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 [Tenn.]. 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 superkeen 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.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel, and this is something that I've been waiting to say for years: Here's a man who needs no introduction.
PAUL MCCARTNEY: Hi.
SIEGEL: Paul McCartney, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
MCCARTNEY: Well, thank you for the introduction.
SIEGEL: I should say, you're here because of a new album of original songs, which is named - fittingly - "New." Let's hear a bit of the title track, which is "New."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW")
SIEGEL: Then we were new.
MCCARTNEY: Yes, sir.
SIEGEL: Who are we, by the way?
MCCARTNEY: We - that's me and my wife. That's Nancy. It was written shortly after we got together. I was just sitting at my piano, late at night. And yeah, I was missing her. She was away. She was in New York, and I was in England. So this was my way of bringing us together.
SIEGEL: I've read that you're always writing songs. Is there a - the old image was a trunk. I guess it's now - is there a hard drive or something, is there some store of Paul McCartney songs that...
MCCARTNEY: Oh, you know, there really is. I've got this little process where I had time to write. So what I would do is, I'd drop off my youngest daughter at school in the morning, come back to the house, sit down; and I knew I had a good three hours before she would wake up because of the time difference. So this was a nice motivation for me. I would sit down, write a song, and then I could ring her; say, good morning, would you like to hear a song?
MCCARTNEY: And so - and it was great actually. It became quite exciting to oh no, it's got to be better - I've got to really do something great for her to listen to.
SIEGEL: But the arithmetic here would suggest that there are lots, lots, lots more songs that you...
MCCARTNEY: Well, see. This is - the problem is that, OK, when I'm writing - like, I finish them up because I've got to play them to Nancy. But what also happen is, I put sketches down. I have an idea, and I haven't got time to finish it. And that is a big trunk full.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Paul McCartney, I want to ask you about one song on the album, "New," which is called "Early Days." Let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY DAYS")
SIEGEL: Tell me about this song, "Early Days."
MCCARTNEY: So many times, I will have people tell me what I did when I was younger, you know, because there's so much been written. And I'm harking back here to the early Beatles period, or even pre-Beatles period. You know, like anyone's history, you remember pretty much what went down better then people who weren't there. So I was remembering John and I in Liverpool as young boys, walking down the street, dressed in black, guitars slung across our back, trying to get people to listen to our music.
And then I got to the last verse and I thought: Well, this is 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.
SIEGEL: I read that; I know the real story.
MCCARTNEY: Yeah. You know, I wasn't there but so-and-so wasn't either, and I read him. Yeah, so I just took a ticket from basically - I just sort of said, you know, when you weren't there, how can you remember?
MCCARTNEY: And why do you know better than I do?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY DAYS")
SIEGEL: Now, I'll tell you the reaction I had listening to this song - which I like a lot - is that 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, you know, Austin, Texas; or Nashville. And I realized the reason that I didn't feel any conflict or any dissonance is because of what you did - what you and John did to music 40 years ago, 50 years ago; that it's broken down all kinds of barriers and become something very universal.
MCCARTNEY: And our influences were from, you know, country and western, R&B. Our influence is a lot of American music. People used to ask us, you know: What kind of music do you like? And it was like, American. And it basically was, really. I mean, we certainly weren't listening to any German music. You've got a lot to answer for, America.
SIEGEL: We are to blame, is what you're saying, for everything.
SIEGEL: Let's listen to another track from "New." This is the song "Alligator."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLIGATOR")
SIEGEL: For a frustrated alligator there.
SIEGEL: What's up here?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, it's - the first bit's simple, you know: I want someone to come home to, I want a place - I'm not quite sure why I always want conversations that are not too deep. But - I've come home from work, I think that's what it is. So I'm imagining myself just doing that. But then the interesting thing for me, then it goes into: Everybody else is busy doing better than me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLIGATOR")
SIEGEL: I'll accept this as a very common thing. And I'll accept that I've heard from any number of illustrious professors - or broadcasters, for that matter - the fear, I'll be found out. But I mean, Sir Paul McCartney - I mean, you have had success in so many dimensions of music. You really feel a competitive insecurity with somebody else who's coming out with a record?
MCCARTNEY: Unfortunately, yes. I think one thing that's good about it is, I think it's a good motivator. I think 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. You know, 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, goes: No, no, no, you could do better. This person over here is excelling. Try harder.
It still can be a little bit intimidating. You know?
SIEGEL: Well, Paul McCartney, it's been an honor to help build up your ego here in this session...
MCCARTNEY: You've done it well.
SIEGEL: ...on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and helped restore some self-confidence to you.
SIEGEL: And we greatly appreciate your coming in.
MCCARTNEY: Well, I certainly, very much appreciate you building me up. I was not sure. Now, I'm certain.
SIEGEL: Paul McCartney - Sir Paul McCartney, I should say, whose new album is called "New." Thanks a lot.
MCCARTNEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEENIE EYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.