- Album This interview has been made to promote the Kisses On the Bottom Official album.
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(auto-translated from German)
DIE ZEIT: Mr. McCartney, you recorded an album of old jazz songs that your father sang at family celebrations. How did such holidays go in the McCartney house?
Paul McCartney: My dad usually just played the piano in the living room and sang along with it. The highlight of the house concerts was traditionally the McCartney New Year’s party, when the carpet was rolled back and all the women sat around Dad, sipping rum with black currant juice, and after half an hour at the latest, everyone was singing along.
ZEIT: How many McCartneys did you get together?
McCartney: At least a hundred. All uncles, aunts, great uncles, cousins, cousins met at our place. Just imagine how great it sounded when everyone was singing. And they did.
ZEIT: Did you perceive jazz songs such as It’s Only a Paper Moon or Bye Bye Blackbird as your parents’ music or as your own pop music?
McCartney: Good question, it was mostly my parents’ pop music. Then there were the first rock’n’roll songs that I heard on the radio at the time, songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard. They were different, kind of new and exciting, but guess what? I liked the old music better. Even as a teenager I understood how extraordinarily brilliant those old songs were written. They came from a great music era, and I quickly understood that.
ZEIT: You only speak of American music.
McCartney: Of course, the best music back then came from the USA. I think of composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Harold Arlen. The American films were also top-notch. In Los Angeles, Chicago and New York the cultural standards were set for the whole world. I’m reading a book about George Gershwin and it says that almost every family in America at the time had a piano at home, no matter how poor they were. No wonder such a society produced masters like Gershwin. Have you seen the film The Artist? This is a very clever film that reminds us of what a culturally rich era it was.
ZEIT: But it was also a very tense time politically. We’re talking about songs that were written in the twenties and thirties.
McCartney: Great Depression, war mood – politically not a good era. But the culture flourished. Music helped the people who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars to endure these depressing times. The McCartneys from Liverpool weren’t doing well either. But my family has never been sued. The mood was always optimistic. Our mood always signalled: Hey! Everything will be fine! I learned from an early age: No matter how bad the situation may seem, two things always help – music and humour. That still applies to me today.
ZEIT: Your father even had his own band at times: Jim Mac’s Jazz Band. Do you remember that?
McCartney: Unfortunately not at all. That was before my time, in the late twenties. My father was a young man himself. When I was born, Dad only played the piano at home. Mostly alone, but sometimes with his good friend Freddy River. I loved it when the two of them got going. I then lay on the carpet, listening and inhaling the harmonies and structures of these songs.
ZEIT: Is it actually true that your family piano was bought in the Liverpool music store Epstein’s, which the family of the later Beatles manager Brian Epstein ran?
McCartney: You are right. An unbelievable coincidence. In the end, it was thanks to this piano that I also felt the urge to compose songs.
ZEIT: Where did you learn more about music, at school or from your father?
McCartney: I learned absolutely nothing about music in school. My school music class was a bad joke. Imagine a class with thirty boys and a music teacher who puts on a record of Beethoven classical music at the start of the class and then leaves the room to quietly smoke a cigarette. As soon as the door was closed, we stopped the record player. What did these educators imagine? You can’t leave thirty excited boys alone in a room with classical music. We raged for a school lesson and just before the teacher came back we turned the record player back on, put the needle on the end of the record and looked very focused as if we had been listening intently. What should I have learned there?
ZEIT: Where did you learn the most about music?
McCartney: I taught myself and learned a lot just by listening to my father and records. With my first guitar, I then tried to implement what I had saved.
ZEIT: Wasn’t your first instrument a trumpet that your father gave you?
McCartney: That’s right, but I only played the trumpet for a year. My problem with the trumpet was that I couldn’t play with it and sing at the same time. So I brought it back to the store and traded it for a Zenith acoustic guitar that I still own.
ZEIT: Was John Lennon as familiar with the old jazz songs as you?
McCartney: He didn’t know as many songs as I did, but some of them were very dear to his heart. John always had this image of being a tough guy, a rocker who you hardly associate with sentimental jazz oldies, but that’s just a mistake. Little did many people suspect that John Lennon was very fond of gentle songs. For example the old number Little White Lies (closes his eyes and hums: “Da da da da … you told me these little white lies!”), That was one of John’s all-time favourite songs. Or Close Your Eyes … (sings loudly: “Close your eyes, put your head on my shoulder and sleep!”). The fact that John and I both loved this kind of music naturally brought us together when we were writing our own songs. Knowing this music provided the basis for our Beatles songs.
ZEIT: They sat together and asked each other who knows which songs?
McCartney: That’s exactly how it went. I said, “Do you know that?” And John replied, “Oh, and I love it!”
ZEIT: You wrote two of your own songs for your new album in the spirit of the old jazz standards. Does composing become easier or more difficult over the years?
McCartney: It always depends. I would say that actually not much has changed for me. There are problem cases and the kind of songs that write themselves as if by themselves. Take My Valentine from the new album, I wrote that while on vacation, more precisely in the lobby of my hotel. There was a lonely piano in the foyer, it was after lunch in the afternoon, all hotel guests had flown out, the staff was cleaning up. I sat down at the piano and started playing. I had the melody and most of the lyrics together in about half an hour.
ZEIT: Sorry, but it is difficult to imagine that Paul McCartney plays the piano alone in a hotel lobby without a crowd.
McCartney: But it was exactly like that. I sat there alone and was not bothered. Maybe it was the weather, it was pouring rain outside, and most of the hotel guests must have fled to their rooms. I would have done that if I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the longing to play the piano. Of course, I carefully looked beforehand how many people were walking around there, and when I saw that it was empty, I dared myself. A lonely waitress was watching me and a couple of guys from Morocco. When I realized it was going to be a good song, I quickly ran back to my room, got my Handycam, put it on the piano and filmed myself playing the song in the lobby. Later in my room, I watched the movie, copied the sheet music, and had My Valentine, a song that I loved so much that I used it on my new album.
ZEIT: Isn’t that always so easy for you?
McCartney: No, simple and exhausting songs are roughly in balance. I’m currently working on a song that I haven’t got a grip on yet. Most of it is done, but there are still a few little things that bother me. I know I can sort this out, but it’s actually work.
ZEIT: In the time when you listened to jazz songs as a teenager, music was much more important than it is today. Does it devalue the music when it is playing everywhere, on every cell phone, in every coffee shop?
McCartney: When I was growing up there was only radio and records. It was easy to concentrate on your favourites. Today it’s all confusing, take the Internet: thanks to YouTube, you could spend a lifetime clicking your way through an infinite number of clips. Music is actually everywhere today, so it’s no longer so important. Even every computer game has its own soundtrack.
ZEIT: Do you play computer games?
McCartney: No, if only because I don’t have the time. My life is always crowded. I’m happy when I find the time to record new records.
ZEIT: Could you imagine writing songs for a computer game?
McCartney: Actually, I’m currently working on music for a computer game. That is the song that I’m currently struggling with. I was asked if I could imagine something like that and found it exciting. It’s also a fascinating market. A new computer game sells much better these days than a new CD. And you reach a completely different target group. This is probably the first time many young people will hear my music while watching a video game. And maybe it’s as inspiring for them as jazz is for me.