Michael McDonald: A Conversation in Lockdown Times

The legendary songwriter-singer discusses songs, songwriting, Steely Dan, Doobies, and his new recordings of classic songs such as “What The World Needs Now” and “What’s Going On.”

That the man possesses one of the greatest and most distinctive voices to grace popular music has been well-established for decades. It is a sound unlike any other – rich, poignant and deeply soulful. It’s a sound many of us first heard in the background vocals on great Steely Dan tracks, such as “Peg” – in which he sang all the parts. (Which, as he says in the following, remains one of his hardest singing jobs ever, due to the close and complex Becker-Fagen harmony parts).

Then he joined the Doobie Brothers, replacing founding member Tom Johnston, at which time we all learned quickly that the man writes songs as distinctive and soulful as his singing. The sophisticated soul of his songs, such as “What A Fool Believes” (co-written with Kenny Loggins), “Taking It To The Streets,” “Minute By Minute” and others both transformed and expanded the sound of the Doobies, as it did the sound of pop radio at the time.

Since then he’d done many great solo albums, and more. And when the man signs a cover, and brings that soulful sound, there’s nothing much better, such as his duet with Phoebe Snow on “Knock On Wood,” or with his wife  Amy Holland on Louise Goffin’s great “Bridge Of Sighs.”

He’s being inducted, along with Tom Johnston and his fellow Doobie Brothers, into the Rock Hall of Fame this year. The original plan was for the band to go out on tour this summer, but since the pandemic has changed all that, Michael has been working on music at home in Northern California. His newest album of originals Wide Open came out in 2017, and he’s working on a new project recording classic songs, all designed to speak to this moment in time. His voice and songs have always been healing, but now especially, in times of fear and chaos, it’s an especially calming and hopeful sound.

Part of that magic is that we connect that voice to happy, carefree moments in our life, such as those summer nights seeing him and the Doobies, everyone dancing under the moon. It’s something he understands in a big way, as he reaches back to the soulful music of his St. Louis youth. He’d been noticing the unique power of certain classic songs to resonate with a current moment better than anything else. Two of these stood out to him to share during these lockdown times, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Bacharach and David’s “What The World Needs Now (Is Love Sweet Love).”

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All of which and more we covered in this new talk we had over the phone, like all interviews right now, here in this singular Spring of 2020.

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: We’re so happy to talk with you. You’re not only one of the great songwriters – but one of the greatest vocalists ever in recorded music. Your voice is unlike all others, and is a sound we so love to hear.

MICHAEL McDONALD: Thanks. I appreciate that. When it’s there, the voice, it’s good. It isn’t always there. I guess everybody goes through that. And I’m lucky that I don’t go through it more. But on any given night there’s sometimes when it isn’t all the way there.

I was listening to something the other night, a live track that I found and I could tell it was one of those nights. It made me cringe a little bit. I’m always grateful when it’s there to any degree.

When we first heard it in a big way was on Steely Dan records. Especially on the song “Peg” from Aja. And that is such a delicious sound, you doing all those parts. Becker & Fagen’s use of your voice and your talent really added a whole other dimension in their music.

Yeah. And it was really Donald [Fagen] who brought to my attention that, as far as recording with myself, doing all the backgrounds and then doubling each part, is a great sound. But not easy to do!

Because whenever you double backgrounds in a background session, when you’re singing with other singers, it always sounds better, but there’s something very ethereal about, and I think this goes for anyone really, not just me, but when anyone doubles many parts of their own voice.

I did it a lot on demos and that’s why I was kind of used to it, but I never quite inverted the parts the way Donald has done on “Bad Sneakers.” It was kind of an epiphany for me that doing that could create a texture and a sound that was unique.

The secret to that is doing all the parts with one person, and then that person doubling those parts. It’s going to take on a certain kind of phasing and an ethereal nature that you’re not going to get if it’s just different people singing with you.

And Donald and Walter, knowing sonics better than most, seem to really recognize that your voice has a special quality. We could understand why they wanted that sound on their records. It adds a warmth and vigor that is powerful. And especially to have you sing all the parts. Though I can imagine how hard that was.

Yeah. I kind of cheated on that session for “Peg.”

I told Donald, “Man, let me just do the parts without hearing the last part I did.” Because the harmonies were so close together, and not being a really trained vocalist in a formal sense, it was tough. It’s not that I didn’t understand the harmony theory of it, but I didn’t have the skill to sing up against my own voice a half step away, or even a whole step away, without having it confuse my sense of pitch.

So I just did each part without hearing any of the other parts. [Donald] would give me the part and I would sing it, and then double it, and then we heard it all together after I did all the parts and doubled them.

That was the first time we actually heard the backgrounds, after I’d done all that. And it was interesting. I think everybody was happy how it turned out.

It’s very special. And they mixed it in a way that it really features your voice too. You could really hear your soul coming through. It’s such a soulful sound, yet so individual to you. Growing up, were there singers you loved that shaped your singing?

I had really picked up so many stylistic things from growing up singing the Top 40in clubs. Back when I was a teenager and I was in some of the more popular bands in the St. Louis metropolitan area. We felt we were embroiled in a competition, if you will, to who sounds the most like the record. So we would learn all the Top 40 music from the day. And early on I learned that you don’t want to try to imitate anyone, because the audience doesn’t buy that. But if you can understand the phrasing and the sensibilities of the singer on the record, then you can come a lot closer to helping the band actually sound like the record more.

That was the thing to do when you’re a popular Top 40 band in a metropolitan area. People come to hear you because they want that; they say, “Wow, you sound like the Beach Boys!” Or “Wow, they sound like the Four Seasons!” Or “Wow, you sound like Aretha!” Or Satchmo, or Sam & Dave.

I was always learning from these singers, the nature of their phrasing, to make our performance of those songs feel closer to the record and more realistic. So I grew up doing that. And from that I came away with a lot of those sensibilities. My style is an amalgam of many, many singers that I grew up listening to.

You mentioned Aretha and Sam & Dave. That makes sense as there’s so much soul in your singing. Especially for a white guy. You don’t sound like Perry Como.

[Laughs] The band I was for the longest time was Jerry Jay and the Sheratons. We were, believe it or not, a 13- piece group. We had a six-piece horn section and a rhythm section. And it was a great dance band, a really  good band. We would play dance and R&B music for the most part. Soul music was always popular, but on the radio it was the British invasion morphing into the acid music in the West Coast.

So we were these guys with Bruni haircuts and [inaudible 00:08:01] like 13 of us. And playing kind of like dance music from, the people kind of like to dance to from Memphis and [inaudible 00:08:11] records, something like that that were more traditional soul bands.

We loved The Doobies before you joined the band. You so transformed that band. Similar to how Fleetwood Mac was transformed when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined, which changed the sound of the band profoundly. Your songs, and your voice and playing with them was phenomenal – but different for them. Was that an easy transition for them to make, and for you?

Well, it happened fairly naturally. And I really can’t take credit for the whole metamorphosis that the band went through at the time. I mean, I was part of it. But really I think it had more to do with the absence of Tom Johnson than anything else, because he was such a strong influence and such a strong provider of original music for the band. Him and Pat pretty much were the main writers for the band. So Pat was still in place. But even Pat was getting pretty experimental at that point in time. He was starting to write things that had more of a jazz flavor. Up to that time, he’d written stuff that was more a kind of Delta Blues or folk rock or classic rock kind of stuff.

“South City Midnight Lady” was a beautiful guitar ballad. His styles were very diverse all along. He always contributed a slack key guitar piece, instrumental. But then when I joined the band, it seemed like it was between Jeff Baxter, myself and Pat. It was a kind of a collective, and we thought, “Where do we go from here without Tommy?”

So it was more by default than by intention. We just went into this jazz, R&B and pop kind of thing because it’s kind of what we knew. Pat was willing to explore on his own, with his own writing. So the band morphed collectively more than just because of one person.

From the outside we heard the sound of your voice and your songs at the heart of this guitar-oriented band. “What A Fool Believes” was the first we heard, which is such a pianistic sounding song, not something a guitarist would write, with all those alternate bass notes on the chords. Was that song an easy fit for them?

Yeah. I’ve been lately kind of moving towards learning some of my own songs on guitar. And it’s an interesting transition for me. I find that you’d have to think differently and there’s a way to do it and it’s always interesting how that works out. I tend to think of it the chords and the chord progressions differently playing them on guitar than on piano.

They look one way to me on the piano. Typically I think in terms of not so much what the chord really is, but what the chord is if I break it down in my own head. Which is easier for me to think of on piano.

Like if I’m going to play a G chord with a D in the bass or an F in the bass. I look at the top on my right hand as just a simple triad, and the bass is dictating what the chord actually is in many cases, what the left hand is. I don’t really think of it as like a G-11 or flat-nine. I’ll think of it as an F minor-major seven over a G in the bass.

It’s weird. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. But because I was never really formally trained on piano, I tend to kind of think that way because that’s how I taught myself with the bass-lines and the chords. So learning them on guitar has kind of proven to be an eye-opening experience.

Yeah, because that’s much harder to do on a guitar. Almost impossible. Though, of course, Skunk Baxter can do it easily, as he did with Steely Dan. Do you recall what it was like when you brought “What A Fool Believes” to them? Was it tough for them to get it right?

No, not really. When I wrote the song, I was thinking of some of the older Pop and R&B things from Motown that I liked, and some of the old Four Seasons records that I liked. And I thought, that would be interesting for the band. Because we had been kind of bravely going into this vintage pop mode sometimes with some of the other songs we’d done. And so this just seemed like a kind of a continuation of that. We experimented with old gospel feels and stuff.

When I went to the band with the song, I said, “I kind hear this as like an old Four Seasons record, like a `Walk Like a Man’ or a Sherry.”

And then there’s an old Motown song, years back [by The Four Tops], called “Sweet Understanding Love.” And it has that lilting piano figure. And I thought that there’s a way we could make a record like that. It was my effort to write a song that would fit that kind of description. And even in the production value, recording it, I remember Teddy at one point pulled out a piece of plywood and put it on the studio floor and we all stomped on it, four on the floor with our feet, just to make it sound like the old Four Seasons record.

You wrote “What A Fool Believes” with  Kenny Loggins. Was that written while you were in the Doobies or before that?

Yeah. I was in the Doobies at the time. Kenny came down from Santa Barbara. That was the first song we wrote together.

Did you intend it to be a song for you with the Doobies?

Well, yeah. It was a little piece of the song that I had laying around. I mean every time I played it with Ted [Templeman, producer], he would go, “Man, you got to finish that. That’s just it. I’m telling you.” And I would go, “Yeah, I will. I will. I just got to figure out where it’s going to go.”

Even when Kenny and I decided to get together and write, I kind of played it in the morning. And oddly enough, the way that actually worked out was I was playing things for my sister at my house. She had come to visit. I had never met Kenny before. He was coming down. We made this day to write.

So as I was playing some things for my sister, and I said, “I’m thinking of playing Kenny this. What do you think of this?”

She said, “Yeah, that sounds good. Whatever.

The doorbell rang and I go to the door and it was Kenny. I said, “Hey, man, come on in. I’m glad you made it down okay.”

And he said, “Man, before I say anything else, you were just playing something on the piano. Is that new?”

I said, “Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was playing it in anticipation of thinking about playing it for you.”

He said, “That’s what I want to work on. Let’s go right into that.”

He liked the feeling and the piano figure and everything. So we did. And then within two days we wrote the song.

Before today I hadn’t heard Aretha’s version of it. I wondered if she would do it well. And yes, she so does.

Oh, yes, yes. No doubt about it.

You also wrote  “Minute by Minute,” then, another hit for The Doobies. Just the piano intro on that alone blew us away. It’s amazing. Also pianistic – super fast but so complex.

It’s simpler than it sounds. It has that groove where it feels like it’s kind of competing, time-wise. But it emulates a lot of things I’ve heard on old gospel records. It’s really on the upbeat, so you don’t really get where one is until the song starts and drops in.

One of my favorite covers ever you did was when you were in the Dukes of September with Donald Fagen, and did “Knock On Wood” with Phoebe Snow. Her voice was also so amazing, and the two of you together on that is so great.

Yeah. I miss Phoebe. She was a sweet gal. She was a very funny girl. Yeah, we had a great song for sure.

Also, the duet you did with your wife Amy Holland on “Bridge of Sighs,” which Louise Goffin wrote, is so great. It’s a great song, and the two of you on it was really beautiful.

That is a great song. I’ve always loved that song from when I heard her record of it. I was always looking for the chance to do a cover of that and this was the perfect opportunity.

Speaking of classic songs, I love your current project of recording great songs. Your version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is great. And as you said, it’s amazing how certain songs from the past resonate with present times so powerfully. That’s a perfect example, especially when you sing it like that. As is “What The World Needs Now” by Bacharach and David.

Yeah, vocal songs, “What the World Needs Now” and “What’s Going On.” We’ve played them quite often live because it’s hard to beat that. They’re both just beautiful prayers for peace. And that’s the subject matter that can condemn the times, especially times of nationalistic fervor, and people thinking that the U.S. should beat the rest of the world over the head with its own philosophy of things.

And basically what we’ve got to remember is that we really should be leading the charge on promoting good will and peace and understanding. Because that is our strength. That’s what’s always made us great. And when we start thinking that it’s other things that made us great beyond that, we start to lose our way.

I agree. And at times like this when people are not sure what’s real and they’re scared, to hear a song and a singer like you, that’s real. It’s undeniable. So this helps right now so much in a healing way.

Well, thanks, I appreciate that. Yeah, these are interesting times. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise that none of us would have done for ourselves. Unfortunately for some people it’s very desperate times  financially, and the rest of us got to remember that.

Yeah. A lot of musicians especially are really hurting because they have no gigs right now. And music folks of all kinds, in studios, on tours, teaching. All of it.

Yeah. And it’s kind of hard to, of course, with all the people who are hurting, to realize that there are certain things we’ve got to do to beat this thing, and keep it from really ravaging humanity anymore than it already has.

But at the same time we have to understand each other and how so many of us live paycheck to paycheck. And I know what that’s all about. I grew up that way. And in many ways, people that have built a certain amount of personal wealth for themselves, it’s a house of cards. It takes one year where all of a sudden all your work disappears. You realize you’re living paycheck to paycheck, too, whether you like to admit it or not.

So it’s kind of scary. But at the same time, it’s probably important for us in the way these things happen providentially, where we’re all starting to get in touch with ourselves in a way we wouldn’t have done without this. We’re getting in touch with each other and realizing what is actually important.

One last question. If you had to just choose a song that you didn’t write as an example of a great song, what comes to mind? Is there one?

Well, yeah. I’m kind of a sucker for some of the songs that were written in the early Sixties. I love Brenda Lee and Etta James, some of those songs I love a lot. “I’m Losing Me” is one of those Brenda Lee songs I always love to play at the piano when I’m just sitting by myself.

It’s a pretty song. Also, Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am.” I love that song. And every time I hear that record, I have to crank it up. Those are songs I love to sit around and mess around with at the piano and kind of reharmonize and stuff like that.

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