Paul McCartney Q&A: 'I'm Lucky, I Love Songwriting'
Icon Talks New Album, New Songs & Being the Ultimate 'Music Freak'
S ir Paul McCartney gave Billboard a call recently to discuss his new record "Kisses on the Bottom," an ultra-cool tip-of-the hat to both a by-gone melodic era and McCartney's own treasured childhood recollections of "sing-songs." "Kisses" might seem at first take a quiet little album, yet it lacks nothing in substance and owns style to burn. It's the sort of album McCartney hopes folks might chill too after a hard day of whatever. You can read the Billboard cover story here, or take a deeper dive in this extended Q&A in which he speaks about the album, new songs that are buzzing around, and the importance of being a "music freak."
Billboard: In listening to the new record, it's clear you love singing these songs very much.
Paul McCartney: Well, thanks, Ray, it is a 'labor of love' kind of thing. I found a great team with Diana and Tommy and [engineer] Al Schmitt. We just had fun. We went in there and enjoyed the songs and enjoyed each other's company. As I say, it was a great team, and I think it came out OK.
It's the most 'Paul McCartney vocal record' I can ever recall.
The nice thing, in one way, was that I wasn't playing any instruments, I was just there as a vocalist. I could just give up the playing responsibilities to them and just sit back and enjoy their playing. So yeah, I think that way I had a chance to just focus on the vocal.
The melodies are timeless, and in some ways this is all about melody.
Yeah, that's right. Melody and memory.
How did you choose the songs?
I pulled up some from my memories when I was a kid and we had family sing-songs, which was the original inspirations for the whole idea. So I said to Tom, "let's look at these ones, this is the kind of era I want to look at," and Tommy himself suggested some, a girl in my office, Nancy Jeffries, suggested some, she's very knowledgeable. Diana suggested some, and then I played Tommy a couple that I'd written, and he said, 'whoa, that's a great idea,' so we selected a couple of those.
We were looking for ways to not do the kind of straight-forward record that people would expect. So with some of the song choices being a little bit out of left field, and the fact that we could add a couple I'd written, meant that people wouldn't necessarily know all the songs, they might just know some of them. We all pitched in, we all made suggestions, and we took all those suggestions to the studio. And then, really. each day I would come in and we'd say, "OK, what do we want to try now, what are you in the mood for?" and I'd say, "how about this one" and we'd just figure it out from the sheet music. Nobody had parts written. We just went through it. By the time I figured out how I wanted to sing it, Diana and the guys had sorted out an arrangement, and we kicked it around amongst ourselves. And Tommy is great, because he sits in the studio with you, and he was making suggestions. We'd say, "this sounds like a good idea, let's try it," then we'd do a take or two, Al would record it, then we'd go in and listen. It was a very enjoyable process.
It feels very 'in-the-moment,' which I guess is the result of that process.
I'm so glad to hear that, actually, because that's what we were aiming for. We wanted the overall record to have a kind of glue that would hold it together, so the fact that it was done pretty much live in the studio, on the spot, gives it that.
When you say some songs came from left field, "The Inch Worm" comes to mind.
It was just a song that I loved, and as a songwriter I enjoyed the way the two melodies came together. It's something I've known since I was a kid, and I threw it into the pot, what about this one? I think it kind of amused Tommy, he said, "well let's try it." We tried it, and it's kind of nice, it just felt right and we all got into it.
The two new songs fit in nicely, they're beautiful, which makes me ask how much are you writing these days? Do you have these sort of melodies and lyrics floating around all over the place?
I do have quite a bit of stuff, actually, yeah, quite a lot of songs I've been writing over the past year or so. I am in the process now of starting to think about making a record of those songs. I'm lucky, I love songwriting, it happens naturally for me.
In the hierarchy of what you do professionally, how do you rank being a live performer/musician, a songwriter, and then a singer/studio guy? What do you feel you're best at, and what is most rewarding to you?
It's like my babies, I couldn't choose a favorite. Writing songs is a particular kind of magic that I feel very lucky that I can do it. One minute there's nothing, next minute there's a song. Playing in the studio, making a record, is another kind of magic, which I love just as much. And, finally, playing in front of an audience is a completely different kind of magic, with a lot more feedback, and it's very hard to choose between those three. I would put them all as my equal favorites.
So as an artist you need all three?
I'm happy to have all three. If I only had two of them, I'd probably be just as happy.
What are your best hopes for this record?
Just that people like it, that it does for them what it does for me. Because you always make a record that you yourself want to take home and play. Me, when I play it -- which I'm not doing too much at the moment because I'm trying to keep it sort of fresh -- but when I do play it, something really nice happens. I get into a zone that I really like being in. I imagine people coming home, cracking open a bottle of wine or something, kicking back, whatever's your tipple, putting on this record and relaxing. I hope people find it musical, relaxing and something that means a lot to them.
You've really had a renaissance as a touring artist over the last decade, with incredibly well-received shows. How do you plan to tour on this record?
We haven't really talked about it yet. The first time we're going to do anything will be… when we do a couple of little shows in Los Angeles. We're going to record something from Capitol Studios, where we'll put on a little show in front of an invited audience. The next night there's a MusiCares Person of the Year benefit, we'll play a little bit there. Then we'll play a little bit of this album on the Grammys. We'll try it out then, and I think that will give us some clues. People have plenty of ideas and suggestions, I'd like to see how it goes live, just how much we enjoy it. If we all enjoy it, then we've got to think about taking it out.
Seeing these songs and others performed by this band live would be an awesome experience, and you've put together a pretty serious live band you've been touring with for the last 10 years, as well.
Aren't they cool? We're having a really great time. Last year we played quite a few dates. They're such a pleasure to play with, we all enjoy each others' company and the musicianship, and, as you say, next month we will have been playing together 10 years, and that's long enough to make us a proper band.
I would agree. That's longer than your other bands.
That's right, and we certainly realized that last year, so I think that took us up a notch. We've just been playing great, enjoying our audiences, we've just got a good feeling going, that's special, you can't beat that.
How is touring with that band different than touring with Wings or the Beatles?
All three bands are completely different. The Beatles, in the early days, it was learning, in places like Hamburg and Liverpool, and it developed into a complete phenomenon. And that was a very special time and thing, which was mostly enjoyable but got a little difficult when you couldn't hear the things you were doing. And then later Wings went through the same kind of thing, a learning curve, and then we got it together, and that was really very enjoyable because I was playing with my wife and we got really good. Now with this band, again the same thing, over the years we've sort of got ourselves to a good point. So they're all completely different, but all bands I've been privileged to have been in.
Do you think you'll continue to work live with this touring band?
Yeah, I hope so. We all love it, and I don't see any reason not to. I've got a meeting coming up with my promoter who I hear has some nice, interesting ideas for me, so we'll start to put that together, map out our live dates this year.
Great, well, give me a ring after that meeting and we'll talk about it.
(Laughs) Yeah, man.
How do you stay cool to generation after generation? Is it your sense of humor?
You could say it's humor mixed with a complete love of what I do. I'm a music freak, man.
In terms of legacy and achievement, what are you most proud of professionally and personally?
I think personally, first, it would be my kids. I'm very proud of them, they're great kids and, now, my grandkids, which is a source of great amazement to me. They're always new. And then professionally, I think it might have to be my songwriting. I've been really lucky that when we go out and do a show, we've got some tunes that we can play. You know, you think about it, it's not always something you train to do. John [Lennon] and I weren't trained at all, we just kind of figured it out and made it up ourselves. I think we did some pretty good stuff, considering.
Has the iTunes relationship met your expectations, and any comment on the passing of Steve Jobs?
He was a beautiful guy, Steve, I was so lucky to count him as one of my friends. We were all so happy to get on iTunes, we'd wanted it for a long time, but all this business stuff -- it was a big deal so everyone wanted to get it right. When we finally did, it was really cool, and after that Steve came along to a couple of our concerts and stuff, and he was a dear man. A very clever man, a nice man, a great music fan, and he will be sorely missed.
Nashville-based Ray Waddell (@billboardtour) is executive director of content and programming for touring and live entertainment at Billboard. He writes the weekly On the Road column.