Don McLean rose to fame when he first sang about the end of rock ’n’ roll’s innocence in his 1971 hit “American Pie.” These days, the rocker is singing some new tunes.
The 72-year-old singer/songwriter has released his 19th studio album titled “Botanical Gardens.” It’s his first in eight years. He spoke with Fox News about his latest release, inspiring both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, as well as why “American Pie” continues to resonate with listeners today.
Fox News: How did Australia inspire “Botanical Gardens?”
Don McLean: I used to take walks in the gardens near the Sydney Opera House. And really, when I was there, I never thought much of it. But later on, the idea occurred to me that I would have these fantasies about being young… which I wrote in these songs. When I decided to escape New York City to visit these gardens, that’s when the idea for the songs really took shape.
Fox News: What has been the biggest challenge that you faced with this album?
McLean: I didn’t have a record deal so I just started making the record because I felt like doing it. One song led to another. And then all of a sudden, my agent from England called and said he got me this really great deal with BMG, which kind of turned me on and made me work even harder to get this job done. It was not easy… I have to fight for everything I get.
Fox News: You previously mentioned that the idea of romance in music is dead.
McLean: I just don’t think people write about romance. They don’t write about the sadness of breaking up. They don’t do the songs we used to write about. The emotional feelings? I think people are pretty flat emotionally.
I think a lot of people are on drugs. They’re on Ritalin if they’re in school and they run around too much. Then they’re on Prozac if they feel too much… It’s prescribed naturally by the doctor. So I think emotionally we were a lot more authentic than we are now. I don’t hear this kind of emotion in songs… I’m not saying we don’t have feelings. We do have feelings, God knows. But I don’t hear a lot of it expressed in musical terms anymore.
Fox News: What do you think is the secret behind the lasting success of “American Pie?”
McLean: The secret is that people love it and I don’t really know how you measure that or figure that out. They liked it from the very beginning and they have always liked it.
My songs kept me afloat because sometimes a lot of my musical style and the things that I’ve written have been very out of favor with what was going on. And I have been ignored for years at a time. That never bothered me at all. I’ll… come into focus and people say very nice things. And then my career moves ahead a notch or two. And so, that’s where we are now. But I’m always working and I’ve always had acceptance on a certain level by my audience.
Fox News: What keeps you going?
McLean: I really don’t think there’s anything else that I could do that would come close to singing and doing it well on stage. I keep myself in reasonably good condition so I can do that, which is another challenge. I can’t let myself get to 300 pounds. I can’t over-drink or smoke or do any of those things. Not that I might necessarily do that. But I’m just saying, people let themselves go. They figure, “Oh well, I’m 65. It’s time to die now.” I don’t think that way. I don’t see myself as any particular age.
Fox News: It’s been said Johnny Cash wrote “I Wish I Could Yodel” after hearing you sing. Is that true?
McLean: I visited Johnny Cash and I went to his house. I was there for two days. He had this little recording studio and I sang a version of “Lovesick Blues” where I yodel quite a bit. Cash liked it a lot and then he quickly wrote “I Wish I Could Yodel.” So yes, that song came from the encounter he had with me.
Fox News: Elvis Presley also performed “And I Loved You So” in nearly every live performance before his death. How does it feel to have had such an impact on someone like Elvis, especially towards the end of his life?
McLean: It means a great deal to me that I was able to give him something that he could use and that he enjoyed singing in what obviously was a very dark final year where he was clearly struggling to find out where he was going to go next. Struggling with addiction and struggling with looks and his weight.
I know when I get a bad picture taken of me, I don’t like it. So I could imagine with Elvis. He had so many bad pictures taken of him when he was overweight. That probably killed him because he was such a creature of his own beauty. He always looked good in every picture. And those last two years of his life, I think that’s when it all really went to h–l.
Fox News: A diverse group of artists has performed your music over the years, including Madonna. What’s your take on this?
McLean: Anytime someone does one of my songs, whether it’s a famous person or a young person I don’t know, I’m always honored and delighted. I never take any of this stuff for granted. I’m not a hardcore professional about this stuff. I’m always a bit of an amateur, marveling at other people.
It’s always been that way since the very beginning. I’m very happy that each new generation seems to find songs of mine to do. That’s a thrill. I haven’t really been on the inside of my career. I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve had trouble with record labels — just all kind of difficulty making albums… It was never easy. So it’s always nice when you win.
Fox News: Who surprised you the most?
McLean: Tupac Shakur apparently really loved “Vincent.” He loved what I did, so that was a big surprise. His mother insisted that “Vincent” and a reference to me and my music be in his documentary.
“Vincent” was a part of his life. That to me is a wonderful thing when you can cross these boundaries between musical styles and cultures and have something that matters to all kinds of people, not just one segment of the population. That’s a very beautiful thing. That’s an important thing.