But by the mid-1980’s, McDonald had become a pop star thanks to songs like “Sweet Freedom,” “Yah Mo B There” and “I Keep Forgettin’.” He was a sought after session singer, and for a time it seemed like he was everywhere, crooning on records by Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, Aretha Franklin… even Joni Mitchell sang a duet with him. Comedian Rick Moranis poked fun at his seeming musical ever-presence in an amusing SCTV skit. It was a far cry from his first taste of major success with the more album-oriented bands Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. Five Grammy awards later, it’s pretty clear that pop stardom was something of a happy accident.
Which isn’t to imply that McDonald, who plays in a no-brainer split bill with Chaka Khan at CMAC in Canandaigua on Saturday, June 22, isn’t thankful for the hits. But at 67, he’s gained some perspective.
“Most of my solo records haven’t been huge successes,” he said recently over the phone, traveling to visit with friends in Nashville before beginning tour rehearsals in Detroit. “In hindsight, I’m grateful for the career I’ve had and the bands I got to play in. Had it gone down any other way, fame could’ve been a huge distraction. Now I get to travel with amazing musicians, we’re able to play medium sized venues, and it feels about right. If I was trying to keep my status as some sort of a mega pop star at this age, I think it would be very unhappy making.”
‘Yacht Rock’, a term used to pigeonhole a particular blend of soft-rock with jazzy textures and R&B vocal styling, no longer carries a negative connotation.
Despite his modest tone, McDonald has been having a bit of a moment… for the last two years. His most recent album of new material, 2017’s ‘Wide Open,’ garnered critical accolades galore. It seems that — thankfully —’Yacht Rock,’ a term used to pigeonhole a particular blend of soft-rock with jazzy textures and R&B vocal styling, no longer carries a negative connotation. McDonald is emerging victorious to a new generation, bolstered by surprise appearances with Thundercat on ‘Fallon’ and at Coachella, as well as a spot at the Okeechobee Festival where he invited Solange to sing with him.
He attributes some of the praise for ‘Wide Open’ to the slow, unintentional process by which it was made.
“Most of the tracks were cut as demos with just me and drums,” he explained, noting that his original plan was to market the songs for others to record. “Eventually the guy I’d made the demos with told me he thought I had the makings of an album, so we went with it, but some time had passed in between. The tracks got dressed up a bit here and there, but we tried to preserve the essence of those demos as best as possible. That’s always been like me through the years, too, because demos have a magical mojo that you can never find again. A lot of times I’ve found myself disappointed with a finished track because that element was lost along the way. For me, this record is about those moments and we worked hard to not lose the vulnerable quality.”
‘Wide Open’ comes after a pair of gold-selling Motown covers albums in the early aughties and ‘Soul Speak’ in 2008, which mixed covers and just a few new songs. His trademark blue-eyed soul falsetto is etched into mass consciousness, and the success of the Motown albums was proof positive that the world had not tired of hearing his instantly recognizable voice. But while he jokes about keeping up with Chaka Khan’s powerhouse pipes on the upcoming tour, (“She’s gonna kill it every night and mop the stage with my limp carcass..”), if there’s anything that troubles McDonald creatively, it’s maintaining integrity as a songwriter.
I’ve asked myself ‘who wants to hear a guy my age going on about love?’
“I’m getting older and I’ve spent time wondering — at this point — what the unique perspective is that I can bring to a song,” he said. “I’ve asked myself ‘who wants to hear a guy my age going on about love?’ I’ve had to adopt a different attitude about it and make that an inspiring thing. I’m a songwriter — this is what I’ve done and it’s what I do and maybe I’m going to have to work a little harder, but I’ll do whatever it takes to write a good song.”
Stepping up like that doesn’t come easily to McDonald, who admits he’s prone to laziness. It’s a trait widely misunderstood and maligned in our culture, but one that he sees great value in. And while it may be what tempts him to quit, in a sense, it’s also what keeps him in the game.
It’s not like I look for competition. And if you’re not looking around for it, then you don’t notice it.
“There’s a part of me that wants to count my marbles and see if I can retire and paint and surf before I get too old,” he said. “But being a musician is still a huge part of what makes my life worthwhile, as does being a parent and being a husband — the privilege of being able to work, pay my bills and provide my family with a good life. I wish I had more time to paint and surf but it’s a small price to pay for doing what I love for a living. It’s a fine line. When you get into a situation when your passion becomes something that puts you in competition with the world — worrying about where you are in the scheme of things – that’s just exhausting. I’m too lazy a person. It’s not like I look for competition. And if you’re not looking around for it, then you don’t notice it. I get to avoid broken bones and wind up smelling the roses. I’m like Ferdinand the Bull.”
Michael McDonald and Chaka Khan perform at CMAC in Canandaigua on Saturday, June 22. Doors are at 6:00 pm, show time is 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 – $150 with VIP packages available as well.
Photo credit: Timothy White