Don McLean: Always Sticking to His Roots

  One of the songs that shaped my life and my interest in music was “American Pie”. It a song that is known and beloved by generations alike. It has been almost five decades since the genius behind one of the most memorable and treasured songs of all-time hit it big and I can truly say that he is one of the most knowledgeable and most humble people in the music industry — even if he did once have screaming women surrounding him.

  Don McLean is so much more than “American Pie”, he brought us “Vincent”, “Castles in the Air” and years of songs that hit home in so many ways. His voice, along with the stories he tells, resonates in each and every listener; this power stems from his acclaimed and truly phenomenal songwriting. His songwriting brought him into the Songwriting Hall of Fame. His songwriting made me want to expand my love of music and words. His songwriting has made him one of the greatest musicians of all time. Don McLean’s passion for his craft is beyond admirable and he is the epitome of a singer/songwriter. I was honored to talk to him for The Aquarian Weekly and have the ability to delve further into his work, his tours, and his life as Don McLean.

Did you ever think that your music would make such a hard-hitting, time withstanding impact? I mean, “American Pie” is arguably one of the most well-known and greatest pop songs of all time.

  Well, to be honest with you, the answer is no, of course. I was just trying to make a living and was just trying to do my best artistic work at all times. I really wasn’t part of any group of artists. I wasn’t following James Taylor or Cat Stevens or John Denver or any of these people who were doing very, very well. I was entirely in my own realm, so I had no way of knowing that some things that I do and some albums that I would make would be remembered for close to 60 years. But the answer to the other part of that question is also, I didn’t realize that there would be such a decline in music writing; which would then make my music look a whole lot better.

Speaking of your songwriting, your songs are considerably guitar based, but you often infuse many different instruments and elements that truly make a song come alive, both rhythmically and lyrically. Do you do a lot of your own arrangements?

  Yeah, I do all of my own arrangements. Even if I have a string arrangement that is violins, you know, and orchestra, I will tell the players what I want and they’ll do a better job of enacting that than I can do. They’ll do it in the spirit of what I’m after and that has to do with string arrangements with orchestras, or what we call head arrangements, which are basically most of the songs that I have made in my life on records have been what we call head arrangements. They are arrangements that I have made on the guitar, then the boys in the studio have augmented that. They are brilliant at playing.

Absolutely! And in my opinion, I think they turn out pretty well, I would say.

  Well enough, I would say. They don’t really have a particular Don McLean sound in their heads, you know each song I do is different, so they have to come at it as a whole with an open mind.

Oh, for sure. Now, you’ve probably been asked this many, many times over your extensive and amazing career, but as a truly prolific songwriter, what comes first for you: the lyrics or the instrumentals?

  Well, I sing the song basically into the tape recorder with opening lyric ideas that I have and then a melody that I have that is all connected, but I don’t attach a melody to some lyrics or write lyrics for some melody. It happens all at once.

Ok, I understand that.

  One more thing that I would like to point out: I write songs, individual songs, like The Beatles did, like a lot of people did. Today, a lot of music is — and even just later on, I should say, in the ‘70s and ‘80s — there were many groups that had extensive instrumental passages and complicated musical arrangements. This isn’t what I do. What I do is a very simple songwriting thing, like Paul Simon does but different.

I actually think that that plays well into my next question for you. How do you keep moving forward as an artist? Do you like to stick to your roots or do you like to change up your sound?

  Well, I just do what comes to me. I really can’t do anything that I don’t understand and I don’t attempt to ever do that. If you look back at me through the years, the last 45 years or more — there are YouTube [videos] — you don’t see me changing my image of how I look. I pretty much am always the same, and that’s because that is the best way for me to be. The same way goes with songs. Songs are kind of like, for artists, songs are kind of like an article of clothing, you know? Or a good pair of boots or something that feels good when you wear it. The song has to sit with the artist and it has to be a representative of who the artist is, so I think I have been faithful in that way musically.

  Over all of these years, I haven’t changed as a person and I haven’t changed my approach, which is basically a fusion approach to songwriting. I fuse old-fashioned popular music, early rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘50s, and folk music. Those are the three kinds of music that I like the most and that I understand the best.

Absolutely, and I think with 21 studio albums, I think you have been pretty successful with that.

  Well, success is a relative term, you know? The other night I heard Van Morrison play and he was great. He sang great, his orchestra is a beautiful orchestra, and the first few songs he did that reminded me of a guy named Mose Allison, and Mose Allison was not successful commercially, but he obviously had a sound that a lot of people have tried to capture. He was successful artistically, and I think that I would rather be successful artistically than be successful commercially. For me, I think I had both. I had commercial success and I think I’ve been artistically successful. I’ve had the best of both worlds.

I would have to agree!

  Thank you.

You’re welcome. So, I just saw a video recently of you doing a duet of “Vincent” with a more modern pop icon, Ed Sheeran. How did that come about?

  Well, I was asked to sing at this backyard benefit with Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, and Ed Sheeran and there were other people in the show, as well. It was a benefit for teen cancer, which has been done a number of times at this location. So, Ed Sheeran asked if we could do it in his set together and, of course, I was delighted. He turned out to be one of the nicest guys that I have ever run across in the music business. So, we have a good time doing the song, and I think he was pleased and I was glad.

I know fans of his and yours alike were glad, too! Going back to your songwriting, with songs like “American Pie”, did you sit down all at once and let it all flow out and it just ended up being an eight-minute-plus song, or did you plan for it to be really long and really detailed in a truly beautiful way?

  Well that song was actually planned out once I had the opening part of the song and the chorus. I didn’t write anything for a few months, as I was just thinking about it as it was so provocative. I came up with the lyrics and the idea that the song actually became, and by the time I finished my story, the thing was eight and half minutes long. So, I ran into trouble there.

  I had an understanding record producer named Ed Freeman who didn’t care if the song was eight minutes and 27 seconds. You know, he just made a great record of the song. I could’ve had a producer that said, “You gotta cut this down to four minutes. There’s no way we can do this.” You know, he could’ve given me a lot of trouble about it.

Definitely. It’s great that you had such a good team around you.

  Yes. Yes, I did.

Maybe it is just an urban legend, but I think that has been heard around the music industry that you were rejected by 72 labels prior to being signed…

  Well, that number has grown. It might have been more like 27. I think it’s reversed [Laughs]. I think it might be 27, that might be closer to it. I think the reason was that I wasn’t going to give them my publishing. Most people don’t know what publishing is, but if you write a song, a song is copyrighted, and a song is a piece of intellectual property. You might not have just the Don McLean “And I Love You So”, but you might have 30 other versions of “And I Love You So” and they are each recording that song property. That song property is what I didn’t want to give to the record company, and that’s what they want. They want it because your version of “And I Love You So” might be a failure, but the song, they felt, was a good song, so they might have a hit with someone else’s horizon. They want that money, so I wouldn’t part with the songs, and so that was a big reason that they didn’t want to put money into an album of mine.

Well, I’m very glad you didn’t give them up, because we wouldn’t have so many great songs like “American Pie”, “Vincent”, and “Fool’s Paradise” to listen to and love the way they were originally supposed to be heard.

  Well, also, I own all of my recordings or control all of my recordings. I own all of my songs, and that’s as it should be! I think the artist should own his own work and that is what I was lucky enough to have happen.

You truly have been. Do you find going on tour in 2018  different than going on tour in say, 1971?

  Well, in 1971, I was a sensation, so there was a bit of hysteria around me. People still get very excited when I show up and sing, but I wouldn’t say that they’re hysterical. I had that, you know, that thing that happens to young people when you’re a young artist. You connect in a big way with the audience, and people don’t probably believe this, but I had screaming women and all kinds of weird stuff. That’s not the way it is now, though.

But, I can imagine that it’s still fun to get up on stage and do what you love the most?

  Well, I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love to do. I mean, at my age, or at any age. There are a lot of people who have careers for a while and then their careers dissolve or fall apart or things go wrong. I mean, there are numerous examples in the music business of people who had a great start and who were very successful for many years, who lost their way. Ricky Nelson is an example of this. He had so many hit records, but by the end of his career he was playing these crumby gigs and he was in a crumby plane that got him killed.

Now, you have been performing live and going on tour for so many years. Do you still get nervous?

  Yes, yes I do. I get nervous until I get out on stage and then I see the audience and I feel that the sound is good and I’m feeling good and then I get into it. I’m not nervous then, I know what I want to do, but, when you step on that stage and maybe the guitar isn’t loud enough or the voice isn’t quite right even though you’ve done a soundcheck and have to make some adjustments… That’s a pain in the neck. You don’t really want to have to do that, but it often happens that way. Once things are comfortable, then I am not nervous anymore.


See Don McLean live at the NYCB Theatre in Westbury, NY on September 8.