‘It’s just me’: an exclusive interview with Paul McCartney about McCartney III

40 years on from his last DIY solo album, Paul McCartney is finally releasing McCartney III. In his first interview about the project, he told us about its themes, how it helped him get through lockdown, and why it's arriving now

Of Paul McCartney’s 17 solo albums, it’s his eponymous two that hold the most mythology, not only for the music that’s on them but how they were made and when they were released. 

Recorded as The Beatles disintegrated behind closed doors in late 1969 and early 1970, McCartney wasn’t a statement in name alone – it was a record written, performed, recorded and produced by one man who’d been so intrinsically tied to three others. A true solo debut album. He recorded it in secret, mostly at home, and when it came to releasing it he did so a month before The Beatles put out their swansong, Let It Be.

Like the rest of the band, McCartney was entering a new decade as a new artist, but the boldness of his first solo album was unparalleled: consciously un-Beatles in its sparseness and homespun production style, it featured ad libbed instrumentals and an opening track (‘The Lovely Linda’) originally meant only as a line-check. Spontaneous and supernaturally free from pressure, it’s as far away from Abbey Road as you can get, but then, The Beatles had only been able to make Sgt. Pepper by rolling the dice on all that had gone before it – and now McCartney had made something of a proto-indie record.

In 1980 it was another new decade, another band breakup and another one-Paul-band album to try to make sense of it all. The dissolution of Wings wasn’t such a mess, but McCartney had been in the group for as long as he was The Beatles. 

McCartney II remains his most experimental solo record to date, and arguably his best. Just as his debut distanced itself from the sound of his previous band, McCartney II abandoned the soft rock of Wings for new wave electronica, post-punk disco, krautrock and much weirder sounds altogether. You could easily mistake parts of it for Talking Heads, while B-side ‘Check My Machine’ featured a sample of Tweety and Sylvester as McCartney simply enjoyed himself experimenting, with little regard for what fans or critics would think.

Neither of his DIY albums were well received at the time of release, although McCartney II has become a wonky pop cult favourite since, and there’s little denying the beautiful simplicity of McCartney with some distance from the long shadow cast by The Beatles, let alone the guts it must have taken to release it in 1970. And now, at the start of a new decade once again, McCartney has put his lockdown to good use, writing, performing, recording and producing McCartney III – released December 11. 

There’s no monumental band breakup this time, but all the other McCartney–isms are still there. It’s a sketchbook of freewheeling ideas completely made by one man at his home in Sussex, with daughter Mary McCartney stepping into the role of artwork photographer, previously held by her mother Linda.

Favouring acoustic instruments over electronic, it shares more in common with McCartney’s debut than its follow-up a decade later, although it’s perhaps number three that’s the most eclectic of them all, opening with a long (practically instrumental) acoustic guitar piece and continuing to throw caution to the wind after that – a vital characteristic in making it McCartney III rather than any other Paul McCartney solo album. Inside are vintage, chipper McCartney tracks, the odd eccentric to sit next to Polythene Pam, some big glam riffs, full band sounds and delicate demos, and a brilliant midway point that accurately portrays the overwhelming feeling of being in love and the current claustrophobia of 2020 lockdown. It definitely features some of the best music McCartney has made in years, and even in its moodier moments his optimism, of course, rises to the top. “It’s me,” he told me when I spoke with him yesterday, bringing to mind an earworm from the album that’s hard to shake – a hook where McCartney sings, “It’s still ok to be nice.”     

Hi Paul. To start with the most obvious question, a lot of people will be thinking why now for McCartney III?

It was kind of unintentional. I had to go into the studio at the beginning of lockdown to do a couple of bits of music for an animated short film. So I got got in and did that bit of work and sent it off to the director, and then I thought, ‘Oh, this is nice, I’m enjoying this, this is a nice way to spend lockdown,’ so I ended up finishing off some songs, looking at bits and bobs, making up stuff, and generally enjoying myself in the studio. And then I’d come home in the evening, and I just happened to be with my daughter Mary’s family. The combination of being able to go to work, make some music, and then hang out with four of my grandkids, I was very lucky. Y’know, we were being super careful, but being able to make music really helped. 

At what point did you realise that what you were doing was making McCartney III?

Right at the end of it, I’d just been stockpiling tracks, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of this – I guess I’ll hang onto it,’ and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is a McCartney record,’ because I’d played everything and done it in the same manner as McCartney I and II. That was a little light bulb going off, and I thought, ‘Well, at least that makes a point of explaining what I’ve been doing, unbeknownst to me.’ 

It’s been 40 years since McCartney II – has there ever been a point between then and now that you’ve intended to make number III before?

No. Actually, not at all. I did McCartney right after The Beatles in 1970, McCartney II in 1980, and I did other similar projects, like The Firemen, working with Youth – that was a little bit similar because we’d go in the studio and Youth or I would just have a little bit of an idea, and it was a kind of homemade product, but it never occurred to me to do another McCartney album.

As you say, McCartney I and II followed such seismic shifts in your life and career – in that sense, how does the timing of this new record compare?

The common denominator is that I had a lot of time suddenly. After The Beatles broke up, I suddenly had a lot of time and no particular plan in mind. And then when Wings broke up it was a similar thing. And with me, when I’ve got a lot of time, my go-to situation is, ‘Well, write and record, then – that’s something to do when you’ve got some spare time.’ So this was similar, but it was the pandemic that stopped things. We were due to go on a European tour this year, but very early on Italy got the virus, and gradually all of the other gigs, including Glastonbury, which was going to be the culmination of it, got knocked out. So then it was, ‘Ok, well what am I going to do?’ And that’s my fall-back situation – to write and record.

Are you someone who’s bad at being bored?

I like doing stuff, I must say. I like the idea of, ‘Ooh, I can do that.’ But it’s funny, I was in Japan and I got ill, and they said you’re going to have to rest up for six weeks, and all my mates said, “You’re never going to be able to stand that,” but in actual fact I loved it. I think I read every book, every script, watched every bit of telly I’d missed – I surprised myself that I actually enjoyed it. 

Paul McCartney songs have always sounded so effortless to me. Could you write a song every day if you wanted to?  

I think so. The secret for me is having a bit of time. This afternoon I haven’t really got anything on, and my guitar is sort of sat here looking at me, saying, “Why am I over here?” But it’s time. I think if I was stuck and needed to write a song everyday, maybe I could. 

I kind of play everyday, one thing or another. A mate of mine said, “Guitars is best.” I mean, they are. They’re great. You can form a good friendship with a piece of wood and metal. I was always lucky as a kid to have one, and when the world was against you, you could go off into the corner with your guitar and you could make things right. It’s the magic of music, because it comes out of nowhere. It does strike me occasionally – I’ll think, ‘This is great, because I’ve really learned chords, and I can really go between them.’ I can remember a really long time ago finding it really difficult to go between E and A and B, and don’t even talk to me about B7. I was just thinking the other day, “No, I can move between chords. I’m getting pretty good at this.”

There have been rumours about the release of this new album over the last few weeks, and within those is a theory that McCartney III will be your last record.

Everything I do is always supposed to be my last. When I was 50 – “That’s his last tour.” And it was like, ‘Oh, is it? I don’t think so.’ It’s the rumour mill, but that’s ok. When we did Abbey Road I was dead, so everything else is a bonus.   

In 1970, McCartney was an album that featured themes of home, the family and love. What features on this new one?

I think it’s similar. It’s to do with freedom and love. There’s a varied lot of feelings on it, but I didn’t set out for it to all be like, ‘This is how I feel at this moment.’ The old themes are there, of love and optimism. ‘Seize the Day’  – it’s me. That’s the truth.

One of my favourite songs on the album is the midway point of ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, which is over eight minutes long. If people are expecting your lockdown album to feel like lockdown, that’s the track that feels the most claustrophobic to me, despite it being essentially about love.  

That was one of the songs that I’d actually started last year. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a bit of time when I’ll go into the studio and just make something up, and so I try to just do something that I haven’t done before. This was one of those that I didn’t finish. To me, what it was about was, sometimes – I don’t how it happens of even what it is – when you’re feeling real love towards someone, sometimes it can manifest in a tingling over your whole body, and it’s a pretty funny feeling, and you almost don’t like it – ‘What the hell is this?!’ – like you’re about to be beamed up into a spaceship or something. On this song I was fascinated with the idea of that – that deep, deep feeling when you love someone so much it almost hurts. That was the start of that, but after I made it I thought, well, this isn’t for anything. It’s certainly not a three-minute single. What became nice about working in the studio was that in the evening Mary would be cooking, because she loves to cook, and we’d be sitting around before dinner, and she’d say, “Well, what did you do today then?” and I’d go, “Oh, ok, I’ll play it for you.” And I always wanted it to keep going. I just wanted it to go on forever. It’s a bit indulgent, and I was a little bit worried about that – I thought I really needed to cut it down, but just before I did that I just listened to it, and I thought, “Y’know what, I love this, I’m not going to touch it.” 

The album comes full circle when it ends on the riff from the opening track, ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’, and segues into ‘When Winter Comes’, which you recorded years ago with George Martin, right?  

Yes. There’s nothing on that track – it’s just me – but I made a track called ‘Calico Skies’ a while ago [for the 1997 album Flaming Pie], which George produced. And at the same time, because I was in the studio and had an extra minute or so, I had this other song, so I said, ‘let me knock this one off.’ That was ‘When Winter Comes’, and I mention George because it was on a George Martin produced session, but is just me on the guitar. It was nearly going to be a bonus extra that was going to be on a reissue of Flaming Pie, but I’d just been reading that great book on Elvis, Last Train to Memphis, and it mentioned a song and said you’ve probably never heard it because it was buried as a bonus on the B-side of an album. So I thought, no, I’d rather have this one as a proper track. And we finished the album with it because it was the reason for doing the whole thing, because me and my mate Geoff Dunbar, who’s an animation director, were talking about making an animated film to that song. So that’s where the opening and closing tracks come from, which got me into the studio in the first place. 

McCartney II has always been a really interesting record of yours, which has only grown in cult popularity over the years. How do you feel about that album now?

That’s a great thing for me, because you do these records and the spirit you do them in is very optimistic. You think, this is great, it’s a record, and you’re pleased with it. And then you get the reception, which is, “Oh no, bloody hell. What’s he doing?” So it’s disappointing when it doesn’t go down well, and it doesn’t sell well – you just think, nobody likes that. And then a few years ago, someone said to me, “’ere, there’s this DJ in Brighton and he’s playing ‘Temporary Secretary’.” I said, “Get out.” And he said, “It’s going crazy over there.”

I thought, well, I can see that – it sounds very modern with the sequencer and stuff. And that’s a great thing. I mean, Ram [1971] has become something that people talk about. At the time it got some scathing reviews. So you just have to put up with it and think, ‘I dunno, I liked it.’ Suddenly it comes through and you think, ‘Great! Vindication!!!’ 

What’s great about McCartney II is that people tend to think they know what Paul McCartney sounds like and they’ve already made their minds up, but you can play someone ‘Front Parlour’ or ‘Temporary Secretary’ and they might not even believe it’s you.

I love that about it. That’s what I’m trying to do with those kinds of songs. I was in LA when I was doing Egypt Station [2018] with Greg Kurstin, the producer, and we were wandering around this little studio while they were setting up, and was in there with one of his mates, and he said, “Paul, I was just listening to ‘Check My Machine’,” and the other guy was like, “What? I’ve never heard of it.” He got it up on his phone and they were like, “Yeah!” Vindication! They just come out of the woodwork, those things. I was just goofing around. 

Do you still search for innovations like the sampling on ‘Check My Machine’, or making the first music videos for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’, or producing what is perhaps the first indie record with McCartney

There’s a lot of things in my life that I’m surprised at. People say, “After touring for all these years, don’t you just hate it? Aren’t you fed up?” I’m like, “No, I’m not.” I suppose I am still looking for something new, but it’s not that important. The more important thing for me is getting into a studio and thinking, what can we do now. It doesn’t have to be something new, it can be something old. And on this record, actually, I had a couple of guitars that I’ve not played much, and we got them out – this old Gibson, this beautiful thing – and I’m like, ‘How have I not played this!?’ and that led me into a track. But I still enjoy what I do very much, and it all comes out as clichés – ‘I feel very lucky’ – but it’s true. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was plug a guitar into an amp and turn it up for that thrill, and it’s still there. So it’s not so much that I’m looking for something new, more that I’m looking for something to do to keep me off the streets.      

Photography by Mary McCartney