[When Andrew Epstein sends me his interviews, his subjects are almost always with metal acts. But his latest one is about as far across the spectrum as you can get. -AC]
Legendary singer/songwriter Don McLean was recently honoured for achieving over five million U.S. radio plays of “American Pie,” and three million for “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” both from the 1971 American Pie album. It seems to be a significant accomplishment, one made even more so by the ever-changing state of radio and the music business. But at age 72, McLean seems to have had enough with attempting to understand contemporary music culture.
“I have no idea what’s going on with music, or radio, or any of that stuff. I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched Justin Timberlake do his thing. I didn’t understand any of that!” he says emphatically. When I point out that many people who enjoy modern music may not want to be represented by Timberlake’s performance either, he gives an acknowledging laugh.
“Right! (But) it doesn’t mean anything to me. I know I’m an old guy and everything, but from a musical point of view it just is meaningless to me. I’m saying that not in a way that is a criticism of anything, it’s just that my time is up, and my understanding of what’s going on now is zero.”
This statement seems at odds with McLean’s status as a classic artist, as his work is deeply entrenched in popular culture. While “American Pie” may have been played five million times in America, the song now has over one hundred million plays on Spotify (McLean is quick to tell me that the song “was always considered two plays for every one play. BMI would pay me twice as a publisher, every time they played that song”). His digital presence has, in a very short time, seemingly eclipsed his decades of traditional media exposure. Regardless of McLean’s self-perceived lack of understanding of “what’s going on,” he has his own insight as to why his songs are still being embraced.
“(People) can see me talk to people and they can decide what they think about me from head to toe. It’s quite revealing what’s happened now in the last ten, twelve years. If you decide to get into any artist, you can find so much out there, and it’s always increasing” he says.
“But one thing I would say, is that I think as this whole musical delivery system through the internet improves and becomes more powerful, people like myself who have been lucky enough to have classic albums and classic songs, those individuals will have more and more attention paid to them. Even if you sold a lot of records but you were basically garbage, you’re not going to get attention paid to you as we move forward.”
This all seems to place McLean in a privileged position. It’s easy to forget he’s a folk artist, and that even “American Pie” isn’t an obvious smash hit if you consider pop music of almost any era. It’s a stark contrast between artistic expression and commercialism that he seems very aware of.
“My life has been… I don’t want to say it’s been charmed, cause that would be presumptuous of me to say that” he says cautiously.
“But I’ve had a very wonderful life, and I’ve not been easy-going about things. You know there are people who are easy-going in this business, who naturally go with the flow and do very well. I had to fight like crazy for everything that I’ve done because it’s always been very different from what else was around. You have your record label, and then you have your boosters at the record label, and you have other people at the record label that think you stink and they like somebody else, so you’ve got that whole political thing going on. Then you’ve got radio, then your audience which, you know, you’re trying to reach and you know they’re out there somewhere. I think that has probably slowed me down as a songwriter because I might have… you know if I’d felt there was a receptive audience and a receptive business to what I was doing I might have been more excited about some of my ideas. But because it was such a struggle, a lot of times I would think ‘Oh well, that’s not gonna fly,’ you know what I mean. So it’s a lot of negative energy to overcome.”
There is also the issue of achieving mainstream awareness based on a limited part of your catalogue. McLean has released many studio and live albums since American Pie, but none of which have achieved the same exalted status. Some artists embrace this, while others become infuriated with the mere mention of their biggest hit. McLean seems resigned to this situation, which he admits is completely out of his control.
“I’m prepared to be disappointed,” he says.
“The funny thing is that years later, people come up to me, then they start realizing or thinking that the songs were very good and even better than that. I kind of don’t do what I do for right now, I just do my thing and figure people will catch on to it later on. I’m down for the long run, I always was. A song like ‘The Grave’ (from American Pie) for example. George Michael did that song on television (in 2003 on the Graham Norton Show), and all of a sudden everybody was talking about that song. Well it had been around for a long time. There are a lot of songs on the American Pie album that has taken years to trickle down like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Empty Chairs,’ ‘Winterwood,’ all those songs. They’re all standards now in a sense. Millions of people know these songs.”
McLean is about as famous as he is unknown. His digital presence continues to grow and allow him to be introduced to new generations of people. With his admitted awareness of how accessible the digital age has made him, I wanted to know what kind of impression he wants to make on new listeners. As he speaks, he grows more emphatic and passionate with each sentence, until he’s almost yelling.
“I’d like them to know that I love them,” he says in a hopeful tone.
“I love the human race. I love all people everywhere. I want to contribute something to their lives that is interesting and different, and they can have their whole lives to listen to. Not something that ‘Oh I wanna go back to when I was sixteen.’ (Something) that’ll always be good for them to go back to as they go through their lives. That is really my motivation, and that is probably the reason why I respect people more than seeing them just consumers! I want people to get something from me that is personal, and that I’ve thought about and that is different! Like a unique gift of some sort rather than saying, ‘Oh this is my Don McLean consumer, so I will give him the Don McLean song he wants.’ I have too much respect for people to do that, and I have too much respect for myself to do that.”
McLean appears quite aware of how his music and legacy are viewed. He’s optimistic, but he doesn’t want to have any illusions as to realities of the music business. He wants to approach the world as it should be while maintaining an awareness of how it really is. So as our conversation ends, I ask McLean, despite all his other releases, if listening to American Pie is still the best way for a new listener to get into his music.
“That’d be a nice start,” he says.
Don McLean’s new album, Botanical Gardens, arrives March 23rd, and he currently has dates lined up in the U.S, U.K, and Ireland. You can listen to the title track through all major streaming services and pre-order the album here, or you can listen to American Pie here.