With A New Album of Standards, The Legend Makes a Left Turn While Looking in the Rearview
By Ray Waddell, Billboard
"Hello there, this is Paul. Are you expecting my call?"
Why, yes, indeed we are, thank you. Sir.
Sir Paul McCartney, calling from "a car" somewhere in England, is surfacing to discuss his new record, "Kisses on the Bottom." It\'s an ultra-cool tip of the hat to both a bygone melodic era and McCartney\'s own treasured childhood recollections of "sing-songs."
Or, as Macca himself puts it, "Kisses" (the title references a line from the record\'s opening cut, Fats Waller\'s 1935 "I\'m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter") is all about "melody and memory." Not only does it feature a bounty of standards-some well-known, others not so much-but Kisses also boasts two new McCartney compositions that fit perfectly in this classy mix in terms of both gorgeous melody and lyrical heft.
Produced by legendary Grammy Award-winning producer Tommy LiPuma ( Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Diana Krall) and featuring jazz/pop pianist Krall (@DianaKrall) and members of her studio and road bands as musicians, "Kisses" might seem at first take a quiet little album, especially when placed alongside McCartney\'s epic recorded legacy. Yet, the record lacks nothing in substance-and owns style to burn. It\'s the sort of album McCartney hopes folks might chill to after a hard day of whatever.
"When I play it... something really nice happens," he says. "I get into a zone I really like being in. I imagine people coming home, cracking open a bottle of wine or whatever\'s your tipple, putting the album on, kicking back and relaxing. I hope people find it musical, relaxing and something that means a lot to them."
In an era when reinterpreting standards has become standard (Rod Stewart has done five such albums), McCartney\'s stab at the classics songbook stands out for its warm, in-the-moment feel; impeccable and often left-field song selection; and the fact that the world\'s most famous bassist doesn\'t play a note, save some spontaneous whistling on "My Very Good Friend the Milkman." This record, perhaps more than any other, spotlights McCartney the vocalist.
"The nice thing, in one way, was that I wasn\'t playing any instruments. I was just there as a vocalist," he says. "I could just give up the playing responsibilities to them and just sit back and enjoy their playing. That way I had a chance to just focus on the vocal."
A year before recording began, LiPuma, armed with a cache of songs and a "very talented" keyboardist, spent five days at McCartney\'s home studio at his East Sussex estate in southeast England just trying some things out. "We probably put about 15-20 songs down on tape, just piano and vocal, to get a sense of what might work," LiPuma says. "I left with a sense as to what he was comfortable with and what he wasn\'t comfortable with."
The songs recorded were selected democratically, with some dating back to McCartney\'s childhood days around the family piano helmed by his father, an amateur musician.
"I pulled up some [songs] from my memories, when I was a kid and we had family sing-songs, which was the original inspiration for the whole idea," McCartney says. "I said to Tom, \'Let\'s look at these ones. This is the kind of era I want to look at.\' Tommy himself suggested some; a girl in my office, Nancy Jeffries, suggested some-she\'s very knowledgeable; Diana [Krall] suggested some. Then I played Tommy a couple that I\'d written, and he said, \'Whoa, that\'s a great idea,\' so we selected a couple of those. We all pitched in, we all made suggestions, and we took all those suggestions to the studio."
Along with the new compositions "My Valentine" and "Only Our Hearts" (which fit seamlessly into the rotation), the 14 songs include such lesser-known chestnuts as "More I Cannot Wish You," a Frank Loesser gem from "Guys and Dolls"; Irving Berlin\'s "Always"; and an endearingly strange take on Loesser\'s "The Inch Worm." Even the more familiar songs like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" receive fresh, inspired interpretations, with the latter, as a ballad, becoming a mood piece that brings new attention to the poignant Mort Dixon lyric.
"We said, \'Let\'s try it as a ballad.\' And then suddenly you listen to the story in a completely different way than when it\'s an uptempo," LiPuma says.
Beyond McCartney, the album features added-value star appeal, with Eric Clapton making a stellar turn on the record\'s two bluesiest arrangements in "My Valentine" and "Get Yourself Another Fool," and Stevie Wonder chiming in with a highly effective harmonica part on album closer "Only Our Hearts."
The other stars are Krall and the rest of the musicians on the record, including John and Bucky Pizzarelli on tasteful guitar. Involving Krall was a key element in the project\'s considerable chemistry. "She\'s a great stride piano player, and stylistically she understands this period better than anyone I know," LiPuma says.
Recording began in March 2010, first at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and then Avatar Studios in New York. The approach was loose, and decisions as to arrangements and angles to take were made on the fly, albeit with input from impeccable sources in McCartney, LiPuma, Krall, the musicians, arrangers Johnny Mandel and Alan Broadbent, and engineer Al Schmitt. The mood was relaxed and fun, and it\'s apparent, as the album feels very much like an hour spent in a darkened jazz club.
"Each day I would come in [to the studio] and we\'d say, \'OK, what do we want to try now? What are you in the mood for?\' I\'d say, \'How about this one?\' And we\'d just figure it out from the sheet music," McCartney recalls. "Nobody had parts written. We just went through it. By the time I figured out how I wanted to sing it, Diana and the guys had sorted out an arrangement, and we kicked it around among ourselves. We\'d say, \'This sounds like a good idea, let\'s try it,\' then we\'d do a take or two, Al [Schmitt] would record it, then we\'d go in and listen. It was a very enjoyable process."
LiPuma has a similar recollection of the sessions, adding that for the most part nothing was arranged in advance. "We\'d have somebody write out a chord sheet for us, and then we went in and figured it out on the date," he says. "The next thing you know, things started taking shape, and the minute it started sounding like something, I would tell Al Schmitt, \'Let\'s start rolling the tape,\' and then boom, that magic would pop up."
Certainly one of the key elements that will draw attention to the new project is the presence of the two new McCartney compositions. The songs are of such high quality that they beg the question: Just how many such treasures does this master songwriter have lying around?
"I do have quite a bit of stuff, actually, yeah, quite a lot of songs I\'ve been writing over the past year or so," he says. "I am in the process now of starting to think about making a record of those songs. I\'m lucky. I love songwriting. It happens naturally for me."
In fact, McCartney says the songs are what he\'s most proud of, professionally. "I\'ve been really lucky that when we go out and do a show, we\'ve got some tunes that we can play," he understates. "[When] you think about it, [songwriting] is not always something you train to do. John [Lennon] and I weren\'t trained at all. We just kind of figured it out and made it up ourselves. I think we did some pretty good stuff, considering."
And people still want to hear that "stuff" live, along with scores of other well-loved songs from McCartney\'s days with Wings and his solo career. In the past decade, McCartney has approached touring with renewed vigor, to staggering box-office effect. Since 2002, he has sold 2.5 million tickets to 135 shows that grossed $322.6 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. Barrie Marshall, director of London-based Marshall Arts, is McCartney\'s longtime global tour director. While Marshall Arts is affiliated with AEG Live, McCartney also works with Live Nation in North America, and other promoters around the globe.
His crack touring band has now been together longer than either Wings or the Beatles. "Aren\'t they cool?" he responds when the band is complimented. "We\'re having a really great time, and last year we played quite a few dates. They\'re such a pleasure to play with. We all enjoy each other\'s company and the musicianship, and next month we will have been playing together 10 years. That\'s long enough to make us a proper band."
Asked if he would continue to work with this particular touring band, McCartney says, "Yeah, I hope so. We all love it, and I don\'t see any reason not to. I\'ve got a meeting coming up with my promoter, who I hear has some nice, interesting ideas for me. So we\'ll start to put that together, map out our live dates this year."
As for live work with the Kisses band, McCartney doesn\'t rule it out. "We haven\'t really talked about it yet," he says. The band was set to play a few shows in Los Angeles around the Grammys and McCartney is being honored as MusiCares\' Person of the Year, which could lead to more shows. "We\'ll try it out then and I think that will give us some clues," he says. "People have plenty of ideas and suggestions. I\'d like to see how it goes live, just how much we enjoy it. If we all enjoy it, then we\'ve got to think about taking it out."
McCartney stands as a cornerstone member of inarguably the most influential rock band of all time, writer or co-writer of some of the most enduring and flat-out best songs ever entered into the musical canon and has toured under the reign of Beatlemania, as well as with two other top-shelf rock acts in Wings and his current touring band. He has also received every musical accolade imaginable, including knighthood.
But it is, perhaps, McCartney\'s sense of humor and ability to not take himself too seriously that contribute to his long-lived appeal and ongoing coolness to generation after generation of music fans, a concept he doesn\'t dismiss. "You could say it\'s humor, mixed with a complete love of what I do," McCartney says. "I\'m a music freak, man."