Still Killing Them Softly
Singer-songwriter Don McLean does it his way
The raw emotion and artistry of Don McLean, famously referenced in Roberta Flack's 1973 hit, "Killing Me Softly With His Song" doesn't reply on excessive flash or unnecessary vocal melisma. His calm, expressive delivery was first heard on records in 1970.
By '71, with the release of the iconic American Pie album, he quickly became an internationally lauded folk icon.
Fast forward through the decades to 2018 and the outspoken, irascible musician is still as determined as ever to present his own distinctive vision of the internationally touring singer-songwriter-troubadour.
INsite recently caught up with McLean at his west coast home for a lively conversation before he returns to the road for a tour that arrives in Atlanta this month at City Winery.
The last time I saw you play live was at a cool "writers in the round" show at the Civic Center during Music Midtown 2002. You were in good company with June Carter, Cindy Wilson, Edwin McCain, Angie Aparo and Mike Mills.
Oh yeah, that was a lot of fun. I knew June a little bit from quite a few years before that. I'd spent a few nights at Johnny and June's house in the '70s. And I really enjoyed seeing Mike Mills from R.E.M. He sat next to me that day.
He was talking about an album I made, my third one, called Don McLean. He said it was a really important album for him. I've always hated it but I guess a lot of people liked it.
That's a solid album. I still have it on 8-track from '72. But I hear you have a new record on the way soon, called Botanical Gardens.
I do and it's coming in the first quarter of the new year. It'll be on BMG and it's twelve all-new songs and the thirteenth is called "Last Night When We Were Young," written by Jerome Kern. There's a lot of different-type songs on there. Then I'll go overseas in March for a long tour, God willing, through June.
It's inspiring that you're excited about making new music because someone with your catalog could easily just reissue the old stuff.
Well that gets done automatically anyway. There are a lot of little box sets with extra stuff to sort of sweeten it up. I don't think I've ever been terribly prolific. But then for this new record, I had a lot I wanted to say and it all came out musically.
There's no label pressure on you to churn out new stuff every year.
Yeah, I might go a few years and not do anything. But there are artists out there that can turn out an album in six months whether they have anything new to say or not. They just have the skill for blathering bullshit and making it sound like it's important.
It's true, you have to be truly inspired in order to make good music.
You have to have something to say. I don't write every day because I know it could be a shitty song. If you do it every day it's probably not going to be very good.
You've made some records - including your first one, Tapestry, recorded during the Berkeley riots of the late '60s - in some very tumultuous times. Do you think today's unsettling world events will inspire you at some point?
I don't know if we're in an environment anymore where people really are prepared to even deal with how bad things really are. Mostly in the sense of political correctness and the inability to say things, to criticize things that are on this sort of third rail of political correctness list. It gets longer and longer and weirder and weirder. Everything has become almost too Orwellian to even write a protest song about, you know? It's slipping away from the average person's ability to understand it - including me. It's frustrating.
Is that because everything, including music, is so segmented today?
So many things have happened and I'm not just talking about Trump. There's really no music left. There's just a lot of flamboyant performing. It's what I'd call "spectacle rock," which probably owes its origins to Liberace more than any one other artist. I mean even Elvis Presley, at the end of his life, was doing sort of a lame, country-boy Liberace.
That's an interesting observation and you're right.
But Liberace took it much farther than Elvis did - and did it much better. He'd have themes and it was just gorgeous, tremendous stuff. He was really the king of what showbusiness became. Even for people like Madonna, he set that template. He was a superb pianist, but he was so tacky that nobody really listened to the music. It was all part of the entertainment banquet.
Right and the song at the core of the performance was lost in the glitz.
When I was a kid, if a song was good, it got around. You didn't have to hear it on the radio. People were singing it, talking about it, and eventually you'd hear somebody play it on the guitar. It was in the wind. Now, you can't even sing these songs. Sometimes it's just all hooks.
Often appropriated from a classic song with an original hook of its own.
Yeah, a good hook is something you hear once or twice and then you want to hear it again. Now it's in the song 50 times. There's almost no real song there at all.
For me, you are the personification of the folk singer-songwriter who never sold out and went pop. That's the ideal folk mindset.
I was in garage bands and stuff growing up in New Rochelle, but then I discovered folk music and The Weavers. I loved that I could be a solo act, have ideas and write songs and sing pretty much anything I wanted. Then there was all of that "getting along" kind of stuff in bands which I wasn't too good at. I wanted to do things my way - so I think it suited me.
A band would have diluted your vision.
Yeah, because I do so many different things. Like on Tapestry, you have so many different types of songs on there. Each one is very different than the other so getting the right musicians to play it was a tough job. Country guys could play some of it and rock guys could do some but that's always been the thing with me, I do too many different things to fit into a band. Then I went off-script completely and started to do other people's songs which were just kind of lucky hits.
"Crying" was a big one for you in the late '70s, long after your first big wave of success.
That was a solid sender for sure. But the thing was, people didn't even know it was the same guy who did "American Pie."
That's an incredible compliment isn't it?
It is but it's also difficult to build an audience when they don't know it's you. You're sort of losing them and getting them back. I've had a lot of comebacks because of that. Probably four or five in my career, when I was pretty down and then something turned it around. And then I went back down again and something else turned it around. But I just do what I do.
You've always had your own vision. How'd that go over with the bosses at the major labels?
Well Clive Davis tried to straighten me out and get me to sing these, he thought, hit-type songs. I would have had a whole bunch of hits with them. But I said, 'I can't sing this stuff. It just doesn't mean anything to me.' I can't do anything that's meaningless. It's not art. All I ever wanted to be was an artist - but you pay the price for that. You get thought of as difficult. You lose friends when you say honest things that turn people off because it makes 'em angry when you tell the truth. But you have to be who you are.
Your style never screams for attention, it's subtle. You don't have to hit people over the head to get a very emotional message across.
Well I was never a yeller. I went for clarity and I wanted the purest sound I could get. The yelling started with Bob Dylan. He was a good singer, but he opened the door for a lot of terrible singers who thought they sounded like him. People thought, 'Well I'll just get out there and sing any old way I want.' Some people bought it because they didn't know the difference. But in my day, you had to know how to sing, you had to be in tune. My songs, whether it's "Vincent," "American Pie," "Castles In The Air" or whatever, they have notes that you have to hit.
Those are great songs and they'll be around long after we're gone.
Well it seems like it. They've been around a long time already.
Don McLean plays January 27 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.