dialogue with Paul McCartney
EmptyThere's been no shortage of news surrounding Paul McCartney lately. He has a new album ("Memory Almost Full"), a new record label (Starbucks' Hear Music) and a new platform (digital) for his post-Beatles output. Billboard's Paul Sexton spoke with Sir Paul about all that and more in an exclusive interview as the cultural icon nears his 65th birthday next month.
Billboard: You must be aware that in current circumstances you're under greater scrutiny than ever with the lyrics on this album?
Paul McCartney: Yeah, well — what else is new? Remember "How many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" (from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life")? I got a question on that last week at a football match. It was just some mate. He happened to be from Blackburn. So they're still asking questions, still examining the lyrics. … I don't mind. It's when they stop examining them that you've got a problem, I suppose.
Billboard: People will think about your personal life and say, "Oh, he's throwing himself into his work." But haven't you always done that?
McCartney: I don't mind work. I don't work that much. I'm never in any office before 11, I don't work every day of the week, and most of what I do is playing music. I often point that out to people. It's something I love, and I always say if I didn't do it for a living, I'd do it as a hobby.
Billboard: Was the Starbucks deal in the works for a long time?
McCartney: About a year ago, I was talking to my producer David Kahne. We were in the throes of the excitement of making an album and loving it. I said, "The only thing is, I'm kind of dreading releasing it." Because there comes this sort of wall you hit — a bit like the marathon — and everyone sits around in suits and rather glumly listens to it, then gives you a half-smile and says, "Nice album." And you go, "Oh, thank you." Somehow it doesn't capture the spirit you had when you were making it. So I said, "We've got to try and do something to keep it exciting." When we first released records, every single little thing about it was exciting, even doing the photo session. David himself knew Alan Mintz, who had just been appointed head of the music division at Starbucks. So he introduced me to Alan, who started having some real bright ideas and had a nice twinkle in his eye. He's a bass player, after all, so I said, "We've got to definitely stick together." So he started to outline the Starbucks thing, and then I met with (Starbucks chairman) Howard Schultz and the boys when we were finishing the album in New York. They've got a lot of passion.
Billboard: It's a different world now. Is part of the attraction of that deal being able to get to potential listeners in different ways?
McCartney: Yeah, that's the thing. A lot of the major labels, I've noticed for a while, have been floundering a bit, and it's shown in some of their results. But that wasn't so much what I was thinking about. You don't want to stay in a gang of mates who don't know where they're going; it's a bit unsettling. I'd rather have people who say, "We're going there." And you know what? It's worked. Starbucks are really keen. I'd noticed for years people saying to me, "Oh, the biggest (music) retailer in America is … Best Buy, Wal-Mart." Over here, Tesco's. All these people. What with that and the whole online phenomenon, I just sensed the majors were not quite sure what to do. So I thought, "Let's try something different." It certainly is exciting, so I've accomplished my first ambition.
Billboard: Was it a reaction to anything EMI did or didn't do on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" in 2005?
McCartney: No, not really. I must say I didn't really notice whether they did or didn't. I just knew then that I couldn't do downloads, which was very disappointing because of the Apple dispute with Steve (Jobs). But now that's been cleared up, so I thought, "That's another excitement." We're going to do a whole load of things with (iTunes). I'm not a great blamer. I don't like people who say, "Oh, my album failed; it was the record company." I did very well really, got Grammy nominations and stuff with "Chaos," so I was really pleased. I thought they did a good job. But as you said, it's a different world now, and you've got to be with people who are in that world and stay up to speed. I've got nothing against record (company) people; they're my family. I think many of them will tell you themselves they've been rather overtaken — I know the people I talk to at EMI will admit that — and they're all madly rejigging to get themselves back in the picture. So this is different, and it's not exclusive. We will work with all the normal retail people. I didn't want to knock anyone out of the frame. I'll be considerate of all the normal outlets. It may seem stupid, but the fact that (Starbucks) had 400 stores in China interested me. I don't know why, but it did. (Laughs.) Because it's different, I suppose. It doesn't take much to amuse me.
Billboard: You started "Memory Almost Full" in 2003, so was there a period when you had three albums in the works, including your 2006 classical piece "Ecce Cor Meum"?
McCartney: Yes. I've always got a few things on the (go). I like to be able to work that way because if suddenly your producer's not available or whatever, it's nice to be able to pick up another thread. Now, even though I've got all this happening, I've got a guitar piece in the works — an orchestral guitar concerto? I never know what to call it. And I've got a photographic project I've been working on for a while. It's nice to have a bit of variety.
Billboard: Was there any bleed-through of songs from "Chaos" to the new album?
McCartney: It was the same pool of songs. Some of them crossed over. Some of them we nearly did on "Chaos," but mainly it was pretty separate. Anything we'd started, I didn't want to remake for "Chaos," so I kept what we'd started, then wrote new stuff for it as we went along. That was one of the fun things we used to do with the Beatles. John and I would have seven or eight things ready by the time we went into the studio, and then we'd try and write the other six or seven.
Billboard: What about the five-song medley toward the end?
McCartney: That's something I wanted to revisit. It's a nice form for a song sweep, and nobody had been doing that for a while. So I just sat down one day and started off with "Vintage Clothe," and realized I was looking forward, looking back. Then we went to school days and teachers in the second song ("That Was Me"), and it progressed from there. It was a purpose-written suite of songs, unlike the "Abbey Road" medley, which was bits we had knocking around.
Billboard: Is the discussion about the Beatles' catalog going online anywhere nearer to being settled?
McCartney: Oh, yeah, very much so. It's virtually settled. And in a virtual world, that's something.
Billboard: So we should expect an announcement soon?
McCartney: Hopefully, yeah. I don't want to pre-empt anything, but we're well on the way to something happening there, which is very exciting.
Billboard: And are you planning to go back on the road?
McCartney: I'm going to do some little bits and pieces to support the album, but it won't be a major tour until possibly next year, and that's basically down to personal circumstances. (Laughs.)
Billboard: Touring is obviously something you still enjoy.
I do love it, and while the audience seems to love it, I will. All that singing and playing — it's good for you.
Paul Sexton is a contributor to Billboard.