James McCartney Slowly Emerges From His Famous Father's Shadow

It isn't easy for the son of a Beatle to throw his guitar in the closet and become an accountant. Each and every Fab Four son has at least attempted a music career—from Dhani Harrison, currently a member of alt-rock outfit thenewno2, to sonic chameleon Sean Lennon and drummer Zak Starkey, who's played in both Oasis and the Who. It's an especially awkward position for a budding songwriter; being a Beatle kid automatically grants you an eager audience, but a lot of those people are waiting to watch you fail. (The most famous example is Julian Lennon, whose blandly inoffensive pop is consistently ravaged by critics, album after album.) All things considered, it's easy to admire James McCartney's gradual, old-school approach to building a musical identity.

Instead of capitalizing early on an unearned celebrity status and releasing a lukewarm debut album, like Julian Lennon did with 1984's Valotte, McCartney, the son of Paul McCartney, has been patient with his music—and shockingly introverted. For the three decades of his life, he avoided the limelight almost entirely, studying art and sculpture at the university level and quietly developing his songwriting chops outside the public eye. His few forays into the music industry were small but impactful. Most famously, he recorded guitar and percussion overdubs for two of his dad's solo albums (1997's Flaming Pie and 2001's Driving Rain). When he finally took the plunge into solo performance, he did so in near obscurity; he made his U.S. debut in 2009, performing under the moniker Light at David Lynch's Weekend for World Peace and Meditation.

Over the next two years, he released two quietly charming EPs (2010's Available Light and 2011's Close at Hand, both co-produced by David Kahne and McCartney's father). Both are full of gently psychedelic rock, grunge-lite, and orchestral folk—all tied together by gentle, hazy hooks. But Me, his full-length debut, is the work of an all around more confident and colorful songwriter.

"Honestly, I just wanted to wait until I had the strongest possible collection of songs before introducing them to everyone," the 35-year-old McCartney writes in an e-mail interview. "And I wanted to do this in the right way, so I waited until I felt both the music and myself were ready."

The title itself is a statement of purpose. Recording for the first time without the influence of his father, McCartney—working again with Kahne— stumbled upon a batch of songs both more emotional and sonically assured. The anthemic single "Snap Out of It" spirals from homespun folk to blurring orchestrations to dance-y synthesizers; "You and Me Individually" is a touching ode to the power of family, built on ornate acoustic fingerpicking. But even if Me demonstrates McCartney's steady growth into his own style, he isn't above noting his influences—including the obvious ones.

"There are so many influences for me," he says. "Kurt Cobain, the Smiths, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, the Cure, the Beatles, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams. I could name so many more. In the end, I don't really prefer a particular style, just great music, truly."

McCartney has never tried to distance himself from his famous family—throughout the years, he's remained vocal about his father's massive influence on his own songwriting. Lately, though, he's grown more hesitant about revisiting the past, even refusing to answer family-related questions for this particular interview. And in keeping with the underlying theme of Me, his current world tour is a particularly intimate venture: just McCartney, armed with a guitar or piano, all by himself. For a performer, it doesn't get any more vulnerable than that—these shows are designed to showcase the power of the songs themselves, without the luxury of a band to hide behind. It's a move that reflects the old-fashioned spirit of his songwriting process.

"It really varies, but I usually start with music first, and then lyrics," he says. "I try different approaches, though, because sometimes you can find something for a song in a way you wouldn't have thought. Just singing nonsense words to a melody, or bouncing between different instruments, for example. Sometimes you can get a foothold in an unexpected way on something, and suddenly it starts to take shape. I've often blocked the lyrics out or written them in my notebook, too, sort of like poetry. But in the end, it's about having as much emotion as possible for me, musically and lyrically. Cathartic, heartfelt, and true."