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
- Doves –The Universal Want
- Idles – Ultra Mono
- Green Day – Father Of All…
- Dizzee Rascal – E3 AF
- Lady Gaga – Chromatica
- Mac Miller – Circles
Another track, the jazzy, complex and brilliant Deep Deep Feeling provoked a great response in the household.
“My youngest grandson started singing, ‘Sometimes I wish it would go away, sometimes I wish it would stay’, reveals McCartney as he, in turn, sings those lines into his phone to me.
“Everyone would laugh and I’d be joining in, going, ‘E-mo-tion’.”
At the time, he wondered if the song was too long but decided it didn’t become too boring.
“It’s repetitive but it’s about the feeling we all have when every cell in your body thrills. It just surges through you.
“If it was a sound, it would be ‘zzzhhhhheeeeee’. You get it when you see something you really love or have a special moment with a member of your family.”
Family, and his own place in one, is on McCartney’s mind during Women And Wives which, he says, is a bit like the Crosby, Stills & Nash song Teach Your Children but sung in the emphatic tones of blues pioneer Lead Belly.
“I was in a good but bluesy mood. I’d been reading about Lead Belly so I was doing that ‘I’ve got the bluuueeesss’ style.”
As for Seize The Day, McCartney says: “The chorus is, ‘When the cold days come’, so that is a little bit Covid.
“There will be cold days, days that will test us, but we should remember to enjoy this day. Really it’s ‘carpe diem’ but that didn’t fit . . . although I must admit, in one of the demos, I start trying to throw it in!”
This brings us to the album’s most bawdy effort, Lavatory Lil, which, to me, echoes the great character songs from The Beatles’ later years.
“Like Polythene Pam,” says McCartney, riffing on the idea. Those songs are always based on a true story. They’re a bit like The Crown, not true but based on real events.
“Polythene Pam for instance, was some girl that John (Lennon) had met on his travels, who wore a lot of polythene.
“So he just used her as the starting point and ran with the idea,” he adds before quoting the line, “She’s killer-diller when she’s dressed to the hilt.
“In a similar vein I had the idea of Lavatory Lil, again based on somebody I knew. Then of course it goes in the newspapers that this is about my ex.”
Here, McCartney is at pains to point out that the song is NOT about his divorced second wife Heather Mills, mother of his daughter Beatrice.
It contains damning lines like, “You think she’s being friendly, but she’s looking for a Bentley,” but their writer says: “I wouldn’t want to upset people like that.”
In the case of Lavatory Lil, McCartney says it was just a carefree idea with which he had a lot of fun.
“For me, the big thing that came out of these worrying times was doing something that I didn’t have to worry about. That’s what really got me through this year of Covid.”
As you may have gathered, there are no rules when it comes to McCartney III.
The freewheeling spirit reminds him of how his idol Elvis moved from crooner to rock ‘n’ roller by goofing around with his band in Sun Studios during a pause in sessions.
McCartney’s been diving into a biography of The King’s early years recently, Last Train To Memphis, and can’t help breaking into the chorus of That’s Alright Mama, the song that began it all.
For me, the big thing that came out of these worrying times was doing something that I didn’t have to worry about.
“Elvis just started singing a song that he knew and loved. It was black music — Arthur Crudup. It was good for me to read about it because I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the kind of fun I’m having’.”
He explains how this spirit has long informed his career: “I take a class with songwriting students at my old school, which is LIPA now, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
“The first thing I say is, ‘I don’t know how to do this’. The look on their faces is precious but I mean it.
“I tell them there is no formula for writing a song. You can start a million ways and it could be about a million things and it’s your song, not mine.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Right, you’ve got to be in the key of A and you’ve got to start off with a riff and the second verse has got to be like this or that’.
“I don’t give out a bunch of rules because I’ve spent my own time knocking down all those skittles.”
After six decades in the music business, it’s remarkable that McCartney’s work still bristles with unbridled inventiveness.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got my studio. I can come in one day and say to myself, ‘Look I’m fed up with doing songs, I’ve just got to get on my computer and pretend I’m an orchestra’.
“Or it might involve getting on the drums and making a dance track. I love that freedom, that feeling of, ‘Wow, you’re flying!’”
At the end of McCartney III, after a short reprise of Winter Bird, comes the charming When Winter Comes extolling the virtues of simple domesticity.
It was actually written in the early Nineties but reminds McCartney of the break-up of The Beatles, 50 years ago, when he and late wife Linda escaped the turmoil to what he calls an “ideal” existence on their farm near the Mull of Kintyre.
“We ran away basically,” he says. “I was a young parent and we were just starting to bring up our family.
“The idea of fixing a fence or digging a ditch or planting a tree was nice to me. It was romantic and practical. When Winter Comes is harking back to that and it’s something I still love. I love getting my hands dirty.”
Does he ever imagine what he might have done if he’d quit music after The Beatles?
“I probably would have led a more domestic life, and it would have been perfect for Covid because it would have involved cleaning out closets and digging the garden!”
Finally, I ask McCartney about how he plans to spend Christmas. “Very normally, while overdoing the decorations,” he replies with a laugh. “Lights R Us. I go overboard but I love it.
“Then it will be Christmas dinner with whatever family can make it. We’ll be more limited than usual but we’ll get it on.”
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