Q&A: James McCartney ventures out from father Paul McCartney’s shadow

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Photo By Barry Gilbert

By Barry Gilbert

James McCartney, son of former Beatle Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman McCartney, carts around a daunting amount of baggage.

At 35, he is just now beginning a music career, with help from Sir Dad. What was unclear to me after a face-to-face interview recently is how much he really wants it.

As I wrote in a story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch based on that interview and a performance later the same day, McCartney “is understandably reticent, and seems a bit uncomfortable on stage, as he was earlier that afternoon during a conversation at one of the empty venue’s bistro tables. He talked about his music and his megafamous father, his career goals and his struggle with maintaining his privacy.”

To that point, McCartney had not done much press in the United States, but I was lucky enough to be on vacation in the Boston area May 20, when McCartney was to perform at the legendary Club Passim in Cambridge, Mass. The stars aligned, and I was granted an interview.

The following Q&A has been edited only for length and clarity.

BG: Are you tired of all of the questions about the Beatles, and the comparisons?

McCartney: No I don’t mind, but it depends on how far we go into it. It’s me, it’s comparisons, it’s all of that, but then it just becomes … like talking on behalf of someone else, which is not what I’m here to do, for my dad.

BG: Audiences in the States are less familiar with your work, I’d imagine, than people back home, so those are the kinds of first questions –

McCartney: That’s fair enough, just as long as it’s not like a kiss and tell.

BG: This is the first tour, or first extended tour, that you’ve done solo without a band. What led you to this point, to do it?

McCartney: We did a gig … and it went down well, and we thought it was a good idea. We tried to gear the album toward that a little bit. And it’s more cost effective, better logistically at the moment. I would still like to have a band. I have a couple of bands, but just at the moment we’re doing the solo thing.

BG: Is this a growth progression? When you first started playing out, you used the name Light …

McCartney: Yeah …

BG: … and this album is titled Me, so that would seem to be a declaration.

McCartney: Yeah, kind of, I mean … I asked my dad what he thought a good title would be, and he said, “Me?”

And I said, yeah, maybe I should answer the question myself, and he was like, “No, Me might be a good title for the album.” And I was, OK, cool. (But a) declaration? Yes. It wasn’t like, me, I really got a declaration, me, but yeah, in some ways it is, you could read that into it.

BG: Playing solo I would imagine is a lot more vulnerable (than playing with a band).

McCartney: Yeah. It’s kind of better in some ways because I don’t need to think about a band, I can just kind of revel in the limelight, as it were, and I’m kind of half joking when I say that. But, yeah, it is a bit more like that.

BG: Did you ever consider going into some other line of the arts …

McCartney: Not really, I mean I considered it …

BG: … to avoid all of the (Beatles/Paul McCartney comparisons)?

McCartney: … but never seriously. I thought about it. This is when you’re in college, you think, “What am I gonna master in?” I thought about animation. I always wanted to separate myself from music at the time, I thought about doing sculpture and art. I don’t think a lot of people know what they want to do when they’re that age. I always wanted to do music, but I wanted to separate it from education.

BG: What was it like growing up with all of these famous folks around, did you pick their brains? You’ve mentioned (the other Beatles), Clapton … as being influential.

McCartney: Yeah. I’ve always generally been pretty kind of focusing on my own thing, just embracing amazing musicians. I went through a big Kurt Cobain period, Nirvana, after my Mum died, he was a good person to console with me and sympathize with me metaphorically. In terms of musicians, everyone really. But I wouldn’t really pick their brains or whatever, I would just focus on my own thing.

BG: Has music always been something you wanted to do, or was there a period of, Dad does that, I don’t want to?

McCartney: At one point, yeah, but that was more of a front just ’cause I was too young to actually do it at the time. But now that I’m old enough, no, OK? You got to utilize the time we have.

BG: Let’s talk about the record. There are a few lines that jumped out at me, and I wanted to get your take on them. “When the freedom is a traffic jam.”

McCartney: What was I thinking about then. … I kind of wrote that song with my dad, so. It makes me think about the Foo Fighters song, I think it’s “Long Road to Ruin,” that kind of idea where Dave Grohl’s in a car stuck in a traffic jam. But when the road to freedom is a traffic jam – it was more of a line he (Paul McCartney) came up with, actually.

BG: “We’ve got to go on but we can’t go on forever.”

McCartney: That’s “Bluebell.” Just one of those melancholy, stream of consciousness kind of things as I was vamping on the piano. We’ve got to go on, but we CAN go on forever, I would say as well, like eternity. Like contradictions.

BG: “Life’s a pill, give it to me now.”

McCartney: The song was originally going to be called “Lipstick,” thinking about the Cure and Robert Smith and stuff, and then when I sang the line, whatever it was originally, my dad thought it was oh, oh, life’s a pill, so that was one of his takes on it. Give it to me now, yeah.

BG: “Thinking about rock ‘n’ roll, it won’t cure you but it’s good for your soul.” Talking about the redemptive power.

McCartney: That was a line of mine, it was kind of collaborative, just thinking about rock ‘n’ roll, it won’t cure you but it … what was it again?

BG: … but it’s good for your soul.

McCartney: But it’s good for your soul. Yeah. It’s just one of those things, just enjoying life.

BG: And it’s a good way into the song, because it’s not really about rock ‘n’ roll.

McCartney: Yeah.

BG: “You and Me, Individually.” What was the inspiration for that song?

McCartney: It was after my Mum died (of cancer in April 1998, when McCartney was 20), I was in that Nirvana period, I was having a hard time, but I was having a great time as well, but it was that angsty kind of time, early 20s. And I was listening to bands like Red House Painters and that kind of mellow acoustic music, like Nirvana unplugged, yeah? But a little more mellow. And the light was pouring in through the trees, through the forest and I was in this ancient woodland, and I think I came up with the tune by the pool with my dad. Just came up with a nice riff. I’d been hanging out with some people in Farmingdale, Long Island, and they’d been playing that kind of music.

It was a difficult time. You and me are different. And then Dad would say, “Individually,” to put a positive spin on it. It was kind of me and Dad had drifted apart a little bit because my Mum died. And that was typical. She was like the glue in the family. And then he came up with the lyrics — hot days, cool pool by the water — and then I came up with some different lyrics recently which are like, lost I’m wading through the flowers. Kind of nice imagery. There’s a children’s book called “The Rainbow Goblins” (by Ul De Rico), which is a cool book, and it’s kind of like all that imagery, wading through the flowers and stuff, and it’s kind of spiritual and it’s kind of like a beautiful day, thunderstorms and stuff, but it’s hot, it’s the summer. It’s kind of like a hedonistic time. But I kind of had some spiritual epiphanies maybe, but that’s kind of like the wrong way of putting it, but just having some good insight into spirituality.

BG: What would you like folks to know about you, independent of everything else? Maybe I’m asking you how you’re different from your dad, Beatles music and everything that surrounds you. I would imagine the pressure must be …

McCartney: Yeah, so, how would I want people to know me now. Just as an honest person. I don’t know. How can I put that? Just really into music and art, working a lot, I’m into charity, I want to start a charity company at some point. I’m very spiritual. I want to learn more about theology. What else … I mean, yeah, what other kinds of things are you thinking?

BG: The problem that I’m having, not a problem, I try to approach every interview on its own merits, and it’s hard with you because of your background. I don’t want to dwell on Paul …

McCartney: We can dwell on him a little bit if you want to …

BG: People have said, as I’ve told folks that I’m going to interview James McCartney, and they say, when they learn that you’re 35, they say why now? Why did he wait so long?

McCartney: Yeah, good point. I have been doing it for the last four or five years or so, but why 30?

BG: Why 35 or 30, why the solo tour as opposed to a band. (Management) asked me not to ask you about the Beatles’ kids thing (speculation about McCartney and other Beatles offspring forming a band), and I won’t other than to say, when I first heard of that I thought, well, maybe that would be a way for all of them to have the support of each other and be a new entity. You’re the only one who can know how it feels. And that’s what i’m trying to avoid. I’m trying to avoid imagining what it must be like to come from a family that for me and my generation was huge. And folks coming to the show are going to be curious …

McCartney: Yeah, curiosity, isn’t it, I guess that’s my kind of, in a way it’s kind of private …

BG: It is and it isn’t …

McCartney: It is and it isn’t …

BG: … because the songs are referencing your life.

McCartney: Exactly. And it’s the public face of privacy, or wanting a private life. So I know it’s a bit of both that’s, I guess, lyrics are a way of channeling it, so it’s not quite so raw and vulnerable. So, yeah.

BG: Do you ever get annoyed with all of it?

McCartney: No, it’s just I haven’t talked a lot about my private life, I don’t know.

BG: I saw one of your quotes: “The Beatles are quite a hard act to follow.”

McCartney: That’s understatement, you know. I’m not sure if I actually said that literally, I might have, but if I did, that was an understatement.

BG: I guess I’m asking the same question 48 different ways, and I apologize for that. How DO you follow that?

McCartney: Just by being myself and continuing to play music and stuff, yeah.

BG: You mentioned Nirvana. Who else did you listen to growing up?

McCartney: The Cure, Radiohead, the Clash, Sex Pistols.

BG: Who is the biggest influence in how you write? Sometimes the writing is a lot different than what you listen to on your own.

McCartney: Ahhh … I don’t really have a biggest influence. At one point it would have been Kurt Cobain. And, you know, it’s Dad, isn’t it really? But I mean beyond Dad, then it would be me.

BG: What are your expectations for your career? What would you like?

McCartney: Just to be successful and keep writing music, make a living, you know, just for it to be cost-effective and to sustain and hopefully be in the right band at some point and build a fan base and stuff. Yeah.

BG: How do you and your dad work? Did he expect you to go into music … he’s happy to help? What’s that dynamic like?

McCartney: I think when I was younger, he expected me to or thought I might, and then I kind of rebelled a bit. And then he just left me to my own thing. And now he still kind of leaves me to my own thing, wants me to be focused on my own path, rather than relying too much on him. When we work together, it’s fun, you know, it’s a great experience, like it would be for anyone working with (their) dad.

BG: That should to it. I’ll let you get back to …

McCartney: Yeah, that’s cool, man, sorry if I don’t open up enough. It’s a gradual experience for me, it’s like I can’t just be like, OK, you know what I mean? Over time, I probably will, and hopefully that acceleration ratio will speed up in the right way.

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