The Paul McCartney secrets of songwriting

Impossible is all about doing small acts of kindness: sharing things and our time. A little while ago Paul McCartney heard about what we were doing and liked the idea. “Can I give a songwriting talk?” he asked. This extract is taken from the full transcript.

Lily: In terms of music and lyrics, which comes first?

Paul: It depends. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, they come together. You just sit down and start…You start blocking stuff out with sounds — I do anyway — and eventually, you hear a little phrase that’s starting to work, and then you follow that trail.

Lily: And do you normally write on guitar, or piano?

Paul: Guitar or piano, yes… guitar is interesting because you kind of cradle it. You kind of almost cuddle it. You hold it to you, and you play. That gives you a certain kind of feeling. With piano, you almost push it away. It’s just two different attitudes. I’m not sure whether the song is influenced by that, but the writing of it is. You’re a little more in a ‘thing’. When we were writing early on, you’d kind of find a cupboard or somewhere to go away and hide, and it was like a psychiatric session! If you felt really bad, you’d work it out. You wouldn’t talk to the guitar, but you’d kind of put your problems into the song.

Lily: When you’re writing songs, do you enjoy the collaborative process? Or do you find it easier by yourself?

Paul: You know, the great thing is, there’s no rules…Obviously writing with John [Lennon] was the ultimate collaboration. I think we were both very lucky to find each other, because we played perfectly off each other… I think we wrote just short of three hundred songs together — and I look back on it now in some kind of wonder, because we never had a dry session. Every time we got together and sat down, we’d work for about — only for about three hours - but we would always come up with a song.

We met through a friend of mine, who was called Ivan, at a village fete. We came together through a common interest of songwriting and then just started having sessions — normally at my house — where we’d just try and write something. We wrote our earliest ones which were very innocent. We didn’t think they were good enough, but it was a start and an exciting thing to do. We just gradually started to get a little bit better. And that was the great thing about something like songwriting; if you do get better then it really is a great journey. Our original songs were all very personal and they all had a personal pronoun in them; ‘Love Me Do’, ‘P.S. I Love You’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’. We were directly trying to communicate with the people who liked us. As it went on we felt that we didn’t have to do that. That was the nice thing, we actually started to climb the staircase and feel that we could get a little bit more complicated.

I think the point is … you have to do it a lot. It’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory of 10,000 hours. He says that’s why The Beatles were famous. We did, without knowing it, probably put in about 10,000 hours. I think the more you do it, the more you start to get the hang of it. That is my advice for when kids say to me, “what would you do?” I just say, “write a lot!” Don’t just write three songs and say, “I’ve written three songs”, because it’s not enough. Write four and then continue with that.

Lily: Do you always take the same approach with structure, or your idea of no rules?

Paul: I think structure’s great. But I also like to start with chaos in order to get the freedom. You know, if you structure too early it’s like [makes hitting the breaks noise]. But if you’re just creating, just free and flowing from chord to chord and idea to idea, something then sort of lands that you think is a good idea. Then I think it’s a good idea to structure it.

Audience Member: When writing a song do you think about the audience you’re writing for and does that influence the way you write the songs?

Paul: I think sometimes you do. People used to say to me and John, “What’s the formula? Who writes the words? Who writes the music?” And we say, “Well, we both do!” Both. You know, sometimes I’m the words, sometimes he’s the music.

It’s the therapy session I was talking about, it’s just you and your angst, or your love, or your desires, or whatever. You’re putting that in your song. But then sometimes the other occurs. Like I said the early songs were always written with fans in mind, so ‘Thank You Girl’, would literally be thanking our fans. The other thing is, sometimes you don’t know you’re putting certain meanings in. I wrote ‘Yesterday’, the lyrics, and I now think it was about the death of my mum. I didn’t then. It was a kind of psychological thing. She died, I think, about six years previously. So sometimes you don’t know why things are coming. I think you put your feelings into it and it can sometimes get rid of your “blues”.

You can read more from the workshop here.

Photos of Paul McCartney performing at Budokan, Tokyo by photographer MJ Kim