Illustration by Nick Gazin
Shortly before our scheduled call time, Paul McCartney's publicist calls with a quick message: “Yeah, sorry… We’re not quite sure when he’ll call. He’s on 'Paul Time' now.”
Normally, a message like that might be a bit annoying. But it's OK, because, well, this is Sir Paul McCartney, quite possibly the most important musician who’s ever lived. He's a knight and a Beatle, and literal books have been written about his one-time haircut choices. Considering nearly every person alive can recite some of his lyrics, you might say that all of humanity is on "Paul Time."
Eventually, about an hour or so late, he calls. And he’s calling to talk to me about emojis.
Yes, emojis. The reason I’m talking to a Beatle is because he’s recently teamed up with Skype for some love-themed emojis called “Love Mojis” the company has launched in celebration of Valentine’s Day this coming weekend. McCartney was brought in to record music for each one, using guitar, drums, synthesizers, xylophones, and his voice in the compositions. On first glance, this whole thing may seem a bit odd—but if you really think about it, emojis might be one of the most effective forms of emotional communication we use today. They are the Beatles songs of the phone keyboard. Feel uncomfortable about a terse email you sent? Follow it up with a smiley face. Send a sarcastic comment to a friend that you want to be received as a joke? Toss an upside down smiley face on it. Getting ready to fire off a sext? Don’t forget that eggplant or peach ;).
"The only danger with this project was whether I just thought, 'Is this just to frivolous for me to be spending my time on?' There will be people who will say that, and of course I'm setting myself up by saying it myself," says the 73-year-old. "But, why I do these things—I do certain things like this that are a bit off-piste, a bit left field, it's not what I normally do—is precisely that. It exactly because it's not what I normally do."
Outside of emojis, during our 17-minute chat, McCartney spoke to me about how he uses little projects like this—or others, like working with Kanye West—to keep himself creatively fresh. Which must be quite challenging, considering over his six decade career, he’s recorded 60 gold records and has sold over 100 million albums and 100 million singles for both work with the Beatles and as a solo artist, and also, oh yeah, he is Paul McCartney. For me to sit here and explain to you his importance to the world would be frivolous. Calling him a legend isn't even enough.
Paul McCartney: Hi Eric, it's Paul here, calling from England.
Hi Paul, how are you doing?
Good. I hope you were expecting my call—otherwise, this is quite a surprise.
I was, yes. How are you doing this afternoon?
I'm good thanks. I just arrived at my recording studio; I'm just sitting outside in the car, chatting to you before I go in.
Cool. Well, I've always wanted to interview you, but I didn't know that it would be over these types of specifics. I guess we're supposed to talk about emojis.
Yeah, I think that's what it's about.
So how did this deal come into place and what is going on?
Well, you know, the kids in my office—my team—know that I quite like to be presented with new ideas and they know that I can either go "no way," or "hmmm that's intriguing." So, some of my people had been involved in a thing in Japan with LINE [a Japanese social media platform] where they had emojis of me. So Japanese kids would have a little thing of me and they're saying to their friends, "I'm sorry," or "I love you," or whatever, the appropriate thing [with emojis]. So I kind of knew that was going on. I was impressed to hear there were 11 million people using these things, so I thought, "That's kind of cool." But it was nothing I really was interested in, other than myself… if I felt that a message that I was texting or sending to someone could be construed as a little bit serious, then I would just put a happy face on it or something.
Right, yeah, of course. That's what everyone does.
So, yeah, I got the emoji thing and used it infrequently, but used it myself. So then it was kind of intriguing, it was like, well, "Skype are going to do these things for Valentine's Day and they'd like you to put some music on them." They showed me the little animations. So I thought, "Well OK, this has been kind of cool." Somebody's going to send a message, send a gift to their loved one from the office. I just visualized the whole thing happening. You know, the little animation shows visually the emotion—I love you or I'm missing you or whatever. And then the final little thing, there's a little audio attached to it.
You know, these days we are… the world's full of these little audio things. Y'know, one just happened on my phone, let me know there's a message coming in. Ringtones, little things like that. So, anyway, to cut a long story short, I got quite intrigued and they said, "Look, they're going to give you list of 20 emotions that they'd like you to express." I said, "OK, let me see if I'm going to enjoy this." Then, the catch was, they've got to be under five seconds. So, now it was kind of challenging. Ah, OK. A song might be sort of three, four minutes long. If I write a big long piece, an orchestral piece, it might be an hour or something. Or whatever. But never before have I been asked to write anything under five seconds. So now I was kind of amused by this idea. It was like, "let's see if we can do this." I just launched upon it and went through all these suggested emotions that they gave me. And found that it was actually quite fun, it was quite challenging. I didn't get to stress over it, I just thought, "What the hell! It's a bit of fun."
It is interesting. If you now are to think what tune would you put to the feeling "I'm missing you?" So that was the challenge. And I just thought that would be [starts imitating a melodic police siren] or whatever. You know, better than that. [Laughs.] So I went through them all and gave my first ideas, then started to go back on them. Some of them, I put a few ideas down in order for me to choose which I thought expressed the emotion best. So I did that and then I started to lay other sounds on the initial instrument I'd used.
This is a weird thing to be talking about, but it's really interesting to think how emojis have changed a little bit how we communicate as humans.
It is. I'm with you. In a way it's pretty scary. I'm very old school—I will actually telephone someone and hope to speak as we are speaking now, with voices. But you know, like I do, nobody picks up the bloody phone.
They just see… they go, "Oh, I'll do that later" or whatever. I mean, I have this with my kids. So then I'll text, I'll send a message. They're much more likely to look at that. And then, sometimes, you just go "kiss, kiss, kiss, emoji."
It's like a whole new language almost.
Yeah, we're talking to each other. I mean, nevermind all that "U R" and all that new language. I mean, God, I pity Shakespeare.
Do you have a favorite emoji?
Do I have a favorite of these ones that I've done?
There's one called "lust" which I thought, "OK, that's intriguing." But I kind of like them. I tried to keep them different, and yet for them to have a continuity between them. So there's some sort of signature thing to them in the same way as [when] you go to an airport there's a sort of continuity, you sort of know you're being told about a flight. So that was the sort of world I was in. And I spend five days doing it all, putting it together, finessing them a little bit. But it was good. I got to work with a lot of instruments and my voice and me and my engineer had a lot of fun. We played around with them and assembled it all. And I think Skype are going to use ten of them at first and then I think there might be another wave. So we'll see which ones they use. I hope they use my favorite.
It's got to be interesting for somebody from your perspective who… your career has been built on essentially writing love songs and things and using the English language to make beautiful phrasing. And now there's this weird movement—among my generation especially—to use emojis to express themselves, and you're writing music for emojis. That has to be a weird perspective.
Absolutely. As I was saying, I started to notice it in Japan where a lot of this technology originally started way back when. And you just started to realize that people, especially kids, like this sort of stuff. So yeah, then I found myself using it. I think the only danger with this project was whether I just thought, "Is this just to frivolous for me to be spending my time on?" There will be people who will say that, and of course I'm setting myself up by saying it myself. But, why I do these things—I do certain things like this that are a bit off-piste, a bit left-field, it's not what I normally do—is precisely that. It exactly because it's not what I normally do. And it means that I have a little period of time doing what I don't do, normally—on this little project or on some film music or something—and I find that when you come back to writing a normal song, you're a little bit fresher, you haven't just been churning these songs out. It freshens your approach. So it's kind of nice, it just makes what you do normally quite attractive to get back to once you've gone off-piste. It is a skiing analogy—once you've gone off-piste, it's quite nice to get back on the main run.
It's always interesting talking to legacy musicians who've been making music for decades and just learning how they continue to refresh themselves or continue to come back to the creative well. Because you're kind of constantly climbing a mountain and I imagine that gets more challenging the longer that you do it.
Yeah, I think that's true. I think when you first start, your ideas are, obviously, all fresh, the whole thing is fresh, everything that's happening is new. And then, gradually, it becomes not so fresh, not so new. And the danger is—or what happens to a lot of people—they just get bored and jaded and you start just phoning it in. So, for me, when these little things come along. I mean it's like recently I worked with Kanye West and for a second I thought, "is this something I want to do, ought to do?" So I thought about it and then it's like, "why not?" If nothing, he's an interesting character.
Of course. What was it like working with him?
Well, you know, he's an amazing talent. He's a crazy cat with it, but I love him. He's very talented. Completely different way of working from how I work, so it was very different. It's interesting. Really all I did was just threw a load of ideas at him and then left him to get on with it. And he just gradually sent me these tracks, one of which, "All Day," is nominated for a Grammy, Song of the Year kind of thing. And that came from a melody I showed him and a story I told him about this thing. And whereas it was a kind of quite a pretty melody that I'd given him, it came back as sort of an urban anthem riff. But it was just intriguing to see that that's what came of our collaboration. Another thing was the Rihanna song "FourFiveSeconds" came out of it. And then Kanye's "Only One," which came off the back of something we were just talking about. So yeah, this is the great thing about all this, it just keeps you fresh and, whilst there will always be people who say, "I don't know why you did that," there are people who are going to say, "I'm going out to tour this shit," and there are people who'll say "I don't know why you do that." Because in their perception of it—that's obviously not mine—but their perception of it is like slagging around on Greyhound buses, eating badly, having a terrible time, not selling out, and stuff. But if you like it like I have, it's not that at all, it's something really attractive. And I think this whole idea of doing these off-beat projects really helps to keep it fresh. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Is there ever any fear or challenge that you feel to coming back to the creative well like this? I imagine that these are purposeful decisions that you're talking about: working with Kanye, doing a project like this where it's kind of reinvigorating you a little bit. But has there ever been any fears or doubt that you've had coming back like, "Oh man, I've got to do this again." How do you get past that?
With that, I think it's just part of the creative process. I had a nephew who decided he was going to paint, thought it'd be cathartic. He said it was terrifying. Like, "God, this is no good. What am I doing? Where does this painting go next? Have I finished it, have I not?" It's actually just part of the process and it comes with the territory. So yeah, there is always fear of not being able to do it, but it's outweighed by the thing of the feeling privileged for being allowed to do it. I look at a song and it's a black hole where there's nothing in it and in three hours time I'm going to have a planet. I'm going to pull something out of that black hole. And that's very exciting. So, you know, I like that. But there's always fear attached to reaching into a black hole.
Yeah, I can only imagine.
We're going big on the metaphors here. Black holes, and we've been skiing, all sorts.
Eric Sundermann has the same birthday as Paul McCartney and is the editor-in-chief of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.