'Everything you go through in life is valuable to a songwriter'

Singer-songwriter Don McLean

Don McLean.

Don McLean.

Legendary singer-songwriter Don McLean comes to Galway next month, when he plays Leisureland on Friday June 8 and Saturday 9. More than 50 years since he embarked on a full time career in music, he remains a committed and enthusiastic live performer while 2018 has also seen the release of a new studio album, Botanical Gardens.

In the course of his career, McLean has amassed more 40 gold and platinum records, including iconic hits such as ‘American Pie’ and ‘Vincent’, and been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Don McClean story began in Westchester County, New York, where he was born in 1945. One of the first music groups to make a big impression on him as he was growing up was folk ensemble The Weavers, especially with their landmark 1955 album Live At Carnegie Hall.

When Don began playing music himself some years later, he befriended the members of the group and toured extensively with Peter Seeger. Ahead of his Galway concert, Don took some time out from his ongoing tour to answer a few questions, and I began by asking him what it was about that Weavers' album that inspired his youthful self, and what had he learned from playing with Pete Seeger?

“The Weavers were one of the greatest musical groups in American history,” he declares emphatically. “Everything they did was a hit. I got to work with Pete Seeger for about seven years I learned from him that everything matters; the big and the small things. Small things can become big things and big things can look meaningless later. I learned how to make a living with a guitar. I learned not to read reviews. I learned everything you go through in life is valuable to a songwriter.”

McLean cut his teeth as a performer in the coffee house and folk club circuit of the 1960s that spawned so many of that era’s stars. It was also a time of widespread social unrest throughout America. How did that turbulence impact him living through it? “It had a powerful effect on me,” Don admits. “but the most important event was the Kennedy assassination which I believe the government carried out. From that point on I couldn't believe anything the government said including why we were in Vietnam.”

McLean recorded his debut album, Tapestry, in 1969 in Berkeley, California at the same time as student riots were convulsing the city’s university campus. After being rejected 72 times by different labels, the album was finally released by Mediarts. I ask Don was it hard for him at the time to persevere with his music as he kept getting knocked back or what gave him the strength and belief to keep going? “I am by nature a very wilful individual when I set my sights on something I will accomplish it,” he states matter of factly.

'When I was young, 'American Pie' overshadowed my other work in many ways. Now I’m older, I see it as bringing people to my gigs where I can introduce them to the rest of my music'

McLean’s follow up album, in 1971, was American Pie and its title track made him a global star. A sprawling, impressionistic ballad inspired partly by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson (The Big Bopper ) in a plane crash in 1959, and subsequent developments in American youth culture, its total running time of eight minutes and 36 seconds made it is the longest song to ever reach No 1. In 2015, McLean’s original manuscript for ‘American Pie’ sold for $1,205,000 at Christie’s auction rooms in New York. Last year, the Library of Congress designated the single as an ‘aural treasure worthy of preservation in the National Recording Registry as part of America’s patrimony’.

Artists can often have conflicted relationships with works of theirs that, like ‘American Pie’, have been such huge hits they have overshadowed their other achievements. How has McLean’s feelings about his defining song evolved over the years? “It has a sort of life of its own nowadays,” he observes. “It keeps resurfacing. It’s still a big factor for me. When I was young, it overshadowed my other work in many ways. Now I’m older, I see it as bringing people to my gigs where I can introduce them to the rest of my music. No other hit is like 'American Pie'. I continue to be proud of all my songs, they do not all have to be famous but perhaps one day they will be. ”

McLean’s albums and live concerts intersperse his own songs with his renditions of folk and popular standards and one of his loveliest cover versions is of Percy French’s Irish ballad ‘The Mountains of Mourne’, which he first recorded on his 1973 album, Playing Favourites. I ask how he first encountered the song? “I first heard it on a Kingston Trio album called Sold Out when I was 12 years old,” he replies. “It was sung by Nick Reynolds.”

Roy Orbison lavishly praised McLean’s cover version of his song ‘Crying’. Orbison thought McLean did a better job than he did and even went so far as to say that “the voice of Don McLean is one of the great instruments of 20th Century America”. McLean’s own songs have been covered by a stellar array of A-list talent, including Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, Perry Como, Madonna, and George Michael. Does he have a special favourite from all the versions others have done of his songs? “Firstly, I don't cover songs I interpret the American Songbook,” he notes, somewhat pointedly. “My favourite version of one of my songs is ‘Wonderful Baby’ by Fred Astaire.”

'I am still attracted to touring and visiting interesting places like Galway and the rest of Ireland'

March 23 saw the release of Botanical Gardens, McLean’s 19th studio album and first in eight years. The album is arguably one of Don’s most reflective to date. As he puts it, “The inspiration for the project started years ago when I would walk in the beautiful gardens in Sydney, Australia, near the Opera House. I would dream young dreams and it was a comfort and an inspiration. I was always young inside, like we all are, and I felt it again there.”

Further reflecting on the record, Don says, “The whole album really revolves around the title song. Later on I realised that the gardens are really a metaphorical heaven, and there’s a kind of death and rebirth. I was coming to a crossroads in my life and the songs just began to appear.”

Intimacy can be found at the heart of this record, with Don penning personal numbers looking back on a life well lived, as well as his observations on youth and love. Recording at Watershed Studios in Nashville also allowed a different kind of intimacy for Don and his band, as they were made to “play close and feel the music”, resulting in a raw, yet tight sound throughout. Don proves his prowess at writing timeless sounding songs once again, as the album weaves country, Americana, folk, and boot stomping rock.

With the album’s title being inspired by his visits to Sydney's Botanical Gardens, I enquire idly does Don often get a chance during his tours to take in the local sights and scenery? “No I do not get a chance to visit a lot of attractions on tour. However, I am still attracted to touring and visiting interesting places like Galway and the rest of Ireland...I have kissed the Blarney Stone,” he concludes wryly.

Don McLean plays Leisureland in a 'Róisín Dubh presents...' show on Friday June 8 and Saturday 9. Doors are at 7pm and tickets are €49.50 from www.roisindubh.net and the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street.

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