Interview: Sir Paul McCartney

Danny Bowman 2 November 2021

Why, even after six decades, Sir Paul McCartney’s magical mystery tour rolls on into the next town

Even in his very darkest moments, there’s always been something decidedly light-hearted about Sir Paul McCartney. He is the iconic principal of popular music; he’s the man who’ll wink during a photoshoot or pull out a two-finger peace sign mid-interview.

He’s the guy who’ll bob down the street humming or whistling a song by one of his favourite contemporaries—think John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder; yet also modern “equals” such as Beck and St Vincent, and even new-wave soul/dub experimentalists Khruangbin.

When tragedy and disappointment has come—the death of John Lennon in 1980, the sad passing of wife Linda who lost her battle against breast cancer in 1998, the very public collapse of his marriage to Heather Mills a decade later—it’s never been long before the singer, songwriter, producer and, let’s be frank, godfather of the modern pop song, has rallied. Almost impossibly quickly he would be snapped loafing down the King’s Road in a pair of shabby cords, or back on the Radio City airwaves pushing a new solo project, or flitting between expressions of awe and bemusement on the front row of one of daughter Stella’s catwalk shows.

Sir Paul’s ability to “let it be” is perhaps like that of no other. For a start, few can rival his time at the coalface of the music industry.  Across 60 years, rarely has he afforded himself more than a few months away to recharge. “I’m not sure if it’s habit or necessity,” he begins, “but it feels incredibly awkward to me not to be making music; and when I’ve got a bunch of songs coming together it feels similarly unnatural to keep them to myself—I just want to share them.”

The resilience McCartney shows is matched only by a creativity that crosses almost every accepted genre. The proud Liverpudlian may not have ever strayed into David Bowie-esque levels of reinvention—“there’s no drum ‘n’ bass in my back catalogue” he laughs—but a passion to experiment with and experience sound through the perspectives of others is a redeeming feature of his six-decade-long pursuit of music mastery.

The Beatles in Washington DC in 1964

The Beatles seeing the sights of Washington DC in 1964

From the perfect pop of early Beatles into darker “world music” sounds that reflected the band’s literal journey across far-flung continents; from sultry folk to the later prog-rock sounds of Wings; from Eighties influences that included Michael Jackson and Johnny Cash, right through hooking up metal numbers with Foo Fighters and hip-hop segments alongside Kanye West. Crikey, he even guested alongside John Lennon on a Rolling Stones track in 1967… what rivalry?!

It all just proves that those who have arrowed accusations of arrogance at McCartney are missing the target. Far from these collaborations being the actions of an artist who believes that whatever he makes is marketable, there’s a much simpler humility in his work—a desire to continue testing and trialling new formulas. “The truth is I’m a music fan,” he concedes. “I just love the lyrics and sounds and beats and harmonies. A great track is a great track, after all, no matter if it’s pop, rock, R&B, metal—whatever. And seeing how others go about their art means I can still build my own knowledge. I want to do that.

“I don’t make records with the intention of being edgy or clever or popular for the sake of it,” he says, although it’s easy to forget that much of The Beatles’ early work showcased technical and sonic innovations that were simply game-changing. 

"I don’t make records with the intention of being edgy or clever or popular for the sake of it"

“The truth is, there’s some music you feel as though you are writing it for the audience; while in other tracks you’re doing it more for yourself; but I wouldn’t be doing any of it if I didn’t get that same thrill I’ve always had. It doesn’t matter how much other stuff in the industry has changed, the feeling you get from music will always be the same. It’s an excitement, an energy.”

Through everything that’s stayed the same for Sir Paul, it’s clear the rapid changes in the industry—most brought on by the advent of digital music—have left the ground underfoot rougher than it once was.
“Nothing subscribes to the old rules anymore. Does that fill me with sadness? Perhaps a little,” he concedes. “It’s a very different landscape, and the truth be known I’m just glad to still be a part of it, so 
I can’t criticise it too much.

“I do miss the days when singles were a prelude to the album, and then the tour after that. I miss physical formats, but at the end of the day, you know, there are no hard and fast rules for promoting a record, for getting your face and your voice out there; and actually, there never were.”

Perhaps McCartney’s antidote to the way the industry has changed so profoundly can come through other creative processes. His recent foray into children’s book-writing seems to abide by many of literature’s traditional sensibilities, and his quirky Grandude and Nandude characters have also allowed him to repackage that chipper, cheerful, cheekiness of his we first witnessed when The Beatles leapt onto the scene with “Love Me Do”, a single that celebrates its 60th anniversary in October 2022.

Indeed, McCartney recently revealed himself as the man behind a series of mysterious ads placed in the Daily Record, Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo, guiding readers to Twitter handles #Where’sNandude? and #I’veSeenNandude! The 79-year-old, worth an estimated £1.2billion, certainly has the resources to dabble in a spot of guerrilla marketing, and used the space to promote the latest installments in his book series, named Grandude’s Green Submarine.

"I do miss the days when singles were a prelude to the album, and then the tour after that"

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he says, “and writing for the grandchildren is always such a thrill. With everything else that’s been going on, I think it’s important to remove ourselves, to fantasise. I’ve always loved transporting myself to different places, or inside the mind of characters. It gets the mind away from the chaos, the monotony.”

McCartney has a long and decorated history of doing just that. Even in The Beatles’ pomp, the likes of “Eleanor Rigby”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Sgt Pepper”, “Blackbird”—which detailed the American civil rights situation of the Sixties—and others were diversions from the self, or from a cliched two-and-a-half minutes about falling in love. McCartney has always been an artist obsessed and intrigued not by his own existence, but by others’.

And not just in big gestures either—the premise extends all the way down to photo opportunities and autographs.“I’ve always said that at the end of a photo opportunity you feel a bit empty,” he says, segueing sharply. “It’s like the exchange is for nothing more than a kind of badge. Great badge too—what you’ve usually got is a ropey photo with a poor backdrop and me looking a bit miserable. 

I won’t typically do the photo thing these days because I think we should all be more excited about having a conversation. So let’s chat, let’s exchange stories. I actually find people more receptive to that anyway. Social media has lessened a lot of the mystery where recognisable people are concerned. I really want us to get back to the raw value of actually having a conversation with someone. It’s nice.”

And as for the era of the autograph, McCartney is glad to see the back of it. “It always struck me as a bit of a strange thing. ‘Here, can you write your name down on the back of this till receipt please?’. ‘Why? We both know who I am’,” he laughs.

“Listen, there’s nothing stranger than celebrity culture, and I’m not a fan of it. I’d much rather just meet people and talk to people on a level. You get to the point where all the bravado and status becomes boring, and you yearn for normality.”

Paul at a Hey Gradude signing event in 2019

Regretfully, that’s probably not something McCartney is ever going to be able to claim for himself; at least, not in a public space. “I’ve always been the guy who will go on the subway or will take a bus. Some famous friends of mine say, ‘Don’t you take your bodyguard?’, and I’ll say, ‘No, I try to escape the bodyguard!’”.

Even recently, McCartney was seen hanging about at a bus stop in Liverpool on a trip back to the city where it all started, to mark what would have been wife Linda’s 80th birthday. Contemplative and sentimental, to a point, the star is clearly able to compartmentalise life events in living for the moment. And why not, he is happily married again, to American Nancy Shevell, and has five accomplished children.

Commentators note how grounded McCartney is, though the truth is you would have said exactly the same of a 22-year-old McCartney as The Beatles sat on the cusp of true global stardom when they cracked America in 1964. “They were exciting times,” he says. “The US was just a place read about and seen on black and white television screens.

Heading out there was incredibly exciting and almost like a parallel universe; but we still wanted to do it with a sense of control. We had said to our manager, ‘Look, we’re not going to America until we have a number one record,’ which, when you think about it, was really quite a bold move. The reality was we’d seen other stars from Britain go there and just fade into the general scene. We knew we were going to wait till we’d got a chart-topper, and we did eventually with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and the thing just hit the roof. It was important for us, though. We were confident lads, but a lot of that was down to the fact we had a number one record with which we could back up the bravado.”

Over the years since, amidst the plectrums and the plaudits, there have been a bevy of half-truths, mistruths, and downright lies. Flying pizzas from London to New York, laying 25,000 flowers by the M4 to advertise a photography exhibition of Linda’s, turning a yacht into a 24-track studio.

"Over the years since, amidst the plectrums and the plaudits, there have been a bevy of half-truths, mistruths, and downright lies"

The excesses are tempered by the reservations—purchasing all the land around his farm on the Mull of Kintyre to create an exclusion zone being one. In many headlines, the scrutiny doesn’t even allow for the facts; and don’t get Paul started on the various movies about the four-piece. 

“I’ve seen a lot of them,” he smirks, “and often the reality has been left somewhere else. I will often give a pass to the actor because they are doing their best interpretation of you, but it always feels a bit strange, as it would do for anyone watching themselves.”

Perhaps one of the strangest rumours about McCartney is that, for the most commercially successful songwriter in history, he can’t actually read music. “Actually, that one is true,” he laughs. “I can’t read music. It’s the strangest thing. When I took lessons as a kid, it seemed a bit too much like homework to me. It wasn’t until later I started to enjoy it, then I tried to play catch-up, but I just couldn’t get my head around reading music and being so regimented in what to play and how to express it. 

It seemed to go against something in my core—I wanted the freedom and the creativity. I didn’t want to toe the line, and I don’t think there are many musicians that do really. I do think it’s about time I learned, but I guess I’ve done OK without it!”

As for the future, pausing isn’t an option; it never has been. Even during COVID, McCartney III, his 26th studio album, was released. The sell-out global tour to accompany it didn’t happen, and that arguably leaves Sir Paul with unfinished business he’ll most likely want to tend to before his next collection of tracks finds themselves being mixed and mastered. “If I didn’t have a new project or a challenge to conquer, I can only imagine I’d start thinking further or deeper about the reality of death, and that’s not something I want to do, particularly,” he laughs.

“Death won’t ever scare me—when you get to my age you have to accept your mortality; you have to realise it’s a finite thing and the belief that your life will trip on forever becomes fractured; but it’s still some distance away for me, of that I’m sure.”

In truth, McCartney’s grasp on the fragility of life has always been there; certainly, since John Lennon was snatched away from him. The effect it has had on the Liverpudlian songwriter and cultural bastion of the modern generation is certainly to enjoy each day as it comes, but also to go about his business with sensitivity, calm, light-heartedness, and humility.

Paul McCartney in 2021 is as gentle and open as at any point in his impossibly decorated past—the awards, the success, the money all fade into the background for a man entertained not by the trappings, but the sheer art of his craft.

“If I want to say anything, I’ll write a song; so that song becomes all I really need in the world. That’s a wonderful gift bestowed on me by who knows what. The magical mystery tour rolls on, and everyday I’m grateful.

Featured illustration by Paul Johnson

Read more: How Afro-Pop is taking over the world

Read more: David Bowie and the digital music revolution

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter