Currently in Australia for the ‘One on One’ tour, Paul took time between his big shows to Take 5 (and a half) with Zan Rowe, diving into his impossibly influential back catalogue to give the stories behind some of his most iconic songs.
Paul spoke with shining wit and wisdom. From examining his relationship with John Lennon to reinventing himself after The Beatles and getting robbed of demos in Lagos, here’s some highlights. Beginning with Paul’s collaboration with Kanye West…
Separating noodles from spaghetti
“I was sitting around with Kanye for a couple of days and I didn’t think we’d written a song, ‘cause I was just playing around, noodling. I was expecting for an idea to come out there and then, but his way of working is he takes all these little noodles away and he makes spaghetti. …He’ll play with it and curate it and do this with it and get somebody else to do another bit. So, it was months later when I got a track in the post and it was ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and I listened to it and it’s Rihanna singing. I thought ‘This is great, I love her singing it’ but I had to ring up and say ‘Am I on this?’, you know. Yeah, they said ‘You wrote all the guitar parts and that inspired us’. I said ‘Okay, great thanks’.
Paul’s wife didn’t exactly approve of ‘All Day’
“He uses the ‘N’ word about 40 times and when I played it, first of all, my wife Nancy said ‘You can’t be involved with that!’ I said, ‘Well it’s not me saying it – it’s Kanye’. It makes a difference because he’s using it in a completely different way from how a white person might use it. So, I liked it. I thought it was a good record. It got nominated for a Grammy. But that’s the kind of way we worked: I bring up this pretty little tune and he translates it into this great big urban riff.”
On writing with John Lennon
“It was quite competitive because if I wrote something he’d try and better it and then I’d try and better that, so it’s a good system. It means you’re going up a staircase and each time you’re trying to make it better, so if that works it can make the song very good… and in our case memorable. That was the trick because we couldn’t put it down, we couldn’t put it on a recording like today, you just had to remember it. So that was a good restriction too, it meant if you forgot it, too bad.
“So, it had to have a hook and nearly always, even if you forgot it in the evening, you’d go out for a drink and say, ‘what was that bloody song’. You’d wake up in the morning an go ‘oh yeah, I remember!’ It would just come back.”
On going solo and re-inventing himself after The Beatles
“It was either that or quit. And that was the decision at the time but I realised I liked music too much and if I quit, I’d still be doing it as a hobby.
“…If you’re a good cook, and they suddenly say ‘Ok, you’ve won MasterChef’, it’s not like you’re going to stop cooking. It’s something you love doing, same for me, it’s something I love. I’m always surprised when a song comes because I started with nothing and suddenly get a little idea I’m chasing and go ‘ah, is this good?’. If you write something decent, you feel good. It’s all part of the same thing. It can be a little bit of a therapy thing to.
“I think that’s the thing – you get hooked, on this idea you can sit down, noodle around, and maybe something magical will happen. And you don’t know how it happens, that’s the nice thing. Songwriting is really quite mysterious. With cooking, you know kind of what these ingredients are going to make. You don’t know how good it’s going to be, but you have a rough idea. Songwriting it can go in any old direction, you can suddenly have something, hopefully good that you’ve never done before. It’s quite addictive.”
Songwriting isn’t journalism
“[Jet is] a little bit about the experiences I’d had in marrying Linda. Her dad was a little old fashioned and I thought I was a little bit intimidated as a lot of young guys can be meeting the father figure… Anyway, the song starts to be about the sergeant major and it was basically my experience roughly translated.
“I never do a song with the actual words that actually happen because then that’s like a news story. ‘[singing] Oh Linda, I was going to see your Dad and he was intimidating.’ A bit boring. So I mask it and mould it into a song, something you can sing reasonably.”
On being robbed in Lagos, Nigeria
“I got held up at knifepoint and one of the things they took, among cameras and tape recorders, was this cassette, which I don’t think the robbers would be interested in. My theory is they probably recorded over it, ‘What’s this? Just some rubbish’. So, I just had to remember all the songs, I had lyric sheets for them… so I did. But it was quite hairy getting held up one dark night in Lagos. The joke was, I thought these guys – five local black guys in a car – I thought they were offering me a lift and we’d been warned, me and Linda, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go walking late at night. Because it’s a little bit dangerous.’
“I thought ‘Nah, we’re from Liverpool, we don’t worry about that’. So we’re walking along, the car comes up, the guy jumps out and he’s about to say something and I go ‘That’s so nice of you… It’s ok, I know, I know – we’re walking.” They stopped about a 100 yards later and tried again. I completely thought they were just offering us a lift but one of them had a knife. It became clear they weren’t giving us a lift. And that’s when I lost the cassette to ‘Band on the Run’.”
On ‘The End’ being a fitting swansong for The Beatles
“I didn’t think of it as the end of The Beatles, I think of it mainly as the end of an album. But I just had that little couplet: ‘in the end, you love you take/is equal to the love you make’ I liked that as a sentiment and as a mini-poem. That came on the end of the album and that song, quite luckily.”
“It is good as you say, everyone got to do their bit. I don’t analyse my stuff but if I was to, that’d be a good one to analyse. You’ve got John, George, Ringo, – that’s sewing it all up. You get Ringo, does his drum solo, which he would never do we had to really persuade him to do [a] drum solo.”