Jimmy Buffett Shares the Advice Paul McCartney Gave Him

Jimmy Buffett
Roberto Salas

Jimmy Buffett

Parrotheads may have to be wasting away without Margaritaville this summer -- but they're still getting Jimmy Buffett music to tide them over. On Friday (May 29), Buffett releases Life on the Flip Side, a lavishly packaged 14-song set that's his first new album in seven years. A better quarantine fix than a cheeseburger in paradise, it was co-produced by Coral Reefer Band mainstays Michael Utley and Mac McAnally, and in addition features a new association with Paul Brady, an Irish singer-songwriter who co-wrote the opening track, "Down at the Lah De Dah," singing on it as well as Buffett's version of Brady's "The World is What You Make It." Lukas Nelson, meanwhile, co-wrote and sings on "Who Gets to Live Like This."

Quarantined with most of his family in Malibu, Buffett has been feeding the Parrothead flock with a Zoom chat, special weekly online performances for first responders and vintage concerts on Margaritaville TV -- and, of course, riding some Pacific waves when the opportunity presents. After one of the latter he took some time to talk to Billboard about living Life on the Flip Side and what else he plans to do with his unscheduled free time.

It feels like we're finding you on the wrong coast -- California, not the holy mecca of Florida?

(Laughs) What can I say -- I've got two kids here, but I was literally 10 minutes from firing up the plane and going to St. Barts for the season of boat racing, and the next thing I knew I had to pick my son up from tennis instructors school in Florida and fly him back here, so I've been here ever since. We have a house out here and (wife) Jane spends most of the winter out here, so we're fine hanging out here for a little while.

It must be odd to be looking towards a summer when you won't be playing shows.

Well, I've got to say this about that. I have, for a good number of years, maybe since back when I was 60 or so, I thought, "Y'know, I might want to take a summer off and not go out for a summer and do something with my kids or write or just travel." I've played every summer, I think, for 44 years. So I've been practicing a long time to take a year off, and with the world kind of turning upside down, this is it. I think if I had taken a year off, whether there was a pandemic or not, that would've seemed odd for us. Our silver lining in this dark cloud is I don't think I would've ever spent this much time with my grown kids, 'cause everybody's got their lives now. I think that's a treasure. A lot of people are spending more time with their kids than they ever thought they would 'cause everybody's huddled up, and I think that's a positive thing.

And you're not leaving us high and dry. We've got Life on the Flip Side when it seems like a good time to have a Jimmy Buffett album.

It was never intended to be like that, of course, but we had been in a writing phase for this, and we wanted to record again. It's been seven years, so I got with Utley and Mac and said "Let's get the band back in the studio," and the whole point was to get the album done and then go on tour, like always, and have an album out this time. There's no tour, but we got the album out.

It has been a minute. Why such a long wait?

Y'know, a lot of creative stuff had gone into the musical on Broadway (Escape to Margaritaville) and the rewrites and writing songs that never got in the show. Then the show went on the road, where it had a very successful two-year run until we had to shut it down because of the pandemic. So those two things really kind of kept a lot of writing time going. And then when I thought about doing an album you think would you really do an album anymore, with the way things are going, or would you just put a couple songs out? But in the end we are just too old school and we just wanted to do it the old way and go in and make a record in the studio.

At this point you kind of know what a Jimmy Buffett record should be, right?

I really like this record. I do. I thought it would be something people could add to their collection. We're not out there trying to make any mark these days; That's beyond any interest to me. But I wanted to do something that people who have been with us for a long time, and the new fans and younger fans we're picking up, that they would like as well as the older ones and just add it to their collection. We wanted to make an album that sounded cohesive, like it had a theme to it, like chapters in a book. When you listen to this thing in sequence, I think it kinda helps people out.

Are you still a prolific songwriter?

I am. You hear all about people running out of material later in life because a lot of them don't make it this far with a career. I've heard a lot about writer's block, but I've never had that problem, 'cause I figure as a traveling man and as a nomad you run into so many more stories than you can possibly imagine, and the source is always there and it always has been for me. And going into writing this thing, I had titles and ideas I wanted to do. I loved working on it and taking my time. I've gotten some of the tools of the craft these days; I can run my own ProTools thing and all that, and that really helps the process. And I had the good fortune of some people to talk to about this, like Paul McCartney...

So what kind of advice do you get from him?

(laughs) We've become friends from knowing each other in St. Barts and our wives are friends. You get Paul McCartney talking to you about what you ought to do on an album, and you listen. We'd played a show together and hung out and I played him some stuff and he gave me some feedback. He said, "Let it breathe a little more, just kind of let it go along and make it light." It was good feedback -- and then you got outside and go, "F--k! That's Paul McCartney!" You can't get over that.

Anybody else weigh in on this material?

Chris Blackwell was another one I played it for. He and I have been friends for a long, long time, and I just admire everything he ever did. And Blackwell said, "Y'know, it's a little different. There's a bit of sharpness to this one." And I'll take that from Chris Blackwell.

The album ends on a poignant note, when you sing, "I guess music and lyrics are what I do best/I'm all done 'splainin' or passin' some test...I'll keep scribblin' on pages not jumpin' off stages/Not ready to put the book on the shelf."

And the fun thing about that song ("Book on the Shelf") is it started out being written by Erin McAnally and Mick Utley -- second generation Coral Reefers, right? They've kind of got their own kind of thing going, but they wrote that little song and Mac sent it to me and it felt like an epilogue for the whole (album), 'cause, no, I'm not ready to put the book on the shelf yet. I heard that song and said, "I can make this thing fit into the end of the record and put it in my own words."

It has been 50 years since Down to Earth, your first album. What's that feel like?

(laughs) That's when I had to leave Billboard, when I made that album, 'cause there was a conflict of interest. When I signed to Barnaby (Records) I couldn't still write for Billboard, so that was the end of my days there. But I'm glad I got 50 years of albums in me. This thing's been an absolute joy, and always a surprise that we're still out there. We've figured out ways to keep it going. I think it's really about learning to be a performer before anything else and always trying to better yourself on stage. That's the key, that core experience, and what's kept me going. It's been a good run, and I don't think we're done -- like the song says.

It seems like you've been working to maintain a connection with the Parrotheads even if you can't play live for them.

We have 30 years of videos and people love 'em and we've been rebroadcasting them on Margaritaville TV, so we were kind of ready for it. We didn't know we were gonna have to do use it like this, but it worked, and people love 'em. We've been doing a weekly show with healthcare workers and first responders through the Parrothead Club to give them a break and let 'em get away from an hour. Music has been a thing that's really helped people through this. Artists want to play and they want to entertain, for themselves and also for their fans. It helps us stay ready for when we can go out there again.

Is there a streaming concert in your future?

Oh yeah. We're writing a set list now, with the new songs and the standards, and we're gonna do it. Technically we can do it with the band playing parts and putting a video together, even though we're in different places. Most of the band is in Nashville so they can get a rhythm track and then send it around and we can FaceTime and stuff like that and when the time comes we can play it for people, whether it's 10 or 10,000. We'll have a show. This will all calm eventually. I'd like a fresh new start in everything by next year -- we got back to work, this thing'll be done and we'll get rid of these foolish people who are making policies and stuff. That'd be the best end result.

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