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Paul McCartney: The Billboard Cover Story
With A New Album of Standards, The Legend Makes a Left Turn While Looking in the Rearview
''Hello there, this is Paul. Are you expecting my call?"
Why, yes, indeed we are, thank you. Sir.
Recording began in March 2010, first at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and then Avatar Studios in New York. The approach was loose, and decisions as to arrangements and angles to take were made on the fly, albeit with input from impeccable sources in McCartney, LiPuma, Krall, the musicians, arrangers Johnny Mandel and Alan Broadbent, and engineer Al Schmitt. The mood was relaxed and fun, and it's apparent, as the album feels very much like an hour spent in a darkened jazz club.
"Each day I would come in [to the studio] and we'd say, 'OK, what do we want to try now? What are you in the mood for?' I'd say, 'How about this one?' And we'd just figure it out from the sheet music," McCartney recalls. "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 among ourselves. We'd say, 'This sounds like a good idea, let's try it,' then we'd do a take or two, Al [Schmitt] would record it, then we'd go in and listen. It was a very enjoyable process."
LiPuma has a similar recollection of the sessions, adding that for the most part nothing was arranged in advance. "We'd have somebody write out a chord sheet for us, and then we went in and figured it out on the date," he says. "The next thing you know, things started taking shape, and the minute it started sounding like something, I would tell Al Schmitt, 'Let's start rolling the tape,' and then boom, that magic would pop up."
The producer believes the process wasn't an unfamiliar one for McCartney. "He mentioned to me on many occasions, 'I love this. It reminds me of the way we used to do the Beatles. John [Lennon] and I would write a song, we'd have a date booked at Abbey Road, and neither George Martin, George Harrison or Ringo [Starr] knew what the songs were about. They'd work it out right there in the room,'" LiPuma recalls. "When we first went in, the most crucial point was finding a manner for [McCartney] to approach telling the story. I think Paul felt completely comfortable. He had a great time doing it."
One of the great things about McCartney, according to LiPuma, is that "he lets you do your job. There wasn't any second-guessing going on. The two most important things to him were, does it feel good and was he having a good time."
Apparently both were the case. "It was a labor of love kind of thing," McCartney says. "We just had fun. We went in there and enjoyed the songs and enjoyed each other's company. It was a great team, and I think it came out OK."
Certainly one of the key elements that will draw attention to the new project is the presence of the two new McCartney compositions. The songs are of such high quality that they beg the question: Just how many such treasures does this master songwriter have lying around?
"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," he says. "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 fact, McCartney says the songs are what he's most proud of, professionally. "I've been really lucky that when we go out and do a show, we've got some tunes that we can play," he understates. "[When] you think about it, [songwriting] is 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."
And people still want to hear that "stuff" live, along with scores of other well-loved songs from McCartney's days with Wings and his solo career. In the past decade, McCartney has approached touring with renewed vigor, to staggering box-office effect. Since 2002, he has sold 2.5 million tickets to 135 shows that grossed $322.6 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. Barrie Marshall, director of London-based Marshall Arts, is McCartney's longtime global tour director. While Marshall Arts is affiliated with AEG Live, McCartney also works with Live Nation in North America, and other promoters around the globe.
His crack touring band has now been together longer than either Wings or the Beatles. "Aren't they cool?" he responds when the band is complimented. "We're having a really great time, and last year we played quite a few dates. They're such a pleasure to play with. We all enjoy each other's company and the musicianship, and next month we will have been playing together 10 years. That's long enough to make us a proper band."
Asked if he would continue to work with this particular touring band, McCartney says, "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."
As for live work with the Kisses band, McCartney doesn't rule it out. "We haven't really talked about it yet," he says. The band was set to play a few shows in Los Angeles around the Grammys and McCartney is being honored as MusiCares' Person of the Year, which could lead to more shows. "We'll try it out then and I think that will give us some clues," he says. "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."
McCartney stands as a cornerstone member of inarguably the most influential rock band of all time, writer or co-writer of some of the most enduring and flat-out best songs ever entered into the musical canon and has toured under the reign of Beatlemania, as well as with two other top-shelf rock acts in Wings and his current touring band. He has also received every musical accolade imaginable, including knighthood.
But it is, perhaps, McCartney's sense of humor and ability to not take himself too seriously that contribute to his long-lived appeal and ongoing coolness to generation after generation of music fans, a concept he doesn't dismiss. "You could say it's humor, mixed with a complete love of what I do," McCartney says. "I'm a music freak, man."
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.