Don McLean: Legendary Singer-Songwriter

This interview with Don McLean took place to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the classic song “American Pie” and the “American Pie” LP.  Don McLean talks in great detail about the album and his perspectives on songwriting.

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is our great pleasure to welcome our special guest, Don McLean. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you, good to be here.

 

I wanted to kind of go back a little bit, when you started listening to folk music, what was it that you liked about ‘The Weavers’ Album at Carnegie Hall?

Well, I love harmony; there was a lot to be learned by listening to ‘The Weavers’ and anybody who likes harmony can learn a great deal from listening to that particular group, because they did many different things and they did many different harmony things within one song. One of the things that I learned from listening to them was how to build a song that basically had a verse and a chorus, from verse to verse, the song got more powerful or reached a sort of a climax if you will, and it’s difficult with a song like that because they kind of drone on one verse after another one and chorus after another, so there were many things also about their instrumentation, the playing, the guitar playing of Fred Hellermanand the twelve string guitar and five string banjo playing of Pete Seeger were extremely accomplished, and it was a great deal to learn, especially if you were just, you know, starting out in music as I was.

 

You just mentioned Pete Seeger a second ago, I was hoping you could tell the listeners how you met Mr. Seeger, and what did he teach you?

I was around Pete Seeger from about 1966 until about 1975 and there were good and bad points to being around Pete Seeger, a lot of people are attracted to him and a lot of people also after they find out what’s going on, they kind of get turned off and walk away. I was very interested in him musically but I found him to be politically and personally somewhat of a disappointment. I learned a great deal from him musically, programming songs, how to read the mood of an audience,  how to use what’s going on in the world and what’s going on locally as part of what it is you do, as part of your performance to make it a personal experience, not only for the audience, but for you as the artists, also just how to pick good songs, songs that have importance to them, whether they’re, you know, they may be an important song, they might be just a frivolous song, but they have to be really good and musical and also, just what not to say, you know, when to keep quiet, the biggest thing I learned was that he makes huge mistakes on stage, and it doesn’t matter, so that was very liberating

 

Well, we’re here in 2011, it’s the fortieth anniversary of the album ‘American Pie,’ when you began to record that album, did you feel you had a very special record on your hands?

I knew I had a very talented Producer in Ed Freeman, who was very meticulous and very sensitive toward everything that we were doing, I had just put out an album called ‘Tapestry,’ which had done very well, two songs ‘Castles In The Air’ and ‘I Love You So’, came from that record, but there were many other songs that were on it, so I was off to a pretty good start, but from the time we made the album, the record company was sold and we felt we were out of business, so, I thought I was going to be just a guy that made one album, instead I made, like, forty, but none like the ‘American Pie’ album of course, so, I don’t know what we thought, but, you know, we basically hit a home run.

 

Could you pick a favorite song from that album?

That would be of course ‘American Pie,’ I mean; it stands head and shoulders above everything.

 

With all the interpretations that people have written, have you read many of them, and if so what do you think of them?

Well, the song is fun, you know, (Don laughs), it’s funny because the nineteen sixties, people got so serious, the one thing I loved about the Beatles is that they were so artistic but they were also having a good time, most of the folk people, and I am not a folk singer but I love folk music, but I’m not really, I wouldn’t qualify as a folk singer, but I love folk music, but they got so self important and so pompous and here come the Beatles who were infinitely more talented than most of these artists who were ‘Newport Folk Festival’ and they were having a lot of fun, part of the song was that it was just fun, and it was fun to hear people (Don laughs) you know route around and try to find different meanings, because it was all meant to be fun, so, I don’t read the meanings, but what I do love are the parodies that people do, there was one when the NASDAQ stock market went down called ‘The Day The NASDAQ Died’, which is, (Paul laughs) a classic, I mean, it’s unbelievable and then of course, Weird Al’s parody ‘The Saga Begins,’ that was marvellous and there have been probably twenty other ones.

 

I had the opportunity to interview Lori Lieberman and she talked about the incredible emotional response she had from your song ‘Empty Chairs.’ So, I wanted to talk about that song, what is it like to receive such an emotional response from people from something that you wrote?

You know, I was never really cut out to be in show business, what I wanted to try to do was just the best thing that I could do and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but most of my songs are all very different from one another, really different.

Definitely.

And that was one of the things that I was shooting for was to try to create a new concept every time I wrote a song, to be quite frank I was oblivious to everything, except what I was doing, and the most important thing was to make records, because, and you know, I didn’t know whether I would go over well on records or not, I didn’t know whether my voice would record well or not, I didn’t know what would happen, so when something like the ‘Killing Me Softly’ thing happens, it’s just a sort of a total…. from left field type of a thing, which is very complimentary and it’s a wonderful thing to know that she was thinking of me and they were thinking of me when they wrote the song and when the song was recorded, but again it’s just totally from left field.

 

I read a quote from you where you were talking about your song ‘Vincent’ and you said “the essence of the artist’s life is his art,” what was it about the print of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ that struck you?

Well, first of all I had decided that I wanted to write a song about him. It was a really, kind of basic kind of a thing, I figured, you know, I would just write using the most famous painting, as I was looking at the painting I realised that, something occurred to me which was this ‘is’ him, it’s not his painting, it is ‘him’, just like my songs are ‘me’ and not just something I do. See, most people do something, you know, they go and get the car fixed or they walk the dog, or they, you know, read the paper, but an artist puts what he ‘is’ into his art, and even without the artist he lives on because it is ‘him’, so, when that very obvious realisation hit me, then I started to just tell the story and write the song looking at the imagery and it just wrote itself, it sometimes happens.

 

In your opinion, what makes a good song a good song?

Well, that’s just myopinion, and I think Cary Grant says in ‘A Monkey Business’, Marilyn Monroe says “that’s a silly song,“ and he says “well, in my opinion your opinion, if that’s a silly song it’s a silly opinion,” so, you know, my opinions are just my opinions and they’re probably silly, but you have to have a sense of what a beautiful melody is, and what a real lyric is, which at least for openers means that there should be some kind of rhyme, you know, either internal or somewhere, the song should be something that you want to hear again, I mean that I think is really what sums up a good movie or a good song, you know, you may watch many movies or documentaries, but you don’t want to see them again, you don’t want to see the movie again, but some movies you want to see a thousand times, and it’s the same thing with songs I think, some songs you just can’t get enough of, you finish it and you want to start again, and I think that’s also an indication of whether a song is a good song.

 

Well, just a second ago you said “documentary” and I’ve heard that there’s a Don McLean documentary forthcoming.

Yes, it’s going to be a PBS fund raiser and a full on documentary which will be in theatres called ‘American Troubadour’, and it’s being filmed by Jim Brown, who’s a famous and very successful documentary and filmmaker.

And when will that be out?

March of next year.

 

Okay. With all the songs of yours that have been covered, could you pick a favorite cover that another artist has recorded at one of your songs?

Yes, I like the Fred Astaire version of ‘Wonderful Baby.’

 

I wanted to also ask you about the song ‘Crossroads.’ Was that song autobiographical?

No, I don’t think so, I was in a very peculiar place in my life in the nineteen seventies and a lot adjusting was going on and there was a lot of pain, I guess, to making these kind of adjustments, so a lot of that came through in my songs, probably made them a whole lot better than they would have been otherwise, so there’s probably some of that in there, but I was thinking more about America really, the American Pie album. The idea of my albums, was, and again, I say ‘was’ because I’m not making albums anymore and I’m not really writing songs any more, for albums because the music business has basically disappeared as I knew it and I don’t really want to participate in what there is there now. But I’ve made many albums so if someone decides they like what I do, they can spend a long time finding different records that I’ve made. The idea of the album is that one sort of, overall concept but then there area lot of songs that you might not figure how they might fit in with that, but if… but they fit in sort of, on a tangent, rather than directly, you know, if somebody has a concept album, ‘Moonlight Sinatra,’ there’ll be every song that’ll say, ‘Moonllight,’ ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ ‘The Moon Was Yellow’ you know and on and on, well, that’s not my concept albums, and they all are concept records, from the point of view I just described.

 

Well, on that note the one song, ‘The Grave,’ what inspired that song?

That was a dream I had, I suppose when the Army was breathing down my neck to try and draft me, I guess that was written on later, I forget….after I’d been rejected by the draft. That was a dream, I dreamt it and woke up and wrote the song.

 

I wanted to ask you about ‘Sister Fatima,’ listening to the lyric of that song, it made me wonder, are you a man of faith?

I was brought up a Catholic, but I’m not a Catholic, my Father was Protestant and my Mother was Catholic, I think my Father probably had as much of an influence on me, in a negative way towards religion as my Mother tried to have on me in a positive way toward religion, so, in the end I feel I probably… I’m not religious, in that I do not believe in religion, but I do believe in God, I believe in… I guess I’m a pampthiest of some sort, I love… I believe it’s all around you in nature and everywhere and harmony, and.. you know, you’re either improving or you’re not, you know, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, you really don’t stay static and as we move a long in life, many tests reveal to us and to others where we are and how we might be better. ‘Sister Fatima’ was written because I found a circular on top of this set of steps going down to take the sub way in New York, and I put it in my pocket and wrote the song, just pretty much what was said on the circular, all the things she would do for you.

 

What is the best thing about being Don McLean?

Having a great wife, and two terrific children, I don’t think my life would amount to much if I didn’t have my family, and my wife, really is the person that keeps that together and has provided that, I’ve done my part, but you know, a woman’s very vital to the raising of children and staying together in a marriage, which is very hard to do, but hasn’t been hard for me and I hope it hasn’t been hard for her, it’s really important, so we have two kids in college now and they’re doing quite well, so that’s my greatest achievement really , because that’s the one that alludes a lot of people, you know, who may find success in business or in the arts, it’s the tough one, it’s the big one really.

 

I have one final question for you, for anyone who’s listening to this broadcast, wherever they are, we have listeners from all over the world, what would you like to say, in closing to all those people?

I would like to say that I think that we should be very sceptical of technology, and especially the kind of technology that we have today, and that, I would advise people of all ages to not stare at screens if possible, it’s very difficult not to, but to look around at the natural world and try to avoid the virtual world that seems to be closing in on us very quickly, because of this very rampant and all consuming technology that seems to be here now.

 

Well, Mr. McLean, thank you so much for this interview.  It’s been a great pleasure to speak to you.

 

Thank you.

 

TRANSCRIBED BY ROSALIND WINTON.

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