On ‘McCartney III,’ Paul McCartney Is A One-Man Show Again
Back in 1970, as the book was closing on The Beatles’ time together, Paul McCartney came out with a release that established him as an artist in his own right — and a versatile one, who played every instrument on the album simply titled McCartney. In 1980, he followed it up with McCartney II — another kind of do-it-yourself solo album, released as another band of his, Wings, was breaking up. Now, after another 40 years, the artist has been quite busy in quarantine.
“I was very lucky to be able to come to my studio and make some music, which took the edge off the whole quarantine thing. I would write a song, then I’d come in and record it — or I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, what about that song I started last year but never got round to finishing?’ So there was no worry attached,” he says. “If you’re making an album, what you might call a proper album, you’re concentrating on making sure it’s right. And this project, I wasn’t concentrating. I was just [saying], ‘Sounded good? Right, on to the next thing.’ It’s got a very loose feel to it.”
McCartney ended up with a new album for his trilogy: McCartney III. From from his Hog Hill Mill studio in East Sussex, England, McCartney spoke with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly about his new album, the quirks of writing love songs and remembering his late friends John Lennon and George Harrison. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Portions of the conversation aired in a previous broadcast.
Mary Louise Kelly: The rest of us have been home during quarantine, cleaning out our closets, cleaning out the garage. You’re cleaning out all these scraps of songs you’ve had percolating, and here you are with a new album.
Paul McCartney: That’s exactly it. Now, my wife would like it if I would clean out the closets.
She would like an actual closet cleaned, please.
I’m just short of a hoarder. What happens is, we’ll be going to throw an old book away and I’ll say, “Just let me check through it.” And there, on the third page, will be the original lyrics I scribbled down to one of my songs. So I say, “This is why I don’t throw things away!” That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
What’s the process when you’re playing every instrument on an album? You obviously can’t play them at once — so you record yourself playing one, and replay that track and layer as you record the next?
Yeah, I normally will do the guitar and maybe sing it, so I’ve got the body of the song. And then I might put on a bit of bass to fill it out a bit, and put some drums on. As you go along, you make a judgement: Is this enough? Or should I put a little more on? It’s a fun process that I enjoy doing. It keeps me off the streets.
Let’s talk about love songs. My favorite Beatles songs are the ones about love — falling in love, being in love. I went back and tried to make a list, and there’s a lot of them: “All You Need Is Love,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “All My Loving.” I suppose what struck me is, here you are half a century later, and to me, the best songs on this new album are still the ones about love. Which made me wonder, are you still trying to figure it out? Or is it just that in the end, love is the thing worth writing about?
I think what you said last, there, is the truth. I’ve sometimes tried to write protest songs — if something’s happening in the news that is so ridiculous, it needs there to be a song about it — but I don’t think I’m very good at that. I think I’ve generally tried to be optimistic and helpful, like a Beatles song of mine, “Blackbird”: I’m trying to say, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” That’s much more my bag. But I am still trying to figure it out. Isn’t everyone?
May I ask something quite personal? You mentioned your wife, Nancy, whom you’ve been happily married to since 2011. So, it is with respect that I ask, do you still sometimes sing to Linda, who you were married to for 29 years until she died in 1998?
McCartney: No, not really. I mean, I’d get in trouble if my wife ever found out I was singing to Linda. No matter how understanding she is — and she is amazingly understanding — she’s still my wife, and that is a factor. I sing to Nancy, or to myself. The other thing is, I don’t always have someone in mind. I’m just writing to … I don’t know, just imagining anybody in love.
I will say, I think my favorite love song of yours is “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which came out in 1970 when you were married to Linda; it’s just so beautiful. I wonder, when you sing it now, when you hear that now, are you able to think this is about everybody — this is for all of us?
Yeah, I think so. As you say, it was for Linda, but as time goes on and people say they like it, I always like to give up ownership and say, “Great, well, I hope this fits with your life.” And you know, it’s very nice when people say, “We used this song in our wedding.” That’s a huge compliment. Once you’ve written [songs] and once you release them, they’re like birds: They fly away, and you have no control over them. And I’m happy for them to land in other people’s lives.
This year would have been John Lennon’s 80 birthday, and there were a lot of commemorations around the world. We’re talking shortly after the 40th anniversary of his death, and I’m wondering if you marked it in any way?
I really mark it by just thinking about it, and just going over memories. Mind you, I do that all the time. I think as time goes on and John is a distant memory, it becomes more and more special. I often sit there and think, “Wait a minute, did we go hitchhiking when we were kids?” Yeah, we did. We went to Paris — boy, we had a laugh there, you know. I remember all these little things we did together. And it brings him back in a way. If I’m listening to a song we wrote together, I can picture us in the room writing it and looking at each other, with a little bit of a conspiratorial look as we cause trouble.
I’m often thinking of him. I dream of him. It’s family. We had arguments — but then, I’m reminded, so do families. He was a fantastic guy, and I do sometimes think, “Wow! I sat down all those years and wrote songs with John Lennon. And then went on stage and appeared all over the world singing them together.” Similarly with George.
George Harrison, who died in 2001.
George was very into horticulture, a really good gardener. So he gave me a tree as a present: It’s a big fir tree, and it’s by my gate. As I was leaving my house this morning, I get out of the car, close the gate and look up at the tree and say, “Hi, George.” There he is, growing strongly. And you know, that takes me back to the time when I hitchhiked with him! They’re an ever-present presence, if that’s a way to say.
I love the idea that they are like family: As the years go past, the things that annoy you and get on your nerves, it fades, and you’re able to remember the good times and the laughter and the conspiratorial grins. And I love the tree, that’s a great thing — that it greets you when you come in.
It’s lovely. He gave it to me, so I just planted it. But then, as the years go by, every time I look at it I go, “That’s the tree George gave me.” George has entered that tree for me. I hope he’s happy with that.
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