James McCartney is a man of many family traditions. He is serious about his music and photography, and yesterday in the Southern California desert, he carried on a new one: playing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where his father, Beatle Paul McCartney, famously played an emotional headlining set in 2009.
For his own half-hour gig, the younger McCartney left the band at home to played solo acoustic, and included six songs from his upcoming solo album debut, Me, which is set for release May 21st. Coachella is only the fourth show in his current nine-week tour across the U.S. At 35, he’s a relative newcomer to the family business, first publicly performing his own material in 2009.
After his set, McCartney retreated to his small air-conditioned dressing room, still flushed from the heat in his black shirt and vest, and spoke with Rolling Stone about his Coachella experience (to be repeated next weekend), his new music, the lasting influence of his mother, the photographer Linda McCartney, and life with dad.
How was your Coachella set?
It was good, man. It was difficult not having a band, but it was fun. We’re just going on the campaign trail, as it were. I think Johnny Marr was playing over at the Mojave [tent]. I was thinking of that a bit. I was looking out at the clouds. I loved looking at them.
How was it up there?
There was some guy going like this [hold two fingers up, pointing into his eyes] to me and it put me off my lyrics a bit. The eyes thing. Then some other guy was like “You’re great!” Oh, that’s cool.
You opened with your song “Mexico.”
I saw that movie On the Road and I read the book years ago after my mom died. It’s a very hedonistic work. [The song] is just the idea of being free and going down to Mexico and having a hedonistic time. I was conceived in Mexico – in Puerto Vallarta. I once went to Mexico City with dad, mum and the family on tour, and we were in a jet circling, and I remember looking down and looking at all the [VW] Beetles cars – which is kind of ironic.
You have a special feeling there?
I do. I have got a spiritual connection there, just as I do to London, where I was born, and St John’s Wood and that whole Beatle country.
Do you feel like you’re continuing a tradition, or is it something separate?
I think it’s a bit of both. That’s very well put. Mainly its a tradition, but it’s a part of my Dharma, which I go on a lot about because it’s interested in self-realization and one’s soul. It’s a tradition but it’s also me doing my own thing. It’s part of what I do, what I enjoy. Picking up a guitar – I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But I paint and draw and do all that stuff, which is fun – I’m more interested in photography at the moment, capturing that image.
That’s another tradition for you.
Yeah, because of my mum. She was amazing, wasn’t she, and the circle she was in. I always feel honored to meet people who ever met my mum. It means a lot to me.
Did your dad give you any Coachella advice?
He just said have a brilliant gig.
He must say that all the time.
He gives me a lot of encouragement, yeah. It’s fun.
What do you hope to do as an artist?
I don’t know – as much as I can. That’s the self-realization question almost, but it’s directed into music. So, it’s being James McCartney as an entity. At first, it was much being a singer-songwriter and push the boat out on that, and write songs like “Wings of a Lightest Weight.” And then it was grunge, and I still have those songs, which I’d like to release at some point. But I love so much music. I love the blues, roots stuff.
Your music career started later in your life. What was behind that?
Different reasons. My mom’s death [in 1995] was a big part of it, just grieving. I was heavily into Nirvana and I still am, but when I was 23 I got disillusioned by music. Then I just focused more on myself and gave up music for a while. It was definitely inside me. I was writing songs, I was doing artwork.
One dynamic song from the new album was “Butterfly.” Can you tell me about that?
We were in Toronto and some homeless guys staggered out of a wooden stairwell. I was in my room, and I was looking out the window, with skies, seagulls swimming around, and there had been some kind of crazy racist thing in the news somewhere, and I thought it would be good to write something anti-racism.
There’s a strong emotional competence in your songs. Is that how you see your music?
Over the years, it’s been Dharma spiritual, grunge cathartic. And now the more I listen to the Beatles and the Stones and the Sixties and all that stuff, it’s more about the intensely good feeling. I’m not saying I ever achieve it, but I’m trying to enjoy it.
Has the experience been all good so far?
It’s a bit of everything. Sometimes it can be difficult, this experience. I haven’t done much of it. I’ve probably only done 50 gigs or something.
Are they getting better?
They’re getting better. I’m just at the beginning of trying to feel an energy bouncing from the audience.
You were a Nirvana fan, so was it strange to see your dad playing with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic in the Sound City documentary?
Yeah, it was cool. I respect my dad and he’s amazing. He’s my hero. He’s the Beatles, man – or one of them.
Tell me about your song “You and Me Individually.”
I had a bit of a meltdown and had a little bit of a spiritual epiphany. Me and my family drifted apart a bit, and then came together again. When I hit 30, we hung out more, me and my dad. I just realized how amazing he was. Ultimately, I always knew that. I think it’s a coming of age thing as well.
Maybe you took him for granted a little bit?
Yeah, and the older I get I realize what a legend he is. I think it’s like wine – maturing – isn’t it?