Auteur on the Run: Paul McCartney, Prince, and more artists who played every instrument on their album
Paul McCartney delivered a hat trick with McCartney III, his latest solo effort on which he not only penned every song, but sang and played every single instrument. He’s recorded as a one-man band before, on his first solo album, the controversial McCartney — which he made in secret in the months leading up to the Beatles dissolution — and his second, 1980’s McCartney II, which he released right before his second band, Wings, called it quits.
McCartney had risen to fame as a team player and an integral part of a band, which made McCartney and McCartney II stark contrasts to his typical approach: these solo efforts not only gave him complete creative control, but a chance to explore lo-fi territory after decades of rock and roll din. Many artists wear multiple instrumental hats when they cut a record, but an elite few join Macca in this club of pop and rock triple-threats, who were eager to take each component of an album’s sound into their own hands — and, in the process, push themselves to new creative heights.
Phil Collins was over a decade and four albums deep into his solo career when he went into the studio to record 1993’s Both Sides, which had him crooning through a collection of resplendent slow jams (“Can’t Turn Back the Years;” “We Fly So Close”) and pounding his drums through pop anthems (“Survivors”). Fans were introduced to Collins’ musical dexterity through his work with Genesis, which began behind the drum kit, as well as his earlier solo releases, but lead single “Both Sides of the Story” managed to condense a deafening blast of Genesis’ arena-ready bombast into a tight pop anthem — a feat all the more impressive because he roared through its arrangement and produced it himself.
When Dave Grohl began writing and recording as Foo Fighters in 1994, he hadn’t intended for anyone to know that he was the sole member of the band — or that he was in the band at all. When Nirvana disbanded following the suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994, Grohl, who drummed in the grunge trio, had initially avoided playing music in any capacity. But he eventually returned to the studio in Seattle, and wrote and recorded all of Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut in a single week, initially intending for it to be an anonymous project. Inspired in part by the Police’s Stewart Copeland — who played every instrument down to the kazoo on his solo debut, Klark Kent — Grohl picked up the guitar, bass, and microphone in addition to his drumsticks. With the exception of the Afghan Wigs’ Greg Dulli, who features on “X-Static,” Foo Fighters is the singular effort of the animated frontman. The band would eventually grow into a multi-person outfit, but it all began with Grohl, who found catharsis while roaring into his hard-rocking next chapter.
Other artists have embraced this all-encompassing approach from the onset of their careers. Prince’s 1978 full-length debut, For You, was written, produced, and performed entirely by the Purple One. But it was his self-titled sophomore album, also helmed by himself, that made Prince a household name, with lead single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” becoming his first Top 40 hit.
In recent years, indie — and all its subgenres contained therein — has produced worthy additions to this solitary canon. Though Sufjan Stevens’ albums feature scattered contributions from the occasional outside percussionist or backing vocalist, he, too, has written and largely recorded independently, —and went so far as to play 14 different instruments on his debut album, 1999’s A Sun Came. His indie opus, 2005’s Illinois, was a level-up: he not only wrote and produced the album, but played over 20 instruments — including a collection of recorders, a vibraphone, and a glockenspiel — which gave the whole body of work an eclectic, symphonic feel. The concept album was his first chart champion, cracking the Billboard 200 and landing in the upper echelons of the indie (No. 4) and Heatseekers (No. 1) charts.
Grimes also found chart success — and a new instrumental arsenal — with 2015’s Art Angels, which was forged and informed by her desire for DIY autonomy. Disillusioned by the sexism she faced while working with men who overlooked her abilities both in the studio and behind the soundboard, she wrote Art Angels after learning a number of new instruments, including the guitar, ukulele, drums, and violin, and honed her production chops with Ableton Live. The result was a critically adored, electro-pop wonder whose credit belongs entirely to the woman who made it.
Some of Grimes’ peers, like Shamir and Tame Impala, have forged their own paths and written their way down them. Shamir’s inventive convergence of rock, pop, electronic, and R&B came to a glorious head on 2017’s Revelations, which embodies the strengths of each genre without being tethered to the expectations of any of them. (Revelations came out on Mom + Pop Records; he’s self-released five of his seven studio albums.) Tame Impala, meanwhile, leaned into psychedelic solitude with 2015’s Currents and 2020’s The Slow Rush, each rife with free-wheeling, neo-disco explorations intricately constructed by the discerning ear — and nimble fingers — of frontman Kevin Parker. Genres and generations may separate artists such as Parker and Shamir with McCartney or Prince, but one rule connects them: If you want it done right, you’ve sometimes got to do it yourself.