It’s hard to picture Paul McCartney — one of history’s most celebrated songwriters, a figure of incalculable importance to modern music and pop culture — fretting over anything, least of all filling arena seats. But as NPR’s Robert Siegel discovered, a few circumstances can still make the ex-Beatle sweat.
McCartney’s latest solo album, New, is out Tuesday. He recently spoke with Siegel about historical revisionists, dividing his new songs among four superstar producers, and why a little insecurity can be a successful artist’s best friend. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
I want to ask you about a particular song on New called “Early Days.” Tell me about this one.
So many times, I will have people tell me what I did when I was younger. There’s so much being written [about] the early Beatles period, and even pre-Beatles period. And people will say, “Oh, he did that because that, and that happened because of that.” And I’ll be reading and think, “Well, that didn’t happen” and, “That’s not why I did that.” Like anyone’s history, you remember what went down better than people who weren’t there. So I started off with this song — just a nostalgic trip, really. I was remembering John and I in Liverpool as young boys, walking down the street, dressed in black, guitars slung across our backs, trying to get people to listen to our music. Or we’d be in the record shop, listening to new records. All these experiences were in the song. And then I got to the last verse and I thought, “That’s all very well, me telling everyone how all this went down, but there are a lot of people who are going to say, ‘Well, no — I know what really happened.’”
Listening to this song, I had this image of you as a young man in Liverpool — and then I realized that the sound of the song had me thinking of Austin, Texas or Nashville. And the reason that I didn’t feel any conflict or any dissonance is because of what you and John did to music 40, 50 years ago: breaking down all kinds of barriers and creating something universal.
People used to ask us, “What kind of music do you like?” And it was like, “American.” We listened to a lot of Black American music — Motown, particularly, and Stax and Chess. What was fascinating about it was, we would do cover versions — like, “Twist and Shout” was originally by The Isley Brothers. A lot of people think we wrote that song, and I go to great pains to say, “No, no, no. That was the Isleys. They’re our heroes.” A lot of the white audience that we were appealing to in the ‘60s hadn’t heard this music, so they got introduced to it through us. And of lot of the guys whose music it was would later thank us: “It sounds great, man! I’d forgotten that song ‘Money.’” So, it worked all around. They were very happy that we were doing it; we were very happy that they were such a beautiful, strong inspiration; and suddenly, you found barriers were coming down all around you. People were mixing country, blues, R&B, soul, vaudeville. It was all sort of going into this kind of bag.
Is it true that for New, you had four different producers?
I was looking for someone I could do the whole album with, and I thought the best way to do that is, work with some people that I admire and see if one of them jumps out. But in working with the four people — it was Paul Epworth, who’s most famous for his work with Adele; Mark Ronson, very famous for his work with Amy Winehouse; Ethan Johns, who did Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams; and then George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, who’s best known for the work that he did with The Beatles on the show Cirque du Soleil put together in Las Vegas, the Love show. I worked with all of them and decided that I loved them all and didn’t want to choose one of them. So I just continued working and did a few tracks with each one.
The worry became, is this going to be a sort of patchwork quilt of an album, and not have the cohesion that I would like it to have? But then I remembered a lot of the Beatles albums were very various, and we did it on purpose: We didn’t want the next track to sound like the last one. So I thought, “You know what? There’s a precedent here, and this is a good thing.” So I just got on with it.
But the original intent had been to have one?
Yeah, it had. With The Beatles, we’d been very spoiled because we had George Martin, who worked for the record label we were going to be signed to. That was very fortunate, because we grew together. We’d throw at him these crazy ideas; he’d throw crazy ideas at us. He was the one who suggested I add a song called “Yesterday,” and he suggested that there should be a string quartet on that. And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We can’t put a string quartet on it.” He said, “Bear with me, Paul.” Of course, I heard it and just loved it.
Once The Beatles broke up and I didn’t have that one producer anymore, I would still work with George and enjoy working with him. As he got to the point where he was going to retire, which he did, [I began to] produce a lot myself; by then, I had learned the game. But for this record, I wanted someone I could throw an idea, like we did with George. So that was the idea: trying to find one producer who would replace George, but in actual fact it turned out to be four.
There’s another song from New, “Alligator,” that seems to come from a frustrated place. What’s up here?
I was talking to someone the other day about this: It seems to me that no matter how famous [you are], no matter how accomplished or how many awards you get, you’re always still thinking there’s somebody out there who’s better than you. I’m often reading a magazine and hearing about someone’s new record and I think, “Oh, boy, that’s gonna be better than me.” It’s a very common thing.
I’ll accept this as a very common thing, as I’ve heard from any number of illustrious professors — or broadcasters, for that matter — the fear, “I’ll be found out.” But, Sir Paul McCartney: You have had success in so many dimensions of music. You really feel a competitive insecurity with somebody else that’s coming out with a record?
Unfortunately, yes. One thing that’s good about it is, I think it’s a good motivator. It keeps you hungry. I think the minute you’re full up and have had enough to eat, then that’s time to retire. But I agree with you — I should be able to look at my accolades and go, “Come on, Paul. That’s enough.” But there’s still this little voice in the back of my brain that goes, “No, no, no. You could do better. This person over here is excelling. Try harder!” It still can be a little bit intimidating.
These days, if you do a live performance, you must know by now that for the people in the audience, it doesn’t matter what you do. The fact that they’re seeing you perform at that moment will be sufficient. Do you get nervous? Do you feel any anxiety about, “Will they really hear what I’m doing here and appreciate what I’ve got?”
I don’t get too nervous these days, I must say. I’m much better. I have tricks. I will say to my promoter, “Look, just put one show on sale.” He’d say, “We could do two or three, maybe, in this city.” I’d say, “Just put one on sale and let me know how it goes.” So he’ll ring me back and he’ll say, “Wow! Sold out Chicago, six minutes!” I’d say, “Now you can put the second show on.” I’m quite careful that way. I do like to know that I’m wanted. I’ll go to that show that sold out in six minutes, and I will know that those 30,000 people there are super-keen to see me.
I recently did a show in Las Vegas called I Heart Radio — it was Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, me. It’s a great show to do; we were all very excited. But when we got on, it was not like those people were all there to see me. And someone said later, “You know, that was no one’s audience. That wasn’t Justin’s audience, it wasn’t Bruno’s, it wasn’t Miley’s, it wasn’t yours. It was nobody’s.” And then someone reminded me, this is Las Vegas: When you check into a hotel, you get complimentary tickets to all the shows if your room’s big enough. So suddenly, you realize you’re playing to those people who are actually just working out when they’re going to get to the casino. That can be a little nerve-wracking, because you’re spoiled with your own audience, and now they’re not reacting in the same way. So those little insecurities come in. But generally, when it’s my own audience, we have a lot of fun. It’s where we’re a family.