Michael McDonald’s still singing and writing at 65
Songwriters often make rough demos of songs, so they can remember the tune later. Singer/songwriter Michael McDonald did just that while touring for the past nine years behind his three cover albums — “Motown 1,” Motown 2” and “Soul Speak.”
But it’s a testament to his husky, emotive baritone, that while the guitar, bass and drums on his demos had to be re-recorded in more polished manner to make it onto an album, McDonald’s vocals were left alone. Perfect, as recorded.
So yes, Michael McDonald singing off the cuff, late at night, “throwing down” rough song demos was as good as Michael McDonald in a booked studio session, backed by top-notch players.
Or for that matter, singing in front of an audience, as McDonald will do Tuesday, when the 65-year-old musician plays Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights with his old friend Boz Scaggs.
Born and raised in modest circumstances in St. Louis, McDonald grew up admiring his father’s Irish tenor and absorbing soulful influences such as Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. His own voice was in a gruffer, baritone range than his dad’s even at a young age, and he learned to go with that and not try to be anyone else.
With so many shades of feeling and emotional depth to his voice, lyrics that sound trite when voiced by others gain a poetic resonance when McDonald sings. Fans have revered that voice from his days singing behind Steely Dan, with the Doobie Brothers, and on his own solo work.
On this current tour, McDonald sings several numbers that resulted from those late-night, Nashville demo sessions and will be released on his bluesy new album, “Wide Open,” set for release by BMG on Sept. 15.
Speaking by phone from a tour stop in Davenport, Iowa, McDonald explained that doing the cover albums for Motown let him accumulate new songs at his own pace.
“It was kind of a vacation,” McDonald said of those years. “It gave me time to do this album in a fashion I probably wouldn’t have done.”
Because he shared recording space in Nashville with his friend Shannon Forrest, a sound engineer and drummer (he tours with Toto), McDonald was able to use Forrest’s top-notch recording console.
“He had all this gear that he didn’t know what to do with,” McDonald said. “It was a thrill for me, because I never had a console like that or an engineer like him, not to mention, (he’s) a world-class drummer on top of that. It was an embarrassment of riches.”
After he heard how Forrest had re-recorded his drum parts on the demos, McDonald realized the tracks could be made into an album. “So we built the tracks around the vocals,” he said. Other guest musicians playing on the tracks are former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, guitarist Robben Ford, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and bassist Marcus Miller.
It’s a treat, on “Wide Open,” to hear McDonald channeling soul, blues and other influences into his own original music, after years of covers. The slow, bluesy “Strong Enough,” with a very New Orleans-brassy finish, has been getting a particularly warm reception from audiences.
In advance of the release, the singer has been on the road since spring doing solo dates, and now, amphitheater shows with Scaggs, where the two friends take turns as the opening act.
After some quiet, but productive years, it’s a busy time for McDonald, who finds himself the toast of the millennial generation (and younger).
In March, he popped up to sing and play keyboards on “What a Fool Believes” with Solange Knowles at the Okeechobee Festival in Florida. A month later, he was in the California desert, doing a set at Coachella with his longtime collaborator Kenny Loggins and bassist Stephen Bruner, best known as Thundercat.
It seems Bruner had mentioned in an interview that he was a big fan of the soul-pop Loggins and McDonald recorded in the ’80s. Loggins approached Bruner, and the three men got together to write a new song, “Show You the Way,” featuring a gorgeous melody that sounds like a lost classic from the ’80s — in a good way (the song appears on Thundercat’s album “Drunk”).
That led to the live gig at Coachella, where they performed it, as well as — what else — “What a Fool Believes.”
“He’s really an amazingly talented kid,” McDonald said of Bruner. “As an instrumentalist, obviously, but as a songwriter, he’s got a different thing. And that song is just one tiny aspect of what he does. In a very natural way, he pulls from so many traditional influences that I’m not even sure he’s aware that he’s absorbed. He just seems to be a fountain of all the music that’s ever been.”
Is it that younger musicians see McDonald with fresher eyes? On the video shot at Coachella, you can hear the audience erupt when that big, soulful voice lifts off over the music in a solo.
“In a lot of ways,” McDonald agrees. “That’s the case with each generation, they have a fresher look at all forms of traditional music. That’s all we were doing, too; growing up, restating the influences we had, from gospel music through early rock ‘n’ roll to jazz. It was coming out in ways that were more subconscious than conscious. That’s where new music comes from, I think, a reissuing of the things that are inside of us and have been for generations.
“Some of Thundercat’s ballads, the melodies remind me of a beautiful samba. I’m sure he didn’t sit around listening to sambas as a kid, it just kind of comes through him.”
McDonald also made the rounds of Coachella with his daughter, Scarlett (he also has a grown son, with wife Amy Holland), who introduced him to newer musicians such as Father John Misty, and McDonald enjoyed listening to their music driving back from Coachella, after seeing them live. Absorbing so much music reminded him of his college days, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment, and listening to their new albums all night.
“If you’re not careful, you don’t put yourself in those positions where you hear music in an environment where it’s going to really profoundly impact you,” he mused. “You hear it in more in passing, and you tend to pay less attention. When you’re younger, you’re in those kind of positions more, you’re with your friends. So my daughter is good for me in that way.”
With his own music, McDonald is relaxed about his songwriting. “I try not to get into that head space where I’m making it work or making it too much of a conscious effort,” he said. “Keep it in the realm of the subconscious, where it’s likely I might absorb something musically that will keep my interest.”
What really piques his interest, musically, is playing live. “I’ve come to love playing live more than recording,” McDonald admits. “I was enamored of recording when I was younger. Now, I like it when it’s going well, but I really hate it when it’s not. I’d much rather sing in front of an audience than sing in a studio, any day.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.
Boz Scaggs & Michael McDonald
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre
Freedom Hill, Sterling Heights
Tickets: $30-$99.50, available at Livenation.com, The Palace Ticket Store and all Ticketmaster locations, or call (800) 745-3000.