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In the song ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ you sing ‘I had a cup of tea and a butter pie’. Firstly, what is a butter pie? And is there a meaning behind ‘the butter wouldn’t melt so I put it in the pie’?
Paul: No, there’s no meaning behind it. Because I like surrealist art, I also like surrealist words. A great example of this is Lewis Carroll writing Alice in Wonderland – it’s a crazy thing, you’ve got a cat sitting in a tree that grins and talks, and you’ve got Alice falling down a hole and meeting the red queen, and so on. That whole tradition was something that I loved, and when I met John I learned that he loved it to. So, it was something that became a bond between us.
I’d always liked writing love songs, ballads, and rock ‘n’ roll songs, but then one of my other little side interests was to invent surrealist stuff. Admiral Halsey was someone I’d read about – he’s a character from American history – and I just liked the name. I was playing around with that and making up a fictional story, and I just ran into the words ‘and butter pie’. Well, there’s no such thing as a butter pie, that I’ve ever heard of anyway. So, it was a surrealist image, like in surreal art where you have a thing called a ‘hair cup’, which is just a cup that’s made out of fur. You wouldn’t think to drink from it, it’d be disgusting, but as an image it’s interesting and shocking. ‘Butter pie’ is that kind of equivalent, but in a song.
I kept with that image and thought, by way of a surreal explanation, ‘the butter wouldn’t melt so I put in a pie’. I was very into surrealism at that particular time, so I wrote songs like ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ which is again totally surreal. The word ‘monkberry’ actually came from our kids! That was how they said milk when they were little – ‘can I have some monk?’ – you know, in the way that kids get funny names for things. So, ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ to me was like a milkshake!
I haven’t done that recently – maybe it’s time to go back to it? It was just a thing that I liked doing, because it was fun and not too serious. If you’re not in the mood for writing a love song then it’s not wise to try and write one, but you might be in the mood to write something a little crazy.
It’s an interesting way of looking at it, like you’re making up your own little world in a song.
Paul: It also depends on how seriously you want to sing a song. If the lyrics are a bit zany then you end up having fun with the vocal, like you’re a character. I’m inspired by people like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who did a song called ‘I Put A Spell On You’. When I first heard it I couldn’t believe the way he was using his voice, I thought, ‘wow, this guy is singing far out’! ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ was definitely influenced by ‘Put A Spell On You’, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a light relief from the serious world.
It can be so hard to find positivity in life when everything in the news about our future seems so dire. Do you have any advice or insight into what we can do in situations like these? Do you think that music could be a key that gives hope for humanity’s spirit and perseverance?
Paul: I’ve always been an optimistic person, because I don’t like the alternative! I find that even when you go through crisis after crisis, you still come out the other end, and no matter how bad you’re feeling it can often work out OK.
Something I’ve learned is that life’s good, really, but we often screw it up. So I try to tell myself and other people that if we can just work on not screwing it up, it’s going to be better for us and everyone else. I always try and see the good side – the silver lining – and if you’re lucky, it arrives.
I remember as a kid, I would hear old women on the housing estate where we used to live saying ‘ohh me rheumatism, ohh me arthritis, ohh it’s killing me, it’s terrible!’ And I thought well, it’s not going to get any better if you talk like that! I know life’s difficult for a lot of people, but I think a positive thought is often a great help. You’ve got to train yourself not to think the worst.
With Covid, it’s awful. You’ve got to look for the good side, and even though we’re all restricted right now, you’ve got to say – ‘well, on the other hand it gives me loads of time to do all the stuff I wanted to do’. And even though we can’t hug our friends like we wish we could, there will come a time when we’ll be able to, and I have a feeling it’ll be even better than ever.
PaulMcCartney.com: Do you find music helpful? Do you think that music can help lift your spirits up?
P: Yeah, definitely. I think music is a great healer. I think that you can be feeling terrible, then put on a piece of music you like and get swallowed up by it. You can go in into the mood of the music and it’s a magical thing. I remember once, again when I was a kid, I was hanging out with my mate from school and I had a headache, and we put on an Elvis record – ‘All Shook Up’ – and at the end of the record I didn’t have the headache! So, I’ve always believed in that power.
Ella on Instagram: There are a lot of references to birds in your songs – like ‘Blackbird’, ‘Single Pigeon’, ‘Jenny Wren’, ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ – that kind of thing. Is there any specific symbolism behind birds in your songs?
Paul: That really happens because from an early age I’ve actually loved birds. I grew up on a housing estate in Liverpool in very ordinary circumstances – but nearby where I lived there were woods and fields, so I used to get out there and always loved it when I saw birds, or their nests etc. I think one of the most memorable sights was seeing a skylark rising into the sky and singing its sweet song. So, the answer is I love birds but, in my songs, they sometimes turn into symbolic characters. There you go!
Adrian on Facebook: Throughout your career you’ve ventured around the world. Can you recall a time when a specific location inspired you to write a particular song?
Paul: I suppose the most specific and obvious location that inspired me was the Mull of Kintyre, which is a very beautiful part of the world. It inspired me to write a Scottish song for the first time in my life. Other locations have inspired me in more subtle ways, of course, but that’s the first one I remember wanting to reference in a song title.
Mario on Twitter: You’ve already written a song which includes a bit of French with ‘Michelle’, but have you ever thought to write an entire song in a different language?
Paul: Yeah! I’ve often attempted to write a song in Spanish, because I did Spanish at school, and I always liked the language. I did ‘Tres Conejos’ in Liverpool Oratorio which is a nonsense rhyme I learned in school. And I have had a stab at writing a sort of Spanish love song – I didn’t quite finish it, but you never know, one of these days I might get round to it.
Writing lyrics in a different language is a completely different challenge to anything else I’ve done. I seem to like challenges, you know! The joke is that I really don’t have to do any of this – it’s like doing puzzles, where you don’t have to do them for any practical reason, but there’s something fascinating about solving them and getting a great sense of achievement.
Last updated on July 29, 2021