Interview for The New York Times • Sunday, June 3, 2007

Still Needing, Still Feeding the Muse at 64

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
The New York Times
Interview by:
Allan Kozinn
Read interview on The New York Times
Timeline More from year 2007

Album This interview has been made to promote the Memory Almost Full Official album.

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THE first video from Paul McCartney’s new album, “Memory Almost Full,” is an otherworldly fantasy, directed by the French filmmaker Michel Gondry, in which a postman brings this former Beatle a box with an old mandolin and, it turns out, an assembly of mischievous ghosts. As Mr. McCartney plays “Dance Tonight,” with its simple percussion and bright pop melody, the ghosts — including one played by Natalie Portman — leap around him, throw sparkling fireballs and scare off the postman. Mr. McCartney later follows them into the box, and as the clip ends, he is seen jamming with them, playing the drums.

Surreal as the video is, it says a lot about what Mr. McCartney is up to on “Memory Almost Full,” to be released on Tuesday on the Hear Music label, a joint venture between Starbucks and the Concord Music Group. The ghosts may terrify the postman, but Mr. McCartney happily cavorts with them. And while the ghosts don’t seem to be from Mr. McCartney’s past, his comfort with them suggests the ease with which his history informs many of the songs on the album, including a suite that moves from childhood memories to thoughts of death. He is describing “Memory Almost Full” as a “rather personal” album.

It almost wasn’t an album at all. Mr. McCartney began recording it at the end of 2003 with his touring band but abruptly shelved the project. It wasn’t that he was dissatisfied with the music, he said in a telephone interview from his recording studio in Sussex, England; but he had wanted to work with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s longtime producer. When Mr. Godrich became available, Mr. McCartney decided to start fresh and to play all the instruments himself. That collaboration yielded “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” in 2005.

The tapes for “Memory Almost Full” languished as he moved on to other things, including his divorce from Heather Mills and the latest in his growing series of classical scores, “Ecce Cor Meum,” a large work for chorus and orchestra dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Linda, who died in 1998.

Then he remembered the recordings he had filed away.

“I realized that I didn’t want to have any unfinished work lying around,” he said.

His first move was to summon David Kahne, who produced his “Driving Rain” CD (2001) and the early recordings for the shelved album. It wasn’t Mr. McCartney’s plan to record the rest of the album without his band, but with a studio at his house it was hard to resist wandering out to finish tracks he was working on whenever the mood took him, and in the end he played all the instruments on about half the tracks.

“Memory Almost Full” is a change for Mr. McCartney, although not primarily in musical ways. It has, after all, hints of everything from the sound of his 1970s band, Wings, to echoes of relatively recent work like “Flaming Pie,” from 1997, and Mr. McCartney seems to heave steadfastly avoided hopping on current pop music trends.

Still, he wanted to shake up his approach to releasing an album. The video made its debut on YouTube. And having been an EMI artist since the Beatles signed with the company in 1962 (apart from a series of American releases on Columbia in the 1980s), he moved to Hear Music, hoping to draw on the eagerness and energy of an upstart label.

“Am I feeling like I’ve left the family home?” Mr. McCartney said, when asked if switching labels was traumatic. “I have left the family home, but it doesn’t feel bad. I hate to tell you — the people at EMI sort of understood. The major record labels are having major problems. They’re a little puzzled as to what’s happening. And I sympathize with them. But as David Kahne said to me about a year ago, the major labels these days are like the dinosaurs sitting around discussing the asteroid.”

Although Hear Music has collaborated with other labels on projects ranging from Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company” to a recent compilation of John Lennon tracks, Mr. McCartney is the first artist signed to it directly. To celebrate his album’s release Starbucks is having what it is calling a global listening event: The album will be played around the clock on Tuesday in more than 10,000 Starbucks stores in 29 countries. Based on its high-volume traffic — some 44 million customers a week — the company expects about six million people to hear the music that day. Starbucks’ channel on XM satellite radio will also be promoting the record heavily, and XM will devote another channel exclusively to Mr. McCartney’s music on the release day.

“We got a call saying that Paul McCartney was interested in talking to us,” said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, “and after we picked ourselves up off the floor, we met with him in London and had a pretty in-depth conversation about who we are as a company, and about our commitment to music.” He added that the company told Mr. McCartney it could “bring more exposure to this album than to other projects he’s done.”

Hear Music is releasing “Memory Almost Full” simultaneously on CD and as digital downloads, through iTunes. Mr. McCartney has already made several songs available online, both through iTunes (his Live8 performances, for example) and on his own Web site, But this is his first full album available digitally, and iTunes is offering a version with bonus tracks, and, for preorders, the “Dance Tonight” video.

But for all that his defection from EMI is less than it seems: these days, he works album by album and can take any project where he chooses. He also controls his recordings, including his back catalog, so if he returns to EMI, he could take “Memory Almost Full” with him. On the other hand, if his success with Hear Music is such that he decides to stay with the label, he could bring his back catalog to it. For the moment he is leaving the older recordings in the custody of EMI, which has just announced a plan to reissue his complete back catalog through iTunes and on remastered CDs.

Mr. McCartney said the Beatles catalog would make its way to iTunes also, but he would not say when, other than to quote the early Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long.”

With his past work about to flood into the latest music distribution pipeline, it is probably fitting that his new album has a nostalgic quality. The title, “Memory Almost Full,” touches both aspects: a computer term, it also hints at the well of remembered experience that Mr. McCartney draws on here.

“There is quite a bit of retrospective stuff,” he acknowledged, “and looking at that, I thought, ‘Whoa, I wonder if there’s any particular reason?’ But then I thought, when I was writing ‘Penny Lane,’ that was me in my early 20s writing about when I was 15, 16. That’s retrospective. It’s a natural thing, I think, for a creative artist. Because the past, in a way, is all you have.”

“I didn’t sit down to write a personal album,” he added, “but sometimes you can’t help what comes out. I’m a great believer in that.”

By personal he means that several of the songs — particularly those in a suite near the end of the 13-song disc — look back at earlier times in his life, starting with his childhood in “That Was Me,” a tour of a family photo album. But personal has limits for him. He’s not singing about his marital woes, so don’t expect “Memory Almost Full” to be Mr. McCartney’s version of “Across a Crowded Room,” Richard Thompson’s searing 1985 divorce album, an example of the genre at its venomous best.

Mr. McCartney’s specialty has been the opposite: love songs, of which there are several on the new album. When advance copies leaked on the Internet last month, some listeners interpreted songs that mix love and nostalgia — “Vintage Clothes,” “See Your Sunshine” and “Gratitude” — as hymns to Linda, who has attained sainted status in the McCartney myth, much as John Lennon has in the Beatles’ legend.

“Funny that, isn’t it?” Mr. McCartney said. “ ‘Gratitude’ is just me being grateful for the good stuff in my life, past and present. That’s the thing about me, when I talk about love, it’s often general, it’s not always specific. If people think these songs are specific to Linda, that wouldn’t be true. But they’re pertaining to Linda, or my children, or other things in life for which I feel grateful. So she’s certainly in there.

“I don’t really mind how people interpret my songs. But I don’t want to have to say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ I’d more gladly say, ‘Yeah, you’re partially on the button, but it means a whole bunch of other things.’ ”

At 64 (he turns 65 on June 18) Mr. McCartney is reportedly a billionaire and could easily settle into retirement at his Sussex estate. If anything, he seems to be expanding his one-man entertainment franchise.

In recent years he has published a poetry book, “Blackbird Singing,” and written an illustrated children’s book, “High in the Clouds,” with Geoff Dunbar and Philip Ardagh. He has mounted shows of his paintings and continued the series of classical works that began with “The Liverpool Oratorio” in 1991. And he is working on a guitar concerto.

Even so, he has been thinking about mortality. In “The End of the End” he imagines his death and sings, “on the day that I die, I’d like jokes to be told, and stories of old to be rolled out like carpets.” The idea, he said, came to him after he read a quotation that began, “On the day that I die”; he thought that taking on mortality so directly was brave.

Oddly, given that the album was recorded over four years with a long hiatus, partly with a band and partly by Mr. McCartney on his own, “Memory Almost Full” has a consistent sound and feel. It has a simplicity that gives it a rougher, rockier, more homespun sound than most of his recent albums.

That he overdubbed all the instruments on seven of the songs might have something to do with it; but it doesn’t explain why the six songs recorded with his band sound of a piece with them. That was something Mr. McCartney hoped for, but he isn’t sure how it worked out that way.

“I’m not that analytical,” he said. “I just do what feels right. And there’s a lot of crossing fingers: ‘I hope this works.’ ”

What does he mean when he says he hopes it works?

“That it sounds absolutely wonderful, and that I’m thrilled to listen to it. And that the feedback I get is great. Occasionally the feedback isn’t great.

“I’ve worked quite a lot in the past with Richard Rodney Bennett, who’s a great composer and orchestrator, and he once said to me that his greatest fear is ‘being found out.’ So many artists I know have that essential lack of confidence. Perhaps it’s what drives them. So for me it’s always a pleasant surprise when it works.”


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