In conversation with Don McLean, Christmas 2005

Questions posed by fans of Don McLean:

Carolyn: Having toured the UK since the early seventies what do you like most about our country?
Don: I like the civility of the people, I like the architecture and I like the countryside.

Carolyn: Do you have a favourite concert hall and out of all the songs you have written over the years do you have a particular favourite?
Don: My favourite concert hall is the Royal Festival Hall and no, I don’t have a favourite song.

Marie: You obviously love your family life and I was really impressed at the Hello magazine interview. With that in mind would you say your music has become less radical? And, had you been married at the time, would the American Pie lyrics have been different?
Don: I was married at the time. I have become less radical I guess over the years but I am rapidly becoming more radical as the Bush administration remains in power.

Trevor: Have your children inherited your talents musically?
Don: My children have actually much more and many more talents than I have and they are better adjusted people than I am/was.

Bill Nisbet: Your affection for Scotland is well known. Would you consider singing/recording a Scottish song? Perhaps a Robert Burns song?
Don: Yes I would and we can ask people to suggest a Scottish song. Maybe I’ll take some suggestions on that on the forum.

Matthias: Will you ever play a concert in Germany and is it possible to buy your new CD & DVD in Germany?
Don: I’d be happy to come to Germany again if I was asked. I have played a number of concerts there. The CD is available for download from Hyena Records and can be purchased by international customers from the record company website and from Amazon, etc.

Matthias: What is the story behind “Three Flights Up”?
Don: Three Flights Up is a concept song. I kind of write songs with a concept in mind and I remember sitting outside of a dormitory at a college where I was picking up a girl to go out and there were three flights to the rooms. The rooms were lit and naturally, being a young man, I was looking in the windows. There weren’t any people in them but I was thinking about the stories that may be going on in the three levels and how they might be connected. I fantasized the idea of having three different stories going on on three different levels of a building. But for the purposes of the song, or the drama, they had to be in some way interconnected. So that’s how that started.

Harry: I have heard of an earlier recording or mix of “Castles in the Air”, which is different from the one that appears on your debut LP “Tapestry”. I am curious to know whether the earlier version is available on CD. I love the song and would love to hear that first mix of it.
Don: No, the earlier version is not available on CD. The entire [Tapesty] album was remixed when it went out on United Artists so the original mix of that album and that song, Castles in the Air, as it was originally done is on the Mediarts label. Ed Freeman remixed the entire album because I didn’t like the way it sounded. So there are two mixes of the Tapestry album.

Adam: I’ve always been interested in singing and how the singing voice works. Did you ever need to do specific vocal training to reach all those high notes in ‘Crying’ and ‘Since I don’t have you’ etc.?
Don: My voice happened to always be able to sing those types of songs. I have the ability to do that but I don’t have the ability to sing, for example, like Bruce Springsteen or Rod Stewart. That’s just my particular type of voice. Every singer needs training of some sort if you’re going to preserve your voice. That includes doing loosening up exercises and involves not trying to sing songs like Crying and Since I Don’t Have You until near the end of the show when you’re sure you’ve got all your vocal apparatus in place, otherwise you’ll hurt yourself and you won’t be able to finish the show. You can tear a muscle that holds the voice box and you won’t be able to have any vocal power and you won’t be singing for a couple of weeks after that at least.

Cora: Will you be coming to Holland for a concert some day soon? That would be greatly appreciated!
Don: I would love to go to Holland. I’ve not been invited in many years. I used to go all the time and I like the place very much. The Dutch promoters turned their backs on me 15 years ago but the audience is still there.

Gregg: In American Pie, you talk about the three men you admire most. Are you a devoted Christian? What are your religious beliefs?
Don: I am not a devoted Christian. I do believe in God. I would say I’m some sort of a pantheist. I live in the forest and I think I’m living in church; that’s my God. I do not understand why people have to believe in something. You’re going to find out what the truth is one way or another sooner or later and it seems to me that the requirement that you need to believe in something in this life is like trying to choose door A or door B – are you going to choose the door to Heaven or the door to Hell and to me it doesn’t seem intelligent. I do understand a lot of people get a lot of comfort from it but it’s not for me.

David: One of the things that has fascinated me was your business savvy right from the start. How is it you were able to retain your publishing even during your first entry level contract with Mediarts?
Don: I would say if anyone wants to go into the music business the thing you’ve got to do is get a very good transactional lawyer – a contract lawyer. And it’s got to be a lawyer you know and he is the person you bring contracts to and he is the person that explains them to you. Not your manager’s lawyer and not your manager. This will keep your manager honest and it will allow you to understand in plain English what it is you’re signing. I guess I get a bit of credit for having some business savvy but I’ve had a lot of luck. A lot of things broke right for me and I was able to win a number of legal actions which allowed me to coalesce my ownership of the songs that I created but there was a bit of luck involved, so I wasn’t all that savvy.

Bill: Are there any plans for your self-released CD’s to be available from Amazon, Tower, B&N, etc anytime soon??
Don: Yes, at some point the self-released CDs will be available somewhere, I don’t know when yet. They are currently available on the Internet at americanpie.com and are sold at my shows.

Pete: Don, if you could go back to 1971 and start again, would you do anything differently?
Don: No I wouldn’t because I’m happy with where I am now. Only if you’re unhappy with where you are in life do you want to change direction or do something different.

Willie: In what way do you write down your guitar music? In notes, in a tab, or simply with symbols AM(inor) Gmaj7 etc? Or do you remember everything you composed by heart?
Don: I write symbols down like A minor, G major 7th or whatever. I write the lyric down and over the top I throw the guitar chord symbols and try to remember the melody or have the melody already sung into a tape recorder. I’ll go through it a few times and will change things till I get it right.

Janet: I love your song ‘Sea Man’. I would love to know where you got the idea from, although I could make an educated guess. I would dearly love the lyrics to this song to use with my teaching, since it seems so appropriate in light of recent disasters and tragedies in the world today.
Don: The lyrics can be obtained from the Believers album which is available internationally on Hip-o Records. The song is actually a true story of a man who lived by the sea in Heifer, Israel. It’s all true and everything in the song is what he told me about his life. He even lives in a house shaped like a fish.

Mary: Don, on reaching 60 on 11th December, I intend to continue my battle as a recycled teenager in growing old disgracefully and have purchased a bright purple bicycle. How about you? Can we change attitudes to our elders – will our generation continue to make a difference?
Don: I think our generation made a difference to our generation. I think other people’s generations make a difference to their generation. I don’t think they pay too much attention to us unless they’re open minded about different time periods and they want to transplant themselves into the 40s or 50s or 70s or 80s, which I liked to do when I was young but I don’t find a lot of young people who are interested in that. They’re mostly interested in making sure that they’re caught up with everything that is current and being interested in the past is not something they’re interested in.

Tony: I have often wondered if Headroom was really your first, albeit subtle, Rearview Mirror?
Don: No, I would say that’s not true. It’s a totally unique album with all new songs on it. Rearview Mirror is a compilation with a lot of the things I’ve done. The only thing that is really new is Run Diana Run. Of course, there are many new versions that were unearthed in the process of going through everything that I have here at the house. So that, and the DVD part, makes it interesting.

Tony: A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing you sing a new song about ‘Eisenhower’. You explained that you had written it for a friend of yours, who was producing a Broadway musical. Did that show ever get off the ground? Have you recorded it, and would you ever consider writing a complete musical score for Broadway and follow in the footsteps of some of those great songwriters of the past?
Don: No, the musical never got off the ground. I will be recording the song and it will be on the Addicted to Black album. If I were asked and people had the money to do the show I would consider writing a musical score. But it costs enormous sums of money to do a Broadway show, something like several hundred thousand dollars a week, so backers don’t take a chance on someone like Don McLean. They take a chance on Paul Simon or on someone like that. Paul Simon had the worst black eye in the world from the one he tried to do, so I don’t think it’s a place where a lot of songwriters want to have their music portrayed and I don’t think that it’s a comfortable place for people to invest.

Tony: In the song book, ‘The songs of Don McLean’ there are words and music included for two songs. ‘I Want Her’, and ‘I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself’. In all the 30 years that I’ve seen you perform, I have never heard these two songs, although I know ‘I Want Her’ is included in the ‘Til Tomorrow’ footage. Did you ever record them in the early days, (someone must have heard them to transcribe them for this book) and perhaps you could even release them as true ‘rarities’ some day, along with Lonely As the Night and Slow and Easy?
Don: ‘I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself’ is a song that a young girl sang who was involved with the Hudson River Sloop. She came up with it and sang it so I put it in the songbook as a traditional song. I never did it but it is a cool little song. ‘I Want Her’ is a song that I wrote. It was supposed to be on the Tapestry album but it only ended up in the Bob Elfstrom movie, Till Tomorrow, never any place else. I don’t think they will ever be released but it’s possible, though I’ve got other things I want to do.

Tony: What are the origins of the name ‘Benny Bird’?
Don: It’s just a silly name I made up in the 70s.

Leah: Who does your favorite cover of American Pie?
Don: Madonna, by a long shot.

Erik: When you were on the Clearwater with Pete Seeger, were there any songs you learned that may have influenced your own songs in any way? I’m curious as a fellow songwriter.
Don: I think one of the reasons why the songs I wrote in that period were so good (let’s say compared to other songs) was that I was around so many interesting creative people who were writing songs and who were singing songs and who were coming up with new songs all the time. Definitely the environment I was in was very inspiring. I could never have written a song like Tapestry today and I couldn’t do it then if I hadn’t been around that environment.

Alan Young: I have all your albums and the one that I keep playing is “Don McLean sings Marty Robbins”. I see that apart from singing and playing, you did the arrangements and also produced the album. Can you give an insight into how you arrange the songs? I think it can make such a difference to a song. Do you find it very challenging? And how difficult is it to produce your own album?
Don: We’re not going to get into the covering thing but, for example, Sittin in the Balcony is a cover recording that I did and Don’t is a cover because I did it exactly like Elvis’ recording. Sittin in the Balcony is an attempt to do it like the Eddie Cochran version, so it’s a cover type song. But if you look at my versions of any of the songs on the Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins album there I have gone to the sheet music immediately and started with the song as if I’ve never heard anyone else’s version of it. You might want to use any number of devices to create an arrangement – that has to do with an individual artist’s creativity. But you clear your mind of any other version you’ve heard of the song and start with the sheet music.

It is not hard to produce your own record if you have really good musicians, a really good arranger and a really good engineer because the engineer does most of the work. He is the one who gets the sound. The musicians play their part and of course you’re there all the time making sure that the feel of the track is how you want it. Then with the engineer you create the mix you want but you’re not mixing it, he is. That goes for every producer. They always rely on their engineer and so the engineer is as important as the producer.

Fuzzy: I remember your mentioning some time in the last couple of years that you were reading a lot of books on native Americans. In your Cerritos concert in March this year, I heard your new song “The Three of Us”, about an American Indian family. Will this song appear in your upcoming album of originals? Also, have you written other songs about American Indians that we are likely to hear soon?
Don: The Three of Us is not about an American Indian family. It is about me and my parents. But it is in part going back to the land we lived on which was once Indian land. It uses the notion of words and how words can out last anything as a sub-theme to talk about the fact that my parents are dead and that basically I’m fading as I get older. So that’s what that song is about. I’ve never written any song about American Indians as such but I am very interested in them. That song at least refers to the Indians and their influence in America.

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