2011 marked the 40th anniversary of singer-songwriter Don McLean’s career and the landmark single ‘American Pie’. To celebrate his life in music, McLean has toured extensively and made a documentary entitled American Troubadour to highlight his career.
2011 marked the 40th Anniversary of singer-songwriter Don McLean’s career and the landmark single ‘American Pie’. To celebrate the event, McLean has been on an extensive tour over the last year (culminating in a sold-out concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall this October 2012) and a US documentary called American Troubadour, to highlight his career and life.
McLean’s ubiquitous hits are universally appealing but when an artist composes a song as beloved and universal as he did with ‘American Pie’, it can ultimately become a double-edged sword. In McLean’s case, the song has pretty much defined his career.
‘American Pie’, (the single from the eponymous album) is an eight and a half minute folk-rock anthem that soared to number one in the US charts and reached number two in the UK charts. It was the longest recording to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 and it is still played regularly on the radio airwaves – at least in the case of US classic rock radio! The lyrics to ‘American Pie’ have been discussed and debated over the decades by many a fan and critic. Beyond the gargantuan success of the original, Madonna covered the song in 2000 which reintroduced the classic to a whole new generation, topping the charts in over seven countries.
McLean success followed with the achingly beautiful ‘Vincent’, his paean to doomed artist Van Gogh and during the 80s he released a cover of the Roy Orbison classic ‘Crying’. His other hits include ‘And I Love You So’, ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ and ‘Castles in the Air’ also reaching the Top 40.
In the 40 years since his ‘American Pie’ breakthrough, McLean has continued to tour the world alone, with just his acoustic guitar for company.
In person the singer is intense, a bit guarded and slightly business-like. Still, McLean’s contribution to music as an astoundingly successful artist who has defied the odds as he’s still standing many years since his star first rose. McLean is nothing short of a folk icon.
You grew up in the northern suburbs of New York City in the 1950s. Were you into music as a kid?
I basically listened to the records that were around the house. I was home a lot because I had asthma and pneumonia. I also listened to the radio a lot and fantasised about making music myself. I knew I was destined to do something big since I was a little boy. I always say, “I just walked through doors in front of me”. I was never going to accept failure and I knew I’d find a way to play music.
I dropped out of high school and college. I went back to school though and managed to get a degree in economics. I eventually found myself living near the Hudson River and due to my interest in The Weavers I was automatically drawn to folk music. As a kid, I had no idea how to get into show business, so I just called people up in the industry to get information on their artists. I got to know some of the folk artists of the early sixties. So for me, the process got started that way by meeting people, making records, yet I kept up my education.
How would you describe yourself now?
I’m a fusion artist because I have a rock element to my folk music.
What is your guitar of choice?
I’ve used Martins for the last 50 years and I have about 40 of them now. Mine is a D-40 DM which was custom made for me. All of my guitars are set up by a luthier in Maine that I use at Wood Sounds Studios in Glen Cove. They make them a little louder and a little broader than normal. The guitar is not just a prop; it’s a crucial thing for me. I can’t play just any instrument. I usually have Shure microphones and I have the guitar set up a certain way to be heard. If you hear a song like ‘Vincent’ it is just guitar and voice. So live it has to be the right balance.
Do you look after your own guitars on the road?
I take care of them and I always bring two on the road. I have a lot of anxiety about getting my guitar to my dates in one piece.
How did the documentary American Troubadour come about?
I knew the filmmaker, Jim Brown, since he was a teenager also growing up in Westchester County, New York. He made a movie on the folk group, The Weavers, which I did some background work on. So we worked together on the documentary he did on me. He had a lot of footage available to him from way back. The show was televised in the US and is also available on DVD. There is also a limited edition book, Don McLean American Troubadour, written by Michael Cochrane and myself.
Were you pleased with the final cut of the documentary film?
Yes. It’s better than I thought it would be, but this stuff wasn’t planned by me, it all just happened.
Have you written anything not using a guitar?
That only happens when I’ve come up with a melody in my head. Of course, a good melody makes a good song.
What is easiest for you, a melody or a lyric?
Sometimes I’ll come up with some words that are just dying to find the right melody for them. Other times I’ll have a melody that I think would be a great song if I could only find the right words for it. So it happens in different ways. But sometimes I have a thought that spurs my creativity and the guitar allows me to start to hear it as a song. When you’re used to being famous and wealthy it diminishes you as an artist in a way so that you’re not as hungry as you maybe once were – I don’t want to fake it in my music. You have to fight a lot of people to get your music out there and now I’m old I don’t want to fight anymore – I’ve fought hard enough. I’d love to make a record with a really good record producer like George Martin. I had David Foster reach out to make a record, but that didn’t feel right to me. What I miss is the time when Cat Stevens, Laura Nyro, Jim Croce and The Byrds, were writing great songs. They all had some amazing hits and back then they brought up everyone’s game and made all of us strive to be better songwriters. Jim Croce wrote hits – that’s it. He didn’t just write songs for the sake of writing songs, like I did. Once in a while I got lucky and my songs became hits. He wrote songs that were stone cold hit records and he would have had a lot more of them had he lived longer, you can be sure of that.
Are there any current artists you like?
Not really. The thing is, there are competent players and singers out there, but they often lack a strong melody. This is why some of my songs have lasted so long and why The Beatles will never go out of style. There’s no real songwriting out there anymore. We have things out there that are a reasonable facsimile of music, but a lot of it isn’t music as people my age would remember. At least I don’t accept it as music, and it doesn’t interest me at all. Come to think of it though, Allison Krause is very talented woman with a great voice.
I think the era of the song is gone. I used to like to see Sinatra sing because his voice was different live than on record and he was so in control of the rhythm and the orchestra – he was the master of interpretation. Everything revolved around him. They don’t make singers like that anymore.
You didn’t start to play the guitar until after you started singing, is that true?
I was born singing, but guitars were not around people in New Rochelle, New York, back then. They were around people in places like Tennessee, Mississippi and wherever, but not where I grew up. You didn’t have guitars in people’s houses where I grew up because it was an upper-middle class, white suburb. You might have the piano or a violin, because kids took orchestra lessons, they didn’t take guitar lessons. Occasionally you might find a banjo, though! When I got going, I was pulling instruments out of attics all around town. Someone’s grandmother might have one and they’d bring over this thing that had been in the attic for thirty years. I was a magnet pulling out guitars and banjos from attics.
Since you don’t read music, how do you write songs?
The way I write songs is to sing the song on the guitar into a tape recorder. Then I get the feel for the song by listening to it. I’ll listen back to parts that I like and parts that I don’t like. Then at some point when I’ve got the melody to where I want, I’ll finish writing the lyrics and then try the whole song on the tape recorder and listen back to it.
You mentioned being wealthy. Were you ripped-off like so many other musicians back in the 70s?
I did okay. I didn’t make a lot of stupid mistakes and I was lucky. My advice for anyone starting out is to find a contractual lawyer who will tell you like it is. I have had money stolen from me by record labels, but you can avoid the big losses by having a lawyer who you trust.
Do you have any other advice to burgeoning musicians?
Just to listen to everything you can and expose yourself to as much music that you can – show tunes, jazz, classical, whatever. Somehow it all comes through in your songwriting.
You have two children, are they musical?
My daughter writes plays and poetry and my son plays guitar. He’s a good picker!
How did you end up living in a beautiful but fairly isolated place as you do in Maine, New England?
I always liked the woods and rural areas better than cities. I grew up near the woods. I lived outside New York City growing up and have never been comfortable in big cities. I first quit college in 1964 and I moved to upstate New York for twenty years. When my kids were born about twenty-two years ago we moved to Maine and it was the best decision we ever made.