Bi-coastal singer-songwriter Don McLean lives in Maine and California. His international popularity, especially in the United Kingdom and Australia, makes having homes on the east and west coasts of the United States a convenience.
Of course, McLean — the singer and composer of the American pop classics “American Pie,” “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” “And I Love You So” and “Castles in the Air” — also tours the U.S., but his reception abroad has long eclipsed his domestic popularity.
“It’s really how you thread the needle at the beginning of your career that determines the trajectory,” he said last week. “It was done right in England and Australia. It was done wrong in the United States. So the whole world has been really good for me, but the United States has been fine, too.”
Like any recording artist and performer, McLean had his ups and down. After years of performing at a modest, itinerant level, his debut album, 1969’s “Tapestry,” was not successful. His 1971 follow up album, however, and its epic hit single, “American Pie,” both reached No. 1.
McLean’s succeeding albums throughout the ’70s , didn’t touch the success he’d achieved at the decade’s start. Fortune turned his way again in 1980. McLean’s remakes of two classic torch songs — Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” — returned him to the pop charts.
The success of the latter two songs follows McLean’s image of himself. He’s a singer first, a songwriter second.
“Songwriting came as kind of surprise to me,” he said. “But I had a lot that I wanted to say.”
When McLean and his four-man band perform Friday at the River Center Theatre, they’ll spread five or six of his new songs throughout the show.
“And we do all the songs that people want to hear,” he promised. “Of course, they want to hear ‘American Pie’ and ‘Vincent.’ ”
McLean credits his sustained career to his songwriting.
“From an artistic standpoint, I’m taken somewhat seriously, or appreciated, everywhere,” he said. “I’m happy about that because this business can be cruel and demeaning. The years have been good to me because the stature of my songs has increased rather than diminished.”
McLean experienced the artistic and financial pleasure of seeing other artists record his songs and be successful with them. In 1973, for instance, classic crooner Perry Como recorded a hit version of “And I Love You So.” When McLean was growing up in New Rochelle, New York, in the 1950s, recording and TV star Como had been a favorite of his Italian mother.
In 2000, Madonna recorded a dance-pop rendition of “American Pie.”
“That gave the song a whole new life for the second century,” McLean said.
McLean launched his music career in the folk music world of the early 1960s. A wondering young troubadour, he sang, and played acoustic guitar and long-neck banjo.
“I just went with the tide,” he said. “It was a very simple thing. I could play these little places and ramble and have an adventure. I learned songs from people. I slept on a lot of waitresses’ couches. I slept in the car. I was on the road and I loved it.”
Work as a folk singer though McLean did, he loved pop music and rock ’n’ roll, too.
“The really good folk artists who I met, and I met some of the greatest, were always open to every kind of music,” he said. “It was the rank-and-file folkies who were defensive. They were down on anything that wasn’t folk.
“But when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came along, playing acoustic guitars and writing brilliant songs that had a touch of British music hall in them and English madrigal and this and that, suddenly nobody wanted to hear some guy with his nose in the air, playing two chords and singing ‘Skip to My Lou.’ So that just went away.”
McLean maintains his songwriting creativity, as he always has, in part by not repeating himself.
“I don’t write the same song twice,” he said. “And I don’t have a singular style of songwriting or a vocabulary of chord changes that would tell you, ‘Oh, that’s a James Taylor song or an Elton John song.’ Every time I write a song, I’m always trying to reconstruct, reinvent the whole thing.”