One of the world’s most distinctive singing voices, Michael McDonald is often imitated but never duplicated (although Justin Timberlake has come close on “The Tonight Show” to comedic effect, as has actor John Viener on “Family Guy”). He’s had enough humility over the years to freely blend that voice with others’, whether as a member of Steely Dan, a Doobie Brother, as a highly successful solo artist and songwriter, a member of the supergroup the Dukes of September or, most recently, reaching the Coachella generation as a celebrated co-star on Thundercat’s indie hit “Show You the Way.” Fans who’ve wanted to hear that 50,000-watt clear channel of a voice all by itself have had to bide their time—not just minute by minute, but year by year—waiting for McDonald to reclaim a solo spotlight.
Enter Wide Open, McDonald’s first new album in nine years, and his first set of all-original material since 2000. McDonald has nonetheless remained relevant through the early 21st century; he received his 13th Grammy nomination for Motown, a platinum-selling tribute to the greatest of all soul labels. He subsequently released a top 10-charting sequel, Motown Two along with a Christmas album, both of which certified as Gold Records. Following came Soul Speak, a collection of classic covers and a handful of original songs. But Wide Open finds him rediscovering his other voice—that is, his songwriting voice— in a big way, penning or co-writing 11 of the album’s 12 tracks. It’s a cogent reminder that he won Record and Song of the Year Grammys for co-writing as well as singing the Doobie Brothers hit “What a Fool Believes.” Wide Open marks a return to that classic’s emotional urgency alongside fiercer and fresher band arrangements than he’s ever created before.
In advance of a fall tour, McDonald will be premiering some of the new material on an episode of PBS’ “Soundstage.” Even before falling back into a solo touring cycle, McDonald has availed himself of other live opportunities, like participating in a traveling 40th anniversary tribute to The Band’s The Last Waltz, making a surprise appearance with Thundercat at Coachella, or inviting Solange to sing with him at the Okeechobee Festival. He also recently recorded an Etta James cover for an album saluting Muscle Shoals’ historic Fame Studios. But Wide Open is the project that finds the always-humble singer once again saluting an equally worthy muse: his own.
Was it vital to you to get an album of fresh material out after you’d had that success with the Motown albums?
I’m thrilled beyond belief that this album came about. Did I plan it? Not so much. I was in the headspace of being ready to accept whatever happened next. The hardest part was getting back in there and wrestling with my own musical ideas after doing the Motown records, which were nothing but fun. I grew up in clubs singing those songs, and it freed me of so many of the responsibilities that you’d normally have with a record, like: Are the songs good enough? That’s one thing I loved about the Motown records: You didn’t hear one A&R guy go, “I’m not sure I hear a single!” Every one of ‘em was a top five record in its day. Singing those songs was just a sheer joyous undertaking, and in some ways, way too easy. To get back in the studio and get down on a ground level with my own songs took a little bit of confidence rebuilding.
It’s easy to see how “Ain’t No Mountain (High Enough)” would be a high hurdle, if you’re comparing your own songs to those classics. So what finally got you ready to record your own stuff again?
It’s the culmination of a lot of different things that, had they not happened, this record would have never happened. I like the idea of that with every record—that it’s best when it seems like it’s a product of unintended circumstances. A lot of these tracks came out of demos that I cut while I was doing other things, like the Motown records. I was storing up ideas in the can that at the time I thought other people might do. For a number of years I was trying to be a songwriter in Nashville. I was co-oping on the studio space with a young friend of mine, Shannon Forrest, who plays with Toto and is one of Nashville’s A-list drummers. I had known him since he was a kid; his father-in-law and I were in bands together in our teens back in St. Louis. Shannon had a big SSL console that he had no place to put, and I had this house
studio with so much old gear and old keyboards in it that it was more of a warehouse. Getting that console in there all of a sudden made it a real studio. Shannon was a great engineer, as it turned out, so he kept the studio busy, and I would sneak in after hours with him and throw these demos down. Unbeknownst to me, he pulled these songwriting demo files out and started bringing in bass players and guitarists to play on them. One day he sat me down and said, “I want to play you something. I hope you don’t mind…” I didn’t, obviously, even though I was shocked. Together, we started bringing in other people. In the end, the songs have basically the same vocal from those demos, but almost everything was built up around it. I’m happy that I did it, and had I not owned that dormant studio, and not let Shannon bring that console in, this would have never happened.
So you still have elements left over from those raw demos, but you also have people the caliber of Marcus Miller, Tom Scott, Robben Ford, Warren Haynes, and Michael Landau playing on here. For starters, how did Branford Marsalis end up playing such an extensive sax part on “Blessing in Disguise”?
He’s the main voice on that throughout the song, aside from the lyric, obviously. I just met him on this project. I’ve been a fan for years, for sure. We bugged him a little to try and get him on the record and were thrilled when we succeeded. He was somewhere up the coast from Santa Barbara doing an artist-in-residence at one of the colleges up there, so we got in the car and did a road trip. He was so gracious, and it was literally one of those things where he’d play it once to learn the song, put it down a second time, and that was the take.
It would be enough to have either Warren Haynes or Robben Ford playing a guitar solo on a track, but on “Just Strong Enough,” you have both. And it’s an eight-minute track, the longest on the album, so there’s some room to stretch out. How did that song come together?
Warren Haynes and Robben Ford are both playing pretty much throughout the whole song. You’ve got two guitar players, both not knowing or hearing what the other one was doing, who just seemed to play in all the right places. But everything about “Just Strong Enough” was like that. It’s a song I wrote with Gary Nicholson and we both were dreaming that maybe Bonnie Raitt might do the song. She considered it but
it just wasn’t in the cards that she would do it on a record. As kind of a last-minute thought we went in and recorded it as a trio — myself, Willie Weeks and Shannon — just piano, bass and drums. That almost got us in trouble because it kept the song with such a nice, intimate feeling that we weren’t sure would work if we added things. Yet it seemed to hold up under the additions as it became something completely different. We added the two guitarists. We added a string section. We did one horn section. Then I gave the track to the Levee Horns, another horn section out of New Orleans, and said, “Give me something that sounds like a funeral band.” And when we pulled up all these elements that seemingly had nothing to do with each other they all worked perfectly. Not just two guitar soloists, but two different horn sections—and they all seemed to fall right in the right space without stepping on each other, like pieces of a puzzle that fell into place. I thought, “That must be providence.” I always love that feeling that a record is just kind of creating itself.
“Hail Mary” opens the album with some really dramatic chord progressions that bring out the desperation in the lyric. Your songs continue to have this great knack for capturing the obsessive part of love, going back to “What a Fool Believes.”
I kind of seem to go there more than I probably should. But those are usually the songs I write alone. [Laughs.] I never seem to be able to find a subject that I resonate with more. When it comes to world events, I love when people write well about that stuff. I feel like I’m one of those people that, if I get in the argument, I’m probably going to learn more about what I don’t know than convince anybody what I think is right. I have my own opinions, of course, and I do express ‘em from time to time and I annoy a lot of people with that on Facebook. But when it comes to songs it just seems to me that there’s almost nothing more important than how we are as human beings and reflecting on how we interact with other people.
Yet the two songs that end the album, “Too Short” and “Free a Man,” do veer into that more socially conscious area.
I was prompted to write “Too Short” because I have this real affection for that kind of lilting, syncopated, almost folkish music that comes from the West African coast. It’s about how when I have a problem and I think things aren’t going my way I don’t have to look too far to see the people who would probably trade with me in a heartbeat, who do much better than I do at being grateful and rising to the occasion. Seemingly the secret of that, and to living fully, is being of service to other people—and I say that as a person who doesn’t even like to think that, who thinks that sitting on my own couch and watching TV and eating chips would be the perfect experience. But the fact is, life has taught me that I’m never happier than when I’m having relationships where I have to consider other people and put them first. As for “Free a Man,” that was written by the Richard Stekol, who was with the group Honk, one of those bands that operated under the radar a little bit but had so many advocates among other musicians. To me, Richard was as good as Dylan and Leonard Cohen as a songwriter. The song is about the conversation all of us are having right now, about understanding that love and freedom go hand in hand, and how we choke ourselves when we would somehow restrict other people’s destinies.
In addition to your work on the Motown albums and this new record, you’ve also been recording and performing recently with younger musicians in settings where you might be considered the outlier. You sang on Thundercat’s recording “Show You the Way,” and you recently turned up with him at Coachella, performing not just that collaboration but “What a Fool Believes.”
Yeah, we played three songs together during his set, and it was great fun. Steve [Bruner, the man behind Thundercat] is an amazingly talented young guy. The whole weekend for me was a learning experience,
too. I suddenly realized there are a lot of similarities between the young bands that I haven’t had a chance to hear and what I do in a normal performance case. If I marvel at anything, its how much better these guys do it than we did. There’s a different learning curve today, with the way technology is. But watching Steve play bass, it’s almost like he’s the culmination of Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. In his own way he’s put something together that is influenced by so many of the people that came before him. I always think of stuntmen; back in the old days the big trick was falling off your horse, and now these guys are falling off 15-story buildings. It’s amazing what some of these young musicians accomplish, and Steve isone of those.
The audience at Coachella loved you, which maybe didn’t seem like a complete given going in, given the demographic. And then you did a gig at the Okeechobee Festival recently with a group that included members of Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck, where Solange showed up to sing with you. The intergenerational thing seems to be going your way.
Yeah, it’s been fun to get out and play with bands like this. I think we were around long enough ago that it’s not like we just showed up from 10 years ago, so people aren’t holding up crosses, screaming at us. [Laughs.] You know, each generation tries to disassociate itself with the last generation, and then about three decades later, people kind of start to maybe appreciate what you might have done a while back that you don’t even realize you did.
You’ve had an amazing career without ever seeming remotely careerist. You’ve seemed equally comfortable whether you were operating as a Doobie Brother or part of the Dukes of September or under your own name, and you don’t appear to place different values on sitting in with Thundercat or the Last Waltz 40 tour versus focusing exclusively on your own record.
I saw a documentary on Jaco Pastorius not too long ago. One of the things he said in the movie reallyscared me and enlightened me at the same time. He said, “You know, all I ever thought about was the next gig.” And it kind of sent a chill down my spine, because it was the truth about me that I was hearing, and I was having that moment where I didn’t know whether to worry about it or think, “Okay, if it was good enough for Jaco…” I definitely feel grateful to get the chance to make music, on this level or on any level, really. What makes me happy is the same thing that made me happy when I was 14 in a van going to some un-air-conditioned, god-awful nightclub, completely thrilled at the idea of going with my buddies to play this gig. I still feel like I’m some kid who’s found a stash of candy, and somebody’s gonna come in at any moment and grab me by the back of the neck and make me go back to school. At 65, it’s still that much fun. That’s the most I’ll ever be able to ask of it.