Waiting for Paul McCartney to phone is a nail-biting experience. Whole days pass. Timetables are agreed, then rescheduled, then cancelled altogether. As the most successful pop musician in history, and still one of the most famous men on the planet, the former Beatle clearly operates by his own rules.
And he can afford to. With a personal fortune reportedly worth £800 million, even half an hour of his interview time is more precious than gold.
Still remarkably busy at 69, when many performers might consider retiring, McCartney is currently criss-crossing the US with his latest stadium mega-tour, subtitled On the Run after his 1973 Wings album, Band on the Run.
Two days after we speak, he launches the tour with a marathon 2½-hour set in front of a Las Vegas crowd that includes Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and George Harrison’s widow Olivia. Even now, 40 years after they disbanded, the long shadow of the Beatles is never far away.
Next month, McCartney will play two gigantic concerts at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Other dates follow across July and August, punctuated by extended breaks. This is unusual for a major rock tour, where every day between shows is a financial drain. But as McCartney explains when we finally speak, this stop-start schedule allows him to maximise time with his seven-year-old daughter Beatrice, in accordance with the terms of his acrimonious divorce from Heather Mills in 2008.
“Nowadays, because of the way I am after the divorce, it’s a custody thing,” McCartney says. “I have my little girl half the time. So what we do is, I tour in the periods when I don’t have her. It’s not a full-on tour, which actually is brilliant. We play gigs in the downtime and it means we’re very hungry to play. Usually if you’re on tour you are like: where are we today? Is this St Louis or Cincinnati? You can get very bored with it. So this actually works out fine.”
McCartney’s solo career has now spanned 40 years, four times as long as his fabled decade with the Beatles. It began in 1970 with the album simply entitled McCartney, which is been reissued this month in a deluxe, expanded, remastered version. A homespun collection of unpolished strums and sketchy ditties that the singer recorded entirely on his own with a four-track recorder, this is the sound of a 28-year-old McCartney, newly married to his first wife Linda and finding his feet after the bitter collapse of the most phenomenally successful pop group in history.
“It was right after the Beatles had broken up,” McCartney recalls. “So after that I had this choice – like, do I immediately get another band? Do I take six months off from music? Or do I just do what I do and make some music at home? So that’s what I ended up doing. But I didn’t think I was making an album, that’s why some of the songs are not aimed at anyone or anything. They are just me having fun.”
The McCartney album is being reissued alongside its belated solo sequel McCartney II, another one-man-band project originally released in 1980, at the height of the disco and post-punk boom. This is a far more adventurous body of work, a heavily electronic affair highlighting McCartney’s underrated shadow career as an experimental pop boffin, which stretches from the tape-loop collages of the later Beatles years to more recent dance-pop collaborations such as The Fireman.
“I really just was fascinated with these things called synthesizers which had appeared on the scene,” McCartney explains. “It was new technology and I just wanted to see what I could do with it. Because the nice thing for me is, you do an album like that and it informs other stuff. It keeps your brain fresh so that when you go and do something else, a tour or something, you may not be playing that stuff but you’ve got the feeling of being someone who’s not finished yet. I’m still experimenting, you know?”
As a recovering Beatle, McCartney’s solo career ushered in an era when he began presenting himself as an unpretentious populist who never forgot his humble Liverpool roots. Whether pottering around his Scottish farmhouse, or playing low-key college shows with his new band Wings, he and Linda consistently downplayed their multimillionaire superstar status. To the irritation of his critics, this self-conscious everyman persona has been McCartney’s default public face ever since, despite his immense wealth and the knighthood conferred in 1977 by Queen Elizabeth.
“I still think of myself as normal,” McCartney says. “I tell people I’m just ordinary but they say, ‘Well you’re not, actually’. I know what they mean, but dig what I mean, because in my head I’m normal – I just happen to be able to do a few things in a music direction. I came from a real good family in Liverpool who would keep your feet on the ground. If you got off the ground a bit, they’d bring you back to Earth swiftly. You know Liverpool, that’s the way they do it up there. I was very content with that – I still am, you know? It feels like a good thing.”
The perennially boyish McCartney turned 69 on June 18, but shows no sign of easing his workload. Beside his summer tour plans, he recently finished composing a 50-minute orchestral work, Ocean’s Kingdom, to be performed in New York City Ballet in September. He has also been working with the Canadian pianist and jazz singer Diana Krall, composing for a “hush-hush” computer game project, and mulling over his first studio album since 2007.
“I’ve written a bunch of songs,” he says. “I have the material to do something, I’m just figuring out how to do it – do I want this producer, that producer, no producer? So yeah, I have loads of little things on at the moment.”
Including plans for his third marriage, of course. A few weeks ago, McCartney announced his engagement to the 51-year-old New Yorker Nancy Shevell. It may be a cheeky question, but do they have a wedding date in mind yet?
“No,” McCartney says. “The cheeky answer. No, we really don’t at the moment. But we’re definitely thinking about it, obviously.”
Maybe the oldest romantic in rock is simply too busy to make marriage plans?
“No, man!” he laughs. “Never too busy for that.”