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Paul McCartney's New Album, New Life and How the Beatles Almost Reunited

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McCartney is sufficiently self-aware to grasp another irony: Unlike other pop and rock artists who've recorded standards albums, he was responsible for knocking the Great American Songbook off its shelf in the first place (with help, of course, from Lennon and Bob Dylan). "We noticed it happening," he says. "We would see people we had admired saying, 'Oh, the Beatles have ruined it for us,' and we didn't mean to do that. We were just getting on with our own thing.

"We didn't want to lay waste to the past, but it happened that way, so that people like Harold Arlen, who we greatly admired for writing things like 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' fell out of fashion as we came into fashion, and there was no longer such a desperate call for great writers like Leiber and Stoller, because people were starting to copy us and write their own stuff. So the Hollies and the Stones would then start writing, thinking, 'This is kind of a cool idea.' So, yeah, it did start a fashion, which tended to wipe out, regrettably, some of our favorite people."

It's the day after his recording session, and McCartney is back in Studio Two, sitting on a folding chair at a small wooden table, right between the vintage keyboards he's brought in. He's eating a bagel topped with a mix of hummus and the salty British condiment Marmite, periodically exercising what must be a knightly privilege to talk with his mouth completely full. He insists I try some of the hummus – "It's the best in the world, very creamy" – scraping a bit onto a corner of his plate: "Dip your finger in that and try it, come on!" I comply, noticing my finger shaking slightly on its way: Beatle hummus!

McCartney has been thinking lately about pre-rock standards' heavy influence on the Beatles' songwriting – he and Lennon were already in their teens before they first heard Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. "We grew up watching Fred Astaire films, and then it was kind of swept aside by rock & roll," he says, biting his bagel, "but we still have that influence. The Rolling Stones were influenced by the blues, and we were influenced by rock & roll – blues, to some extent – but also, without knowing it, the melodic element of the Beatles, and some of the structural elements, came from the backs of our brains, which was this old stuff that our parents had sung."

McCartney's father, Jim, was a jazz trumpeter who had a band in the Twenties. He was also an amateur pianist, and some of Paul's earliest musical memories are of lying on the floor by his piano, listening to his father play the kind of songs Paul sings on his new album "There's no recordings of my dad," he says. "But my soul's camera has got it. I think he was very good, but he wouldn't have thought he was good enough to be a professional. The people who hired his band obviously didn't think they were very good, because he had to keep changing its name to get another gig." Later, his dad would lobby to have the Beatles cover Gershwin's "I'll Buy a Stairway to Paradise" – instead, they did songs like "Your Mother Should Know" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." "Granny music," Lennon would call it – though McCartney is quick to note that John liked the old songs too.

McCartney recorded Kisses on the Bottom with a veteran standards-and-jazz producer, Tommy LiPuma, who brought in pianist Diana Krall as musical director. McCartney already knew and liked her: He had attended her wedding to his old collaborator Elvis Costello "at Elton's house." They mostly worked in L.A.'s Capitol Studios – where McCartney sang through a microphone used by Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole – and in New York, where McCartney insisted on going to the studio on the day Hurricane Irene was supposed to hit. "What's missing in a lot of people who interpret this music," says Krall, "is that they just think, 'Hey, we're just singin' standards, babe,' and it's not that. It's heavier than that. Paul finds his own story in it."

One of the McCartney originals, "My Valentine," was written for Nancy Shevell, the glamorous 51-year-old American businesswoman he married last October. The first line – "What if it rained/We didn't care" – comes from something she said on a Moroccan vacation. McCartney ran over to an old piano in their hotel, where the song came out almost all at once. After two very public marriages, McCartney is reluctant to talk about the third – but he admits it's brightened his outlook.

"It has, yeah," he says, with a slow nod. "I believe in love. The Beatles sang about it; I've sung about it; everyone else sings about it. Probably you and your wife believe in it. It's a pretty popular idea, this thing! So now to find love after a divorce is great, it's very refreshing. And Nancy's great, she's intriguing, interesting, lovely, smart, emotional and all the things you would want in a mate. She's absolutely beautiful. She's funny, she's canny, she's great, it's all there."

Shevell's reaction to McCartney's latest silly love song was understated. "She's a little shy, so she just dimples shyly," he says "But I know she likes it. She didn't go crazy – 'Listen to this it's a song he just wrote for me!' – but I know she appreciates it."

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