The godfather of blue-eyed soul bares part of his soul with CSM associate editor Nick Brandi
There are few sounds in music more immediately recognizable to the American ear than the cool, soulful baritone of Michael McDonald. There are also few sounds more pleasing to it. But spending time with the five-time Grammy winner reveals significantly more than just an iconic set of pipes. The truth is that in an industry widely regarded as among the most cannibalistically cynical, McDonald is, somehow, disarmingly open — almost childlike — in his seemingly unguarded willingness to share something of himself with another person. Recently, the native Missourian with the piercing blue eyes and regal white mane took way more than 10 minutes to have a very thoughtful conversation with associate editor Nick Brandi about himself, his career, his colleagues over the years and the music industry in general.
NB: Before anything else, Mike, please allow me to apologize for screwing up the time difference between the Central and Eastern Time zones. Tragically, I’ve always been challenged that way.
MM: No, that’s no problem. Actually, I’d like to apologize to you for being 20 minutes late today. My wife and I are in the process of moving to another house literally as we speak, and you know how those things really never go smoothly.
NB: Sure, I can definitely sympathize. Well, let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
MM: Sure, go ahead.
NB: You’re always being cited for your soulful voice. Which vocalists were early influences on you?
MM: Wow, there were and are so many. Let me see… I especially love the iconic black artists of the ’50s and ’60s – artists like Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, O.C. Smith, Sam & Dave, Sam Cooke, Etta James and, of course, Nat King Cole. I like singers whose vocals project a real personal and intimate connection to the material, almost as if no one else could sing it but them.
NB: Do you ever find those characteristics in any other styles or genres of music?
MM: I do. There is certainly a lot of country music that has as much feeling and soul as anything you will find out there. George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline are three good examples. Tony Bennett always had that quality, too.
NB: How’s your voice these days?
MM: Actually, my voice has changed a lot over the years; better in some ways, worse in others. When I was young, I had a lot of natural falsetto, which had flowed very smoothly. As that quality waned over time, I kind of converted it to more of a head voice. At the same time, my lower and midranges have gotten stronger over the years than when I was young. Believe it or not, it’s good in a way. Though I’ve had to lower the key on a couple of songs, I can experiment with different vocal approaches a half-step lower that I couldn’t have done earlier in my life but that are still very interesting.
NB: How young were you when you began singing even somewhat seriously?
MM: [Laughs] Well, my father had me singing in saloons and bars when I was about four years old. And yes, when I’d heard that cheering and applause, I was seriously into it. I’d thought all that hoopla was because I was that good; I didn’t realize it was mostly because people in various states of inebriation enjoyed seeing the spectacle of a four-year-old singing his little heart out. My dad would have me sing the silliest stuff, like “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” and they’d just go wild.
NB: Is there a pattern to your approach to songwriting? Do you start with the melody or the lyrics, and does it come to you in a flash of inspiration, or can you create a song by sheer force of will?
MM: It can begin with either the melody or the lyrics, but more often than not it’s the melody first. I definitely can’t write songs on command; that’s for sure. And I wouldn’t say I ever get much of a flash of anything. The truth is, I’ve never really trusted myself as songwriter. I think that if I ever tried to be prolific in that regard, I probably would have cranked out a lot of schlock. With me, the most sincere -- so I suppose you could say, then, my “best” -- stuff has come after tumbling around inside my head for maybe a year or so. That’s okay, though, because I think the unconscious or subconscious mind is often a better composer/songwriter ultimately than the conscious mind.
NB: You’ve also cowritten many songs. How does that process compare with solo writing?
MM: Well, cowriting can often produce the best final product, but it also requires a certain discipline that solo writing does not.
NB: How so? I could easily see the opposite being true.
MM: I know; it’s kinda counterintuitive. There are basically two reasons I feel cowriting requires more discipline. One involves the discipline necessary to respect the other person’s feelings and work with him or her instead of simply indulging every little impulse you may have at a given moment. It’s about compromise and cooperation, as well as trying to achieve a certain creative rhythm or sync with another person that isn’t necessarily easy and can be a discrete skill in itself.
The other reason is that when I write alone, I tend to throw away a ton of stuff on what is sometimes little more than a whim or out of pure impatience. When you cowrite, however, respect for your partner means being much more patient and seeing certain things through or experimenting with certain options that you may have moved on from quickly if you were writing alone. As a whole, that process requires more discipline, for me at least, than a solitary approach.
NB: You are something of a rarity in that you’ve had extremely successful careers as both the member of a group and as a solo artist. Is one better, or at least more fun, than the other?
MM: As you might expect, each has its advantages. As the member of a group, you have that group dynamic, that sense of creative achievement through collaboration and, to be honest, a lot less work. A solo artist, by contrast, works a lot harder but has a lot more latitude and creative control, which can be nice, but it’s also a lot lonelier – and there’s no one else to share the blame with if something goes wrong! [Laughs.]
NB: You’re almost legendary for your propensity to collaborate with other performers and artists – everyone from Bonnie Raitt, Jack Jones, James Ingram and Kenny Loggins to Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, The Winans and even Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost!. Why do you think you’re so successful at this, and is there a collaboration of which you are fondest?
MM: The first part of the question is easy: It’s because I am a raging co-dependant! [Laughs heartily.] The second question is a little tougher. Collaborating with Kenny Loggins and James Ingram were definitely great experiences, though I think I might have to say that over the course of my entire career, the work I’ve done with Pat [Simmons] from The Doobie Brothers is probably the most gratifying. I think of Pat – whom I see all the time -- and the other Doobies as true friends and an amazing fraternity that has honored me by including me as a member. They like to say, “Once you’re a Doobie, you’re always a Doobie,” and that is definitely how I feel. Sure, we’ve had our moments over the years, and I wasn’t always a prince to work with, but we basically all got along quite well and still do.
NB: Do you still enjoy touring at this point in your career?
MM: Sure, but that’s largely because of who I get to tour with. I’m having a great time touring with Donald Fagen [Steely Dan] and Boz Skaggs as part of the Dukes [of September Rhythm Revue]. Sometimes, it’s really so much fun just to play something and not worry about anything else. The thing with touring these days is how incredibly expensive it is. When all is said and done, you’re lucky if you get to keep one-third of what you’ve grossed.
NB: Your Grammy Awards and nominations span 1979 to 2007. Is there one that is most cherished by you?
MM: This is going to sound like such a cliché that I’m a little embarrassed even saying it, but it really mean it when I say it’s an honor just to be nominated. Therefore, I can’t honestly say that I have a favorite Grammy. I can say, however, that getting nominated in 2007 [as Featured Artist on Vince Gill’s These Days] was the biggest surprise and very gratifying after all these years.
NB: In terms of your own compositions, is there one that means the most to you or of which you are the most proud?
MM: Yeah, that I can say. I can tell you off the bat that they aren’t any of my biggest hits or most well-known work.
NB: They never are. It seems like the artist has one perspective, the music critics and journalists have another and the public yet another.
MM: That’s so true, so often, and it’s cool you recognize that. I guess songs I’m most proud of would be “Matters of the Heart” and “More to Us than That,” off Blink of an Eye  – and “Everlasting” too, which I did with Will Jennings [“Up Where We Belong,” “My Heart Will Go On”]. Now that was a funny experience.
NB: I’m all ears, Mike.
MM: Well, Will is like this legendary lyricist, with Oscars and Grammys and everything, and language means a lot to him, which it should. When we were collaborating on “Everlasting” he was scanning my lyrics and says to me: “What the hell is this… ‘lovingness’? What’s ‘lovingness’? That’s not even a word; there’s no way we’re gonna say that!” [McDonald begins to chuckle] He was so offended by that, I think he wanted to fire me. I also think that the only reason he probably didn’t is because I had brought him the melody. But I couldn’t think of any other word that conveyed what I was trying to say. To this day, whenever hear or read that lyric, I think to myself, lovingness?
NB: That is really funny, though it did make it into the final cut.
MM: Yes, somehow it did.
NB: Just to hit the awards thing one more time, if you don’t have a favorite Grammy win, do you at least have a special Grammy memory? Maybe 1979, when The Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute resulted in multiple statuettes from the academy?
MM: Winning with the Doobies was probably my greatest Grammy thrill. More so because my grandmother was able to see that, which meant a lot because she was the one who’d bought me my first guitar.
NB: You’re known primarily as a keyboardist. Do you compose your melodies exclusively on the keyboard or piano?
MM: In the early days, pretty much. As time progressed, I began composing melodies on other instruments, like the guitar. Now, I’ll even compose on the ukulele, which is really interesting because I find that composing on the guitar or uke produces a different final result than composing on a piano or keyboard.
NB: The music industry has always been tumultuous, but arguably never more so than now, with both the concentration of power among a handful of very powerful media conglomerates and the encroachment of the Internet functioning to mitigate artistic control over the product. Do you see this, then, as an especially good time or bad time for music industry?
MM: Actually, I see it as a transitional time, though tumultuous to be sure. Obviously, the Internet can be a bad thing for musicians because of the lost revenue resulting from illegal downloads. At the same time, the Internet can benefit artists by giving them an outlet or a platform to showcase their work in the event they don’t have an established label behind them. The record companies, meanwhile, have reinvented themselves many times through the years, though they are definitely better from an artistic standpoint when they are smaller. Ultimately, I think good art will usually find a way to the surface; still, I’m kinda glad I came up in the industry when I did instead of now.
NB: Could you ever see yourself as a record producer?
MM: Actually, I did try being a producer, but I learned that I didn’t like being in charge of other people’s money. Yeah, I pretty much consider myself an abysmal failure as a producer.
NB: Would you say you tend to shun the business side of the industry in general?
MM: Well, yeah, pretty much, I guess. As much as I can, anyway. I mean you really can’t ignore the business side entirely, and if you do, it’s at your own risk. When I was with the Doobie Brothers, some of the guys knew everything about where we were on the charts and how successful we were compared with other rock groups at the time, in terms of things like chart positions, ticket sales and tour revenues. For some reason, I never cared all that much about that stuff. Some people at the time thought my relative indifference was foolish. Looking back on it now, I think it was more of a virtue.
NB: So, what other good stuff is on the horizon for you?
MM: I’ve begun collaborating with my son in the studio, and that’s been a lot of fun.
NB: How old is he?
MM: Twenty-five. I don’t know yet what direction it will ultimately go in, but I can tell you now that he’s a better songwriter than I was at his age.
NB: I’ll look forward to hearing the result. Meanwhile, on behalf of folks like me around the world, thank you for enhancing the reverie of countless memories because the events to which they are tied took place while your music was playing in the background.
MM: Wow, thank you! That was a really
cool thing to have said. Believe me, the pleasure was, still is and always will
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