Interview: Don McLean talks new tour, music and career highlights

Since first hitting the charts in 1971, Don McLean has amassed more than forty gold and platinum records worldwide and in 2004, was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. His iconic songwriting craft and massive hits like “American Pie” and “Vincent” have made him one of America’s most beloved and enduring artists.

Over the years McLean’s infectious style of writing has found favor with a multitude of artists from the world of pop, rock and even rap. These include cover versions of his songs by Elvis Presley (“And I Love You So”), Madonna (“American Pie”), George Michael (“The Grave”) and most recently, Drake’s sampling of songs from McLean’s 1977 album, Prime Time which the rapper used for the song, “Doing It Wrong.”

Although it's been eight years since his last studio album, “Addicted to Black,” McLean is preparing to release a brand-new album in the near future.

Don McLean is about to embark on another series of live dates and AXS recently caught up with him to ask about his upcoming tour, new music and more.

AXS: To those of the younger generation who might not be familiar, how would you describe your style of music?

Don McLean: The big word—eclectic. It's not very specific. I’m also interested in really singing well, so vibrato and tone are important to me. I like lyrics that mean something to me and about subjects that interest me. I don't just write love songs or rock songs. I write many different things.

AXS: What can fans expect from your upcoming tour?

DM: This is a band that sounds big. I have two great guitar players: Vip Vipperman a songwriter who wrote “1982” for Randy Travis. and Pat Severs on a Telecaster. Vip is more of a slide, country/southern rock guitarist and Pat is geared more toward the heavier feedback, which I like a lot. They’re both wonderful and play great together. I also have Tony Migliore, who plays electric and acoustic piano; Jerry Krill on drums and on bass we have Brad Albin, who also plays with The Time Jumpers. I sing songs that are very melodic, like “And I Love You So,” “Castles in the Air,” “Winterwood,” “Crossroads” and “Vincent”.

AXS: What’s your songwriting process like?

DM: I'm, not a guy who writes a song every day. I usually just go about my business and experience things by traveling, observing and reading. I’ve always been that way. Eventually, something will occur to me that I think is interesting, like on the album Prime Time [1977]. The title song from that album is a song that likens America to a game show. I remember when I wrote it back in the Seventies music was starting to become mechanical, and I used that as an idea for the music, and then the game show idea of seeing America through this tunnel vision came along. Another interesting thing is that two-other songs from that record, “The Wrong Thing to Do” and “When A Good Thing Goes Bad” were used to form a hit record the rapper, Drake called "Doing It Wrong.”

AXS: It would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about “American Pie”, which is such an iconic song. At the time that you wrote it, were you aware of just how special it was going to be?

DM: I've been asked that question a lot, and the answer is no. Back when I wrote it, I had never had a hit record before. So I didn't even know what it was like. But through the years what I've learned is that people really relate to it and can almost see it happening. But it started out as just another idea and concept. Then I had a find a way to write this rock and roll dream.

AXS: What are your thoughts on current state of the music industry? Do you think we’ll ever see a day where there will be another troubadour telling stories with their music?

DM: I don't think the story telling is dead. What I think is dead is melody. I've listened to a lot of big acts now and it seems that no matter what they do it’s just a wall of sound and one chord with variations on that one chord. You can do so many things with one chord, but that's not music. You have to have at least three chords to have a melody and you have to have melody in order to have harmony. So, the answer to your question is, probably not [laughs].

AXS: Are there any other projects you’re currently working on?

DM: I've got a new album coming out called Botanical Gardens. I also recently signed a deal with a record company in Germany for a worldwide release. I'm pretty excited about it.

AXS: Of all the highlights of your career is there one thing that stands out to you as most memorable?

DM: I think maybe being at the foot of The Lincoln Memorial looking out at 600,000 people when I was invited to the Millennium Concert on New Year’s Eve in Washington, and then being invited to the White House for dinner with people who had supposedly influenced the 20th century. That was a pretty high time for me.