Songwriter Connection (10/1984), Christine McVie
Songwriter Connection, October 1984
by Bruce Kaplan
On this balmy Tuesday in Coldwater Canyon, Christine McVie was still smarting from a lukewarm review in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. The problem, according to the review, is that McVieís songs dwell on the well-worn subject of romance.
"Other people seem to write about love, donít they?" McVie lamented. "It seems to be the least pretentious subject to write about. Iíve been taking a lot of criticism for it, but at least itís honest. But one shouldnít go and make a solo album if they canít take a little knocking, should they?"
You canít blame McVie for waiting to record her first solo album since 1969. As if two hit albums by Stevie Nicks and impressive efforts by Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood werenít intimidating enough, McVie had an even heavier to top: her own.
A 13-year veteran of Fleetwood Mac, itís McVieís voice and blues-pop keyboard playing that provide the core of the soft-rock Mack sound, holding together Buckinghamís edgy rock excursions and Nicksí dreamy tales of witches, leather, and lace. She is one of the most consistently accessible and commercially successful writer of the three, and has penned no less than six of the groups hit singles since 1975: "Over My Head," "Say You Love Me," "Donít Stop," "You Make Loviní Fun," "Think About Me," and "Hold Me." Even Christine Perfect, her British debut 15 years ago, won her the honor of being named Best Female R&B Vocalist of the Year by Melody Maker.
If the L.A. Times has been a bit tough on her, Billboard has not: her first single, "I Got A Love" entered the Hot 100 at 39 and has lodged itself firmly in the top-ten, going straight to Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts. For the first time since 1982ís "Hold Me," her voice is once again everywhere.
McVie, with her glass of white wine and pack of Marlboro cigarettes, comes across as candid and unpretentious. When asked about her stated desire to sing a duet with Paul McCartney, she answered modestly, "Iíd love to sing a song with him. I met him in a studio and he said he would. But Iím sure he was just being polite." But for fans of British pop this could be the grandest wedding since Charles and Lady Di: The King And Queen of Melody.
We asked about life away from the Big Mac:
How did you approach your solo album differently from Fleetwood Mac?
CM: I chose to co-write a lot of the songs on this album. The fact that it was going to be a solo record made me a little nervous, insecure as to how ten or eleven Christine McVie songs would hold up one after the other. I felt that I needed an injection of freshness from another writer to make this a good, flowing, easy-to-listen-to album. So I elected to write with a very good friend of mine, Todd Sharp. The combination of the keyboard and guitar writing together was interesting. Weíre very compatible as writers.
Youíve known him for a long time?
CM: About seven years. I met him when he was with the Bob Welch band. Prior to that heíd been with Hall and Oates. Weíd never actually written together; he and his wife would come over and visit and weíd party. About two years ago we started to spend more and more time in the music room. It seemed obvious to me that he would be my first choice as a guitar player on the solo project, which we worked on quite a while before we actually decided to go ahead and make the record. When we had four really strong songs together, I said "Now is the time, Iím ready to tackle the project." I knew the bass player I wanted to use, George Hawkins. My producer, Russ Titelman, introduced me to Steve Ferrone, whoíd done some sessions with Paul Simon in New York. Steve came to Los Angeles and played with us, and it was exactly right. He was a little more sophisticated than we had originally planned, but he turned out to be wonderful.
Why did you wait as long as you did to record a solo album?
CM: I suppose I didnít feel in the right frame of mind. When we came of the Mirage tour, I was really tired. Everybody was, but tired in different ways. Stevie [Nicks] was anxious to get into the studio, because she has such an enormous backlog of songs. She writes constantly. Iím not like that. It was important for her to get some of these songs recordedÖ there are three writers in the band and to be recording only four of their songs every two years isnít right. One doesnít get the outlet.
Do you find that a problem for yourself?
CM: No, I donít really have a backlog of songs. I have more a backlog of ideas. I tend not to complete songs until I know there is something to complete for them. I have tapes full of chords and ideas, little bits and pieces, that I tend to put together whenever a project comes around.
So you work out your ideas on tape when youíre writing?
CM: Yeah, thereís a whole bunch of unfinished stuff. Then Iíve got books of lyrics. I find it frustrating to finish a song and not be able to record itÖ so I donít write a million songs.
How do go about beginning to write a song?
CM: Generally, I start by just sitting at the piano fiddling around with chords until I find a nice sequence of chords that go together. Iíll narrow it down a bit and Iíll find a nice melody. Melody is very important to me as I donít use very complicated chords in my songs. After I have a melody Iíll raid through my reams of lyrics to see if there is anything that fits the melody. This isnít strict; thereís no particular formula to the way I work.
Where do your lyrical ideas come from? Are they from your personal experiences?
CM: Itís not all autobiographical. Itís often to do with relationships among other people, relationships I see happening. I step into their shoes.
How do you answer those critics who say your lyrics are overly simple?
CM: I donít. What can you say? The fact is that I do write simple love songs.
You never wanted to write like Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello?
CM: Not really. I would if I felt it. Stevie writes ethereal mystical lyrics, but the moment I write words like that, I get this chill up my spine, kind of getting embarrassed and not feeling sincere about it. But if youíre sincere, you can write anything you like. In this stage of my musical life I donít feel honest doing that. My songs are self-explanatoryÖsomebody pointed out to me that I use the word "insane" or "crazy" in almost every song that I write. After he put it out to me, I realized that he was right. I think my songs pretty much speak for themselves. To this day, I still donít know what "Sara" is about.
Do you like to write lyrics all at one sitting, or work on them over a period of time?
CM: Generally in two or three sittings. I use words as a tool. I try for what I think sings well, rather than the actual content. Certain sounds, certain words, like Ďeeeí when you sing up high, is not a nice sound. So I like phrases that roll off the tongue. Iíll find different way to put things, different ways of phrasing a certain feeling, that goes lyrically and emotionally with the track. I think Lindsey is a bit like that, too. For Stevie, the words are of prime importance; the song moves around the words, rather than the words moving around the song.
Do you get writerís block?
CM: Sure I do. Thatís why I enjoy co-writing. Iíve been co-writing for a long time now. Iím sure the pendulum will swing back to writing alone. For the moment I just enjoy working with someone else. Yes, of course I get writerís block. Itís terrible.
How do you deal with it?
CM: I just stop playing. I donít like to fight it. It just gets me frustrated, disillusioned and disappointed in myself.
How about the opposite feeling: If I donít write a song Iíll go crazyÖ
CM: Sure. Some of the best songs Iíve written, Iíve written in ten minutes. "Songbird" took half an hour to write. "Over My Head" took two hours. That was just getting the lyrics, because there are only two chords in the whole song. Well basically two chords, with other ones floating around. If Iím really in a musical mood, then I know itís a good song; something good is going to come out if I really feel twitchy feet about it. I donít labor over songs very much, unless I know that the core of a song is really good, but I just canít get the bridge. Or Iíll just leave it alone, have a couple brandies and see what comes up.
Has video influenced the way you write?
CM: No. Unfortunately, Iím rather old-fashioned about this video business. Itís all relatively new. We really donít do videos, Fleetwood Mac. Weíve only done two: "Hold Me" and "Gypsy." I never have thought about a video while Iím writing. Iíve always been of the mind that music should be heard and not seen. Itís a strange thing thatís going on. I donít know if itís good or not. A journalist told me a story about a 16-year-old kid who when hearing a song from the Sixties said, ĎWhat a great! I wonder what it looks like.í Itís a little bit worrying. This is the Eighties; I think itís here to stay, isnít it?
Do you watch MTV?
CM: Off and on. I canít watch it all day.
Any bands that strike your fancy?
CM: Thereís a coupleÖthe EurythmicsÖI donít know, a lot of names. But in general thereís a lot of sameness in the songs and videos today. It all runs in to one mishmashÖIím definitely of the old school. I like melodies and I like real instruments. I like to see a smiling face across from me rather than a bank of computers. I like to play with real people.
Youíre not much on synthesizersÖ
CM: Iíve got a new Prophet T-8. I like to use them as colors, but I very rarely write on them. I get the best results writing on electric piano, grand piano, or organ. Maybe itís not very adventurous of me. Synthesizers are pretty new to me. My boyfriend is just a fanatic about synthesizers. But I find it hard to get excited by just a sound. I have to have a song there, then Iíll find what used I can make of that sound within the song.
Do you cut your basic tracks live?
CM: On the solo album, all the basic tracks are live, with the exception of "Ask Anybody," where we did us a Linn Drum machine and Mick played tom toms on the basic. Later Mick replaced the Linn part with real drums. We had a wonderful studio in Montreaux Jazz Festival. We used the studio and the engineer that records [the festival]. He had the studio down to a find art. He knew every knob, every little switchÖwe got a wonderful live sound, so we didnít use that much additional outboard gear.
How long did it take to make that record?
CM: We went in July 26. We were going to be there for six weeks to cut basics, but we had already done eight songs in ten days, so we decided to forge ahead and stay there to finish the record. It took us about three months.
Why does it take three months to make an hour-long record?
CM: Thereís all kinds of things to consider. A vocal can take one day. Performance is important. Deciding what you need or what you donít need. When I said three months, I expected you to say "Is that all?" Fleetwood Mac usually takes a full year. But each song has to have magic. It canít be underproduced, it canít be undermixed, or overmixed, the vocal is very important, that itís felt and not just blurted out.
What writers have influenced you?
CM: A lot of people ask me that, and I never really know. Itís not conscious, whoever it might be. A lot of the old blues artists have influenced me. Then again, Iím sure the Beatles haveÖthe Beach Boys, a lot of the older bands. I listen to Steely Dan an awful lot. Whether they influence me, I donít know, because they seem a lot more sophisticated than I.
You donít always pay strict attention to verse chorus structure?
CM: I always felt my songs are fairly structured: verse, chorus, verse, guitar soloÖbut I usually like to put some tag or little piece in somewhere, which is different from the rest of the songÖlike "Got A Hold On Me," which goes into the refrain again. I like to listen to a repeating refrain.
In "You Make Loviní Fun" you take awhile to get to the title, but there is a melodic hook off in the verse.
CM: That goes back to what I said before: I love melodies. The verses are just as important as the hook. Never complicated, though, just something that catches the ear that is easy to remember. When you hear it you can whistle it without it being trite. It needs to have some sort of haunting quality to it, like the laying of a note over a chord. There may be a note that Iím singing, which is not in the chord Iím playing. For example, "You Make Loviní Fun," on the word "sweet" there is not that 7th in the song. It creates a little tension.
Do you have any other musical devices you like to use?
CM: Chords that run over other chords. Thatís where the use of background vocals comes in. That creates another kind of tension. They might, over the chords in the song, start as the same, move to a different chord from the piano part and then resolve to the same chord. But I try not to make it too busy.
Youíve done a lot of co-writing for your solo album, but there hasnít been a lot of co-writing among the members of Fleetwood Mac.
CM: It might be an interesting thing to do for the next Fleetwood Mac recordÖto write a song for Lindsey to sing or vice versaÖor for Stevie to write a song for me and see what would happen. Or as you say to co-write a bit more. That would be an interesting direction to go in. Weíre going to try and do something different this time, and away from even what we expect to do. We havenít really formed any concrete plan at the moment, but whatever it is, itís going to have a twist.
So itís more important for you to make a record thatís artistically satisfying than commercially successful?
CM: Thatís the way weíve always worked. We try to be quite honest with what do. If weíre happy with the artistic merits of a record, thatís all you can do. I donít think weíre going to make a techno-rock album. This is going to be interesting, because Lindsey does love computers. He owns a Fairlight and all that sort of thing. With my love for the real instruments and his love for computers, it could be an interesting combination. We work very well together- the whole band works very well together. Itís going to be interesting, because I havenít seen Stevie in a long time. Weíll see what we all come up with. Get into a room together, try and work together a little bit more beforehand than we ever have. Normally, we arrange the songs in the studio, which is why itís so time consuming.
Do you write in the studio?
CM: Weíve written a lot of things that way. Weíve gone in with one song and come out with a completely different song. "The Chain" is a classic example. It was originally a song of mine which didnít have a melody; it just had chords. We did the basic track for that and we didnít get any farther, except the guitar solo, which Lindsey played live on the basic track. The only part we kept was the end; we threw out the beginning of the song and restructured it step by step, editing on bits of dobro and guitar. We still didnít have vocal ideas, so thatís where Stevie stepped in. It took about six months going from one stage to the way it ended up.
Who wrote the lyrics?
CM: Stevie. They were old lyrics she had floating around. That was very much worked on as a trio. "Eyes of the World" is another one. I think we recorded it much slower than that, and then we speeded it up. Lindsey never likes to commit himself as "this is how itís supposed to be." Heíll experiment with slowing it down, speeding it up, wiping off instruments, trying other instruments on top of it, that kind of thing. Heís constantly experimenting in the studio, while I would tend to be sure of what I want before I go in. Stevie is pretty much sure of the melody and the words, but then there is all the arranging to be done with her things. Sheís not a particularly accomplished piano player. She manages to get together what the song is and the kind of chords she wants.
So itís pretty collaborative?
CM: It was only not collaborative on the Tusk album. That was mostly Lindseyís. He wanted to do some stuff on his own, he wanted to play drums, bass, piano- everything himself. We felt at that time we needed to let him do that, to get it out of his system. I think he would have left the band if not. In essence, he did a solo album within a Fleetwood Mac album.
It didnít create any hard feelings?
CM: Not at all. I donít think that some of Lindseyís drumming is the best that could be desired, but he needed to get that off his chest and he did it. I think itís a really interesting album.
Do you have any advice to songwriters who are trying to make it?
CM: Learn your instrument. Be honest. Donít do anything phony. There is so much crap floating around. There is plenty of room for a bit of honest writing.
Thanks to Les for the submission.
1984-10-01 Number of views: