Don McLean: People forget romance and that the best part of life is its poetry
Singing and writing songs since the early 70s – including classics that get as much radio play now as then – Don McLean is currently touring Ireland. He spoke to Lorraine Wylie about his inspiration, his links with Belfast, and how beautiful things make him happy
OTHER artists may come and go but for Don McLean, the music never dies. His iconic hits, such as American Pie and Vincent – not to mention his beautiful ballad And I Love You So and a highly original interpretation of The Mountains Of Mourne – continue to strike a chord with audiences of all ages. Now, as he approaches his 73rd birthday, Don McLean shows no sign of slowing down.
With concerts lined up throughout Ireland, from Mayo to Westmeath, and from Wexford to the Waterfront Hall, he’s ready to wow fans with his latest album, Botanical Gardens.
Where does he find the stamina?
“I’ve no idea," McLean chuckles. “You know, since I was around 15 years old, I haven’t had any major health issues. I’m knocking on wood here...
"When I was younger, I drank and smoked and beat the crap out of myself, yet I still kept bouncing back. But I haven’t smoked in 35 years and don’t take drugs. If I have a headache or something, I’ll try to figure out a way to deal with it that doesn’t involve medication.
"Apart from that, I don’t follow any specific routine. Although, my weight has been creeping up lately and I’d like to get it down. I had it going real good in 2015 but then, I don’t know how, I just kind of rolled off the log.”
McLean rose to international stardom when his second album American Pie earned him two number one hits. But the journey toward success wasn’t always via the scenic route. He recalls the frustration and setbacks that dogged his initial attempt to get noticed.
“Getting my first album, Tapestry, out there was the hardest damn thing I’d ever done,” he says, in a thick New York drawl – the singer hails from New Rochelle, a few miles north west of New York city. “I was adding songs in then taking them out again, it was incredibly stressful.
"At first, the record company would say they liked the album then they’d change their mind and I’d have to start from scratch and go looking elsewhere. I think the problem was that each song was so different and the companies didn’t know what to make of them.
"Tapestry finally found a home with, Alan Livingstone at Mediarts. He was the greatest record man of all time and I am so grateful that he discovered me. He believed in me and thought I had talent. In fact, without him, I doubt I would have had a career.”
If Mr Livingstone and his Mediarts company opened the door to opportunity, McLean credits the late Co Armagh-born concert promoter Jim Aiken – who went on to bring U2 to Croke Park and Springsteen to Slane, as well as organising many other big gigs in Ireland – for his introduction to the north. It seems Belfast really made an impression on the American singer.
“It was back in the 70s, the days of razor wire and troops on the street when Jim invited me to Belfast. Man, was I worried," he laughs.
“But, you know big Jim could be a very persuasive guy. He told me that, even though people were divided, music could bring them together. So I really couldn’t refuse. What an adventure, that turned out to be. At one point, I had to be escorted to a venue under armed guard. Of course, I’ve been back several times since then and find Belfast a very beautiful city. But then, peace always makes things beautiful.”
Maybe you should write a song about Belfast, I joke.
“You know that’s not a bad idea...” He muses and I can almost see the lightbulb going off in his head.”
The moment passes and we’re back on track, talking about his new album, Botanical Gardens.
“This is a great album. I guess you could say it’s a story of dreaming about youth and romance. I think that romance is one of the things we’ve lost today. People are so technologically minded, they forget about the beauty around them. They believe in sex rather than romance and don’t understand the best part of life is its poetry. We ignore the best things and focus on uglier aspects like crime and violence. I like to think this album is one of the prettier things.”
Don McLean has come a long way since those early days when over 70 rejections brought nothing but disappointment. As well as a string of successful albums, he’s played to packed venues all over the world.
In 2002 his song American Pie found its way into the Grammy Hall of Fame while two years later, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Yet when asked if he’s proud of what he’s achieved, his reply suggests a more vulnerable side to his character.
“To be honest, I’m not an egotistical guy,” he says. “I never really thought much of myself at all. In the beginning, my only hope was to get on stage as an opening act. If I could do that, I reckoned, I’d be able to make an impact. You know, that they’d realise I was there but I never really imagined more than that. It’s really amazing how it all turned out.”
When he isn’t busy writing or performing, how does he spend his time?
“When I’m on stage, its all noise. People are always shouting, yelling at me, going crazy. But, at heart, I’m quite a quiet person. I live in the countryside and love spending time with my kids and two beautiful granddaughters. Then there’s my horses, they always help me relax.
"Although, I have to admit, I’m very into antique furniture and oriental rugs. I really enjoy making my home beautiful. It can be anything from mundane things like getting a new roof to buying a rare dining-room table, It’s just something that makes me happy.”
Given his love of beautiful things, it comes as no surprise that the inspiration for his current and arguably most reflective album to date should be found among the lush gardens of Sydney, Australia. Perhaps our own Botanic Gardens will get his creative juices flowing?
“You know, I did wasn’t aware there was such a place,” he says, sounding impressed.
“As soon as I get a day off, I’ll take a walk round there.”
Who knows, maybe his next big hit will have its roots in The Tropical Ravine. But wherever he finds the melody, just remember, I gave him the idea.
:: Don McLean plays the Clanree Hotel, Letterkenny, tomorrow night and the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on June 7. For tickets and details of other tour venues and dates see ticketmaster.ie