It’s been a tumultuous year for Paul McCartney. He severed a five-decade relationship with his record label to release his latest solo album, “Memory Almost Full,” on a new imprint (Hear Music) backed by the Starbucks coffee chain. And he is going through a painful divorce with Heather Mills that has been widely covered in the tabloid press.
But when reached at his recording studio on his 160-acre estate in the British countryside, McCartney was in his usual affable mood. “Memory Almost Full” has re-entered the Billboard album chart after being re-released with bonus music and DVD content, and a three-DVD set documenting his post-Beatles career, “The McCartney Years” (Rhino), is now in stores.
Memory Almost Full
(Hear Music; US: 5 Jun 2007; UK: 4 Jun 2007)
“The sun is out and the view of the English Channel is just beautiful,” McCartney reports, a reflection of the optimism the now 65-year-old singer brings to most of his ventures.
You released “Memory Almost Full” in partnership with Starbucks, after 45 years with a major record label. Did the switch pay off?
I did it to create some excitement. When I first used to release a record it was very exciting, because you’d never done it before. Now, it can be a bit boring, because you feel like, here we go, back on the treadmill, and you tend to go through the same moves each time. The record release itself isn’t automatically going to be exciting, so my record producer, David Kahne, suggested Starbucks. He knew a guy there, and they loved the music. There was excitement there. It was like the old days. The deciding factor was that people had been telling me the last couple years the way I was selling most of my records was in Best Buy and Wal-Mart. You’re getting most of your sales in supermarkets. So it was more logical to me to do it in Starbucks, because it has a music connection. It’s the same thing: It’s still a distribution machine. Particularly with the world changing so much so that you’ve got tragedies like Tower Records closing, I said, the time’s right. You want to reach people, and people have the music, so that’s all you can ask for. Plus, I’ve never drunk so much coffee in my life.
You were part of the foundation at Capitol EMI and the major-label system for 45 years, starting with the Beatles. Do you feel that the record business is done?
No. It’s not final. I feel like I made the right decision, because right after I left EMI got sold, so obviously something was wrong. They are now in new hands and are applying themselves and they’re going to bring themselves into the modern world. This is the point. They were floundering. Like a lot of these record companies, they were in the old world, and they needed to enter the new world. It’s not just me. Look at Radiohead’s new outing (offering their new album, “In Rainbows” on-line at the consumers’ choice of price). Artists are taking it into their own hands again, and it’s really showing the record companies that it’s time they get their act together. It’s not the end of the world for EMI, they are like family to me. But the funny thing was, they understood. I’d told people I’d known for years at the label, “Hey, guys, I’ve gotta make this move.” And some of them said quietly, off the record, “I really don’t blame you, man.” Then they got sold, and so I would’ve been in the middle of a takeover bid with my record. And you don’t need that stuff. I’m just trying to make music and get it to people.
This was also your first digitally released album. How do you feel about that model for distributing music?
I’ve known (Apple founder) Steve Jobs for a little while, and he’s a hand’s-on guy who I can talk to. Strangely enough, that’s not always the case. I often met layers of secretaries before I could talk to the guy in charge at my old label. If I call Steve Jobs, I get Steve, and you talk like guys, like a couple of people. That element was great. They became interested in me doing a commercial for the Apple thing. All I had to do was sing the first track of my album. That was more like a music deal than a commercial for me. I didn’t have to say, “And I believe in iTunes and Apple, and the iPod is the greatest invention ever.” I didn’t have to do any of that. So that suited me.
But as a listener and music fan, is digital distribution a step forward?
I’m from the world of 45’s and LP’s, then it became cassettes and 8-tracks, then CDs, and now it’s downloading. It doesn’t make much difference to me. It’s up to the people however they want to buy and however they want to listen. It’s not for me to tell them what to do. We always try and accommodate all tastes. I hear that vinyl is the best way to listen to music, but I’m not an audiophile.
You’re not an audiophile? You’ve made some of the most meticulously recorded albums ever. C’mon.
No, really, man. I’m used to hearing things on the radio. OK, I’ve got a sound system on my car. But we used to listen on the beach. As kids, in the summer, you’d listen to a little mono radio. It sounded great to me. The joke was when George Martin first announced this new thing called stereophonic and we walked into the studio and there were two speakers, we went, `Great, twice as loud!’ I still think like that. That’s what stereo should’ve been. Never mind all these putting things in funny places. It sounds OK on iPod. Those little headphones come out of my ears all too readily. Obviously, I love to hear the music on a great big system straight off the master. But if you’re in a car, or on the beach, or somebody’s playing it on a railway station, it still sounds good.
Do you ever think about the time and effort you put into the album cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Is there any incentive to do something that cool in terms of album artwork now?
There’s not as big an incentive. Now you are generally designing to a CD format. It’s the difference between doing a small watercolor or a big oil painting. We knew the room we had on “Sgt. Pepper,” and our idea was to cram it full of value. Because what I particularly remembered is I used to go to a record store in Liverpool city center called Louis’, and I used to buy my record and then I had a half-hour bus journey back home, and I’d slip it out of its little bag and study it for the half hour. The more that was on there to study, the better. We designed “Sgt. Pepper” so there was always something for you to find. It’s doable now, but it’s not so obvious. The options have closed down in some ways. The space you’re designing for is smaller. On an iPod, the record cover is the size of a postage job. But the kids who listen to it have good eyes.
On your new DVD, you’re seen in three concerts from three phases of your career: 1976 with Wings, 1991 in an unplugged session, and 2004 at the Glastonbury festival. Is it like watching someone else when you see yourself in these different eras?
It’s kind of spooky. I show my little 4-year-old a picture of herself when she was a baby, and it’s freaky. My 4-year-old puts it best. She sees old pictures of me, let’s say in the Beatles, and she’ll say, “That’s Daddy when he was different.” I love that. It’s a great way of looking at it. And I suppose that’s how I feel looking at those shows. That’s me when I was different. The common thread is that I did what I did to have the most fun at that time. I might look at it differently now. But “I was different” then. Right now, I’m very happy with the band I have. We really enjoy playing some of these small gigs we’ve done recently. We haven’t done it to death. Just a half-dozen gigs this year. We’re all real hungry to play.
Are you going to tour with this band next year?
I’m hoping to, yeah. My personal circumstances are sort of dictating that element of what I do. I don’t want to talk about my divorce, but it has a bearing on things like that. I want to get that settled so that I don’t feel that’s over me. So we’re going to be cool, get that settled. I’d particularly like to go to the States next year. We’ve had interesting offers from places like Japan.
You’ve been in the spotlight for so long as a media celebrity, and this latest go-round with your divorce is nothing new for you in a way. But has the level of scrutiny changed at all, and how has that affected you personally?
Yeah, it’s changed, particularly the British media is very, very different from how it used to be. It’s merciless now. In the `60s I used to have a pretty good relationship with most of the guys in the media. I’ve been in the game too bloody long to start complaining now. But I used to call them lovable rogues. I’m now not quite so sure about the word “lovable.” It’s a game that’s gone a bit too far. It’s demeaning to the public. You guys don’t have it as bad over there. You have your trashy little celebrity magazines at the supermarket checkout, but your newspapers still have some integrity. It’s not wonderful going through this, but it’s a moneymaker for someone. At the same time, it’s lowered people’s standards about what matters.
It’s a weird obsession with people’s private lives that has become an industry unto itself, and it seems to have accelerated in recent years.
It’s an industry built on inaccuracies. You’re not actually gonna find out the real deal by what’s being written. You’re going to find one sentence is accurate, but the stuff that surrounds it is wildly inaccurate. And I just keep saying, `That’s not true, guys,’ and then that adds to the story. I just try to keep my head down and get on with my music. That’s the great thing, the great healer. I love music, always have, always will, and I’ve got a beautiful family, and my daughter, Stella, she’s about to have a baby. A lot of great things are happening. The difficulties are exactly that. I prefer not to get into it.
“Memory Almost Full” was a very personal record. Did it help process some of this stuff?
I’m not really sure about that. I’m not a great analyst of my own stuff. One of the things that I’ve always thought is that if you’re going through difficulties, then the songs will reflect that. But I know with me, if I’m going through difficulties, sometimes the songs can sometimes be even more optimistic, because I’m trying to get out of where I’m at. I’m trying to create an antidote. The fact is, music is a great help. And I’m blessed I have it in my life, because I don’t know what I’d do without it.
You’ve always had empathy for other people in your music. You can hear it in “She’s Leaving Home,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be.” It’s that “take a sad song and make it better” vibe. It’s even on “Memory Almost Full,” where on “The End of the End” you imagine your own funeral and you’re basically cheering up the mourners: “It’s not so bad.”
It seems to be in my personality. It’s what I enjoy to do in music. I know my music reaches people. One of the great joys of my life is walking down the street and someone comes up and says, “I don’t want to bother you, I just want to thank you. Your music helped me out big time.” And they’ll tell me a little example of why. I find that every emotional, it’s a great buzz to hear that. It’s a natural thing to see that quality in music. It’s what it has always meant to me.