As Michael McDonald tours this summer and releases “Wide Open,” his first album of new original material in 17 years in September, he is getting a boost of exposure through what might seem like unlikely collaborations with younger and decidedly hip artists.
Along with long-time friend Kenny Loggins, McDonald, 65, co-wrote a new song, “Show You the Way” with Thundercat. McDonald recently joined Thundercat on stage at the Coachella Music Festival outside of Los Angeles to perform the song, gaining a ton of media coverage in the process.
That performance followed an appearance in March at Florida’s Okeechobee Music Festival alongside Solange Knowles, singing McDonald’s 1978 smash hit with the Doobie Brothers, “What A Fool Believes.” Then there was McDonald’s guest vocal turn on the studio version of the Grizzly Bear song, “While You Wait for the Others.”
It’s enough to make one wonder if this is all part of some calculated campaign to make McDonald (who has often been humorously called one of the founding fathers of the yacht rock movement for his soulful, soft rock balladry of the 1970s and ’80s) cool for today’s young record-buying audience.
McDonald, calling in for a recent interview, however, said nothing could be further from the truth. His recent collaborations were events of opportunity that pretty much fell into his lap.
The co-write on “Show You the Way” happened after Loggins had approached the genre-jumping Thundercat (real name Steve Bruner) after he heard about an interview where Bruner expressed his admiration for Loggins and McDonald. That grew into an invitation from Bruner to try collaborating on a song.
In the case of Solange, getting McDonald to join her at Okeechobee fulfilled a long-time dream of hers to sing “What A Fool Believes” with the artist who made the song famous.
“I don’t know how long any of this will last,” McDonald said of the renewed attention he is receiving. “My experience in the music business is everything comes in waves and things get quiet for awhile and you just kind of have to stay in touch with what your muse really is and really should be. It’s anybody’s guess what that will be five years from now.”
McDonald certainly knows about ups and downs in a career.
He first enjoyed major popularity in the late 1970s as a member of the Dobbie Brothers, singing some of the band’s most popular songs, including “Takin’ It To The Streets,” “What A Fool Believes” and “Minute By Minute.”
The Doobies broke up in 1982, and McDonald moved onto a solo career that saw considerable early success before his fortunes faded during the 1990s and he had one of those career lulls.
But then he signed to Universal Records, which suggested that McDonald make an album of covers of Motown Records hits. That album, 2003’s “Motown,” became a double-platinum hit that put McDonald back into the music spotlight in a big way.
A 2004 sequel, “Motown Two,” also did well, and in 2008 McDonald released an album of soul-rooted covers, “Soul Speak.”
Then came the nine-year stretch without a new album. The gap could have grown longer, as McDonald started writing (or co-writing) and demoing songs thinking he’d pitch them to other artists to cover.
Instead, producer/drummer Shannon Forrest, who shared a studio with McDonald, liked McDonald’s rough demos and decided to cut new drum tracks for some of the songs and have other musicians add guitars, bass and other instrumentation to the original demos. Eventually, Forrest invited McDonald to listen to the revamped tracks and McDonald agreed with Forrest’s suggestion that they had the makings of a McDonald solo album.
An early listen to “Wide Open” reveals an album that rates with McDonald’s best work as a solo artist, fitting comfortably in his soul/R&B/pop wheelhouse. There’s an unhurried quality to the album, as simmering and lush tunes like “Strong Enough,” “Hail Mary” and “Honest Emotion” unfold gracefully and set the tone. A few other songs (the funky “Find It,” the perky “Hurt Me” and the bluesy “Half Truth”) kick up the tempos and add a little edge to the proceedings, giving “Wide Open” some welcome peaks and valleys. McDonald is in fine form throughout, with his soulful burnished vocals as strong and immediately identifiable as ever.
And even though “Wide Open” won’t be out until Sept. 15, McDonald said he plans to perform quite a few songs from the album on tour this summer.
“So far, we’ve had pretty good luck with playing the new stuff live, so I think we’re going to kind of pursue that throughout the summer and hopefully really, there’s a certain thing about playing new stuff live, those little changes that happen and where you put them in the show kind of changes,” McDonald said. “I’m hoping to kind of really get up to speed with all of that stuff by the time the album comes out. So we’re going to try to play the stuff for the audiences and hopefully it will be something that’s intriguing for the audience, seeing that we haven’t had much new stuff for a long time.”
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