Name: Don McLean
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Don McLean is embarking on a UK Tour to celebrate the 50th aniversary of his "American Pie" single. Get your tickets directly from his official homepage.
Although journalists like to claim otherwise, no career in music is ever built on a single song. Sometimes, however, a truly stellar achievement can cast a shadow over even the most accomplished songwriter's career. Such may be the case with Don McLean and “American Pie”, an eight and a half minute journey somewhere between a miniature opera, hallucinatory visions and the perfect pop piece. Released in 1971, it has gone on to score number one spots across the planet and earned its creator a spot in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The mystery around its lyrics has added to the mystique of the composition. But whatever the precise meaning of the images, it seems clear what the song is about: The ability of music to magically entwine itself around our lives, its ability to help us understand and come to grips with our human limitations and fate. The day the music dies truly is the die we die inside.
But McLean has never rested on his laurels and kept writing. The spaces between albums may have become longer. But then again patience, as many songwriters contend, is one of the most important virtues of art. The well has certainly never run dry. As he puts it himself in this interview: “I have ideas that will be floating around in my mind, sometimes for years. Then the time will come and at the right moment, I will write the song.”
And besides, you can't measure these things in numbers. When I was going to school in the Hague, almost two decades after “American Pie” was written and in a city three and a half thousand miles away from McLean's beloved New York, it was still the piece to close out every night at our favourite bar, the moment everyone embraced and danced. Somehow, it had created its own sense of time – forever remaining in the present, forever keeping that singular, stellar moment alive. And for its entire eight and a half minutes, whatever it meant, it meant the world to us.
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Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Every single thing mentioned in this question plays a role in how I write my music. Whether it’s poverty or George Floyd, it is politics. Sometimes they come to me in dreams. They all play a role and sometimes they all come together.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I have ideas that will be floating around in my mind, sometimes for years. Then the time will come and at the right moment, I will write the song.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I have no idea how I do what I do. I just do it. Sometimes I can’t do it, and other times I will write several at once. But there is no format or program, it just happens.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
No I don’t obsess about writing songs. If I haven’t written a song in a year, and that happens, I don’t worry about it. I just live.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first line is very important. You can’t fake that. It has to jump out to establish the song right from the first word. The words have to mean something.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
A song is like a beautiful piece of jewelry or a lovely room. Everything has to blend. The lyric and melody has to create magic.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
The way I work now is I write a song. I sing it into a recorder. Then I send it to my producer, where he makes a rough track, using my original. So it keeps the original feel. Then we create the track.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I like to follow things wherever they go. I don’t have a preconceived notion about what the song is about. That’s why "American Pie" was over 8 minutes long, I wasn’t finished telling the story.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I love it when my mind is creating something and I have no idea where it is coming from.
“Ain’t She A Honey” from Botanical Gardens is an example. You have to turn on your internal antenna and let things happen.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
There is a total degree of spirituality to my work. I know what’s going on, but it does come from my spirit.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
That’s a very good question. You can’t be a real artist until you know when it is over. When it is done, it is done and you have to know when that time is.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I have said, I never have written a song that I didn’t like, but I have made records that I thought I could have done better. But, I have always liked my songwriting.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Production involves mixing and mastering. It is everything. You can have the best song in the world, but if the production isn’t good, no one will hear it.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
No I don’t have that feeling at all. I am just glad it is out there and giving people enjoyment, making their lives a little better. That’s what makes me happy.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Music defines the indifinable and expresses the inexpressable. It’s like catching lightening in a bottle. That’s why artists are revered. They can do something no one else can.