The Godfathers of Pop – Michael McDonald interview
In a career spanning more than 40 years, Michael McDonald has been a member of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, sang with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, and scored solo hits in the 80s with I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near) and Yah Mo B There (with James Ingram). In 2017, he featured alongside Kenny Loggins on Thundercat’s Show You The Way, and has recently released a new studio album entitled Wide Open. He plays a handful of UK and Irish dates in March 2018.
You’ve collaborated with a diverse range of artists. What makes a good collaborator?
Someone who’s willing to step away. When co-writing, I hate it if something’s not happening and only one of us thinks that. I don’t want to spend a lot of hours on a song I’m not really feeling an affinity with. Don’t put all your energy into trying to breathe life into a corpse. Your sisters, Kathy and Maureen, feature on I Keep Forgettin’…
What’s the source of that familial vocal talent?
My father always had a beautiful voice. Although he wasn’t a professional singer, he was well-known around the city of St Louis, where he sang in every pub or saloon. My earliest memories are walking into places like that and the first thing I would hear was somebody yelling out: “Hey Bob, sing Danny Boy again!” That was his big number. As a kid, I grew up inheriting his love of songs and songwriters.
How did the 1983 Yah Mo B There collaboration with James Ingram come about?
James’ album was in the process of being done, and Quincy (Jones) wanted us to write together and collaborate as vocalists. We were writing songs, trying to get one past Quincy, and he kept sending us back to the drawing board. So we wrote Yah Mo… and he finally gave that one the OK. All of a sudden James and I went from not really knowing each other, to working together a couple of nights a week for the next six months or so. I love James’ voice and we became best friends.
How do you feel about the fact that the song has become a part of popular culture, featuring in the likes of The 40 Year Old Virgin and American Dad?
I find it amazing, really. As much as anything else, I’m tickled by the whole yacht rock thing – and what else would a guy like me at my age doing, but for casino gigs and yacht rock?!
You shared a couple of powerhouse duets you shared with Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin in the 80s – were they intimidating, musically?
I remember being grateful that I didn’t have to go into the studio one-on-one and sing the song with Patti, because I knew what a powerful performer she was. I probably would have been a shrinking violet next to her at the microphone. I sang to her voice on tape. It was the same with Aretha. But I got to sing with both of them live. They influenced my whole psyche as a singer and a musician.
You’ve recorded with Thundercat and appeared with him at Coachella. Is he someone with whom you feel a connection?
Very much so. He’s one of those guys who’s got an insatiable appetite for creating music. He’s always got his laptop out and his recording software program up and running. He’ll lay things down right then and there that become basically the tracks on his album later. I owe Kenny Loggins the credit for that. One of his kids told him that Thundercat had mentioned me and Kenny took the initiative and contacted Thundercat’s management. All the stars kind of aligned and next thing we know, we’re in a California studio recording.
Is it the same thing with someone like Solange?
Solange occupies a world of her own, and I always find that really interesting. Artists, such as Solange, Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar are in an avant-garde space that isn’t really mainstream. My daughter turned me on to Solange and I became a fan with that first album Solo Star (2002).
What was it like playing at the Californian festival Coachella?
It was great fun. It’s a very pro-active audience. The people are there for one thing only – they want to hear you get up there and make music. It was great fun, playing live with Thundercat’s band. There’s a form to the song that we adhere to, but it’s loose at best. It becomes that thing where it’s never played the same way twice.