Songs mentioned in this interview
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How would you compare the creative process of painting to song writing?
Well, I know how to do songwriting more than I know how to paint. So painting, to me, is more of a free exploration. Like a lot of people, I used to think that if you’re going to make a painting you have to make it very significant and the subject matter has to be very meaningful. And then I met Willem de Kooning, who was an abstract expressionist and he showed me that it’s just about composition and colour. The way he painted was always about composition, colour, freedom. So, I really enjoy that. And it helped me get over the hang-up of : “This is what am I going to paint”.
“When I’m going to paint, it can’t just be some fruit on the table. It’s got to be something meaningful. And that had totally just stopped me. I could never paint. It’s just too daunting. But then, you know, I knew de Kooning a little bit and visited him in his studio and I just saw what he did. And I talked to him about it, and it was obvious that it wasn’t about this “meaningful thing”. It was about the aesthetics. The look of it. The art of it. The colour and the brushstrokes.The minute I realised that, I just loved it. I started to put all sorts of things in. I wasn’t worried about whether they were meaningful or not.
“So then, you know, if I needed an idea, I would just look at some books I had, or look at something else. (I mean, this is when I was painting a lot more than I am now. I don’t have a lot of time now.) I would look at Celtic or ancient art and see the sort of faces that they made. That was lovely. It is very liberating just to put those things in and build a picture around it. So yeah. Here you go!
Do you have a favourite chord?
A favourite chord… That’s a hard question! But I would say E is a pretty big favourite. It’s one of the early chords you learn. And in the early days, we used to play the Buddy Holly songs that we listened to a lot. He used E and A a lot, so we used E and A lot too. It’s a very pure basic chord and on the guitar it rings out beautifully because the bottom string is open. So it has a resonance that some other chords don’t have. But they’re all good. I love them all basically, it’s hard to pick a favourite! But if I have to pick, I’ll go for E.
What do you do to relax?
Thank you for asking, Irene. Horse riding is one of my favourite ways to relax. I have a farm in the country where I love to ride. I have a horse called Moonstar, who is great. I’ve ridden him for years, so we know each other very well. It’s always a great relaxation to go out into the fields and the woods. I can go out for about two hours and trek around. It’s a big farm with some fabulous trails, a lot of which I made. It used to be my hobby when I had time on my hands. I would go out into the forest, take my Land Rover and then pull my chainsaw out and clear some paths, normally following animal paths like deer. Or some tracks had been made by forestry workers years before then had overgrown. So I’d make them into horse trails. Which is always very exciting when you’ve finished and you’ve joined one trail up to another.
“I also love just watching TV. I’m a big TV watcher! I know a lot of people watch series on iPads, I’m not so big into that. I prefer just easy television and Nancy makes fun of me for it. Nancy calls it the ‘Paul will watch anything department!’ And she’s right! In America, I will watch the infomercials…
Like on the shopping channel?
Yeah! I say, ‘Yeah well, I’m like a tourist, so this is all new for me!’ Whereas it’s a boring shopping channel for Nancy. For me, I think it’s kind of exciting. I end up watching the craziest programmes. I just switch around a lot and then get hooked. I end up watching something you wouldn’t imagine I’d watch! I have to resist buying everything: ‘I need a can of that!’ DiDi Seven. There’s some stuff called DiDi Seven. It cleans everything! ‘I need some of that!’ Nancy will say, ‘…Are you sure?’
“It’s relaxing! It’s nice to escape and sometimes a bit of easy TV is great. You don’t have to think about anything! You know, I’ve been thinking all day, either in the studio or in the office. Meeting with you guys. Doing things like answering questions, having meetings about this and that. So, I get home and just flop, turn the TV on, just flick around. I love things like ‘Gogglebox’. And some of the comedy shows like ‘Would I Lie To You?’ All the British shows like that. They’re just such good programmes.
What is the one thing that has changed your approach to music forever?’
Paul: “The advent of rock and roll. It’s very hard to imagine now that there was a time before rock and roll, because it’s now history. But there really was! We were kids from Liverpool being brought up on more traditional music from my dad’s era. It would be a family party and he would play the piano and people would sit around having a sing-song, so that was great. And I still love that kind of music. Then on the radio there was a lot of novelty songs, a lot of comedy songs. But then rock and roll came along and it was a completely different sound. And very exciting! And it was like – wow! It gave you a completely different feeling from anything you’d ever felt with music.
But it was ours, that’s what was great. We were teenagers, so hearing Elvis Presley sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was shocking, in a good way. Hearing Little Richard screaming ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ or ‘Lucille’ was so revolutionary. And hearing Buddy Holly sing ‘That’ll Be The Day’. Now that we know those songs quite well and they’re part of musical history, it is very hard to imagine hearing them for the first time.
I remember hearing Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’, which is a classic Ray Charles song, on the radio. There was this guy, David Jacobs, who was a rather posh DJ, but had great musical taste. He played ‘What’d I Say’ and at the end the crowd on the record sing, ‘just one more time’. And then David turned the record over because there was a B side and it started again. The fact that David Jacob played both sides was really cool. I mean, I loved him from that moment on. So yeah, it was a very exciting time and I think that’s what changed my view of music forever.”
PM.com: It’s amazing to think of everything that’s been influenced by rock and roll since then. You see its influence in pop, you see it in hip-hop…
Paul: “The only equivalent would be hearing rap or hip-hop for the first time, but even that kind of stemmed from Jamaica and the reggae the Caribbean artists used to do. And yeah, it is difficult to imagine. It’s almost impossible!
I think that’s why people of my generation say, ’You’ll never know…’ I mean, I’ve got a jukebox at home with a lot of this old stuff on it, and I listen to it and remember the feeling of hearing that for first time. There’s a Gene Vincent record called ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ and that was the first record I ever bought. We didn’t have much money so I had to really save up for it. I remember going down to the shop, a place called Currys – an electrical goods shop – and it had a little record department in the back. Getting it home and playing it – it was so exciting, you know… It’s just fabulous!”
Do you have a favourite studio to work in, and if so, which would it be?
Paul: My own studio in Sussex is a great favourite, but it’s also really cool to go back to Abbey Road because of the memories of the exciting times I had there. I also love Henson Studios in LA where I made most of Egypt Station.
PM.com: Do you have any favourite memories from those places?
Paul: Recording the Beatles track ‘Free As A Bird’ at my studio in Sussex. Because it was so remote, nobody knew that George, Ringo or myself had got together. So, it was very cool and it was very private. Those were fabulous sessions. ‘Free As A Bird’ was made with John’s vocal taken from his old cassette demo, and then the three of us played live along with it. It was really exciting, because having him in our ears and playing along with him felt like he was really there, just in another studio. That was a really lovely memory.
There are so many great memories at Abbey Road. It’s very hard to choose one, but just to pick out of the bunch, I think it was recording the orchestra on ‘A Day In The Life’. That was pretty special. It was crazy, because we told George Martin that we wanted to use an orchestra and he said, ‘No, no, it’s way too expensive!’ We said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re The Beatles, we can do that at this point in our career!’ So, he said okay.
Then, once we realised we were going to use a symphony orchestra, he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to hire a symphony orchestra you can tell them what to wear’. We wanted evening suits – full, posh orchestral attire. They came along with that, and we said, ‘Can we really tell them what to wear?’ Yes. So, we suggested that they also wore funny hats and funny noses. That was very, very Beatles; we liked taking it to the extreme. A few people in the orchestra were good sports and put them on, and it was a fun session. That was fabulous to do.
And Henson… I think really the favourite memory from Henson was just making the Egypt Station album. I was in the habit of visiting some of the other studios in the building, because there are a few there, and if anyone was in the building working I would go and say hello to them. Just wandering round all the other people, nosing in on the sessions. There were people like will.i.am and Chaka Khan. You know, some pretty cool people. So, I enjoyed wandering around, and then beyond that just making the Egypt Station album with Greg Kurstin.
PM.com: It must have been quite a surprise for them to have you just pop in!
Paul: Well, most people don’t mind. I won’t go and look at them in the middle of something. I pop my head round the door, and if they look like they’re just hanging out, I’ll go on, butt in, and just make a nuisance of myself!
How do you take your tea?
Paul: How do I take my tea? I take my tea with some soya milk and one sugar. If I’m really feeling naughty, one and a half sugars… I know, I’m living on the edge!
The funny thing is, I’m not a big tea drinker, but at the studio these things become a ritual. You guys have seen me drink it at the office too. It’s like – here’s a bagel, with a cup of tea. And that’s the only time I ever really have tea. I drink it at the studio or at the office, it just seems to fit. I don’t want a big lunch, so just that bagel and tea is great. And yeah, that’s how I take it – soya milk and one sugar.
What’s your favourite emoji?
Paul: The thumbs up, I like that one, it says a lot! And sometimes thumbs up and a heart together – that’s good. I also sometimes use the little cowboy face… I like him!
Yeah, I find it fun, I like emojis a lot. I need a few of my own, I think, so that I can use them in my own messages.
Ever find yourself listening to one of Paul’s songs and hearing a word or phrase you don’t recognise? With hundreds of songwriting credits under his belt, Paul is no stranger to sneaking in some Liverpool slang, playing on words, and even making up words entirely! But what do they actually mean?
We dug through the archives here at PaulMcCartney.com and spotted a few ourselves, from the famous run-out groove on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to ‘Mumbo’ on Wild Life and ‘cranlock navel, cranlock pie’ in the Blackbird Singing poem ‘Ivan’. We chatted to Paul via Zoom to find out exactly where these unusual phrases come from…
Paul: When you are kids you make up silly things, and what’s great about it is you and your friends all know those silly things… So, they don’t have to mean anything! We had a few words and phrases that, if one of us said it, would amuse the others because it was like a secret code. So ‘cranlock naval, cranlock pie’ doesn’t actually mean anything.
But I suppose at lot of this came from The Goon Show, a comedy show on the radio. Peter Sellers was in it, along with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. They got laughs from saying things like, “Netty, oh Jim boy!” And other nonsense, so ‘cranlock naval, cranlock pie’ fitted in with that era. We just used to say absolutely silly little things.
PM.com: Was ‘cranlock pie’ used in any particular context, or is it just something you would say to make each other laugh?
Paul: That was something that our friend Ivan would say. He’d be imitating stuff that John would say, and then everyone would just make up things together.
There was a thing in Liverpool that us kids used to do, which was instead of saying ‘f-off’, we would say ‘chicka ferdy!’. It actually exists in the lyrics of The Beatles song ‘Sun King’. In that song we just kind of made up things, and we were all in on the joke. We were thinking that nobody would know what it meant, and most people would think, ‘Oh, it must be Spanish,’ or something. But, we got a little seditious word in there!
Is writing solo songs any different than it was when you were writing in The Beatles and Wings?
Paul: Yeah, it is different when you’re writing with someone. Particularly with John, who I did most of my collaborations with, it was a completely different ball game because we were working off each other. Often one of us would say a line, and then – it was like it was a joke – the other one would say the next bit!
It became quite conversational. I’d write ‘it’s getting better all the time‘ and then John would go, ‘it couldn’t get much worse!’ You’re spinning each other through the song, and so that process is interesting. In fact, I think it makes it a bit easier, because if you’re stuck then hopefully the other person isn’t, and if they’re stuck hopefully you can help them out of it. So, it’s a pretty good way of working.
Working on your own isn’t quite as easy, but it’s something different altogether. It’s more like writing a novel. You do the opposite of sitting in a room with someone; you go off as far as you can, into the quietest part of the house when no one can hear you and no one can see you, hiding away under the staircase or something, until you’re very much in your own thoughts. It can make something that turns out better, really.
But yes, it’s not as easy. It’s all on you, whereas when you’re collaborating with someone, that’s on you both and you can help each other out. I think good songs can come from both methods.
At what moment did you realise that you had truly made it as a musician?
Well, in the early days, my idea of what a real musician was came from radio or TV shows. As a band, we’d normally be playing in clubs and doing our own thing, not taking ourselves too seriously. Then if we arrived at something like the BBC for a radio show – or more often a TV show – there would be an orchestra that would do the theme tune, and these were the real musicians. These guys could even read music!
I think once we were working with that kind of people, and they were liking what we were doing and I felt like we were playing well, that’s when I started to feel like a real musician myself.
At what point did you realise your music had changed the world? Or had, at least, helped change attitudes in the world?
I suppose it was our first big success in America. I started to realise that the attention was not just local, and it was around the time of Sgt Pepper when we started seeing our clothes and the music we were making getting copied on an international level. Although this had happened before at home, with people getting the Beatle haircut and all dressing in a similar fashion, it was around about Sgt Pepper that you could feel the worldwide movement. You could feel that people in California were thinking about what you were thinking about. And that’s when people started saying to us, ‘Wow man, you know your music changed my life!’ So, I think around about that time I started to think it was changing the world.
Did you feel an added responsibility about what you were doing, or did you try not to think about it?
No. We’d have to give up if we felt responsible! People did say we should take some responsibility because we were writing songs that were sneakily about drugs or sneakily about sex and stuff, which we knew young people were listening to. But we just had to put it to one side and think, ‘No, this is what it’s like for us’. And of course, the other thing to bear in mind is that a lot of our music had a good message too. A lot of peace and love, a lot of sympathy for each other, but even then we didn’t feel the responsibility of passing on these themes to other people. You just had to get on and do what felt right.
Last updated on January 23, 2021