The singer-songwriter discusses his latest album Wide Open.
Singer Michael McDonald
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Singer-songwriter Michael McDonald is back to talk about “Wide Open”, his first set of original material in nearly 17 years.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Michael McDonald coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: I am always just beyond tickled when singer-songwriter Michael McDonald, one of my favorites, shows up on this stage. The Ferguson, Missouri native has just released his first set of all original material in nearly 17 years. It’s called “Wide Open”. Michael McDonald, I am honored, my friend, to have you back on this program.
Michael McDonald: Thanks, Tavis. Great to be back.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. Where you been [laugh]? I’ve seen you in that 17 year period.
McDonald: At my age, that’s a loaded question, yeah.
Tavis: I’ve seen you, of course, in that 17-year period, but it’s hard to believe 17 years since an album of all original stuff.
McDonald: That’s right, yeah. Well, that’s the issue, I guess. I mean, in fact most of this stuff was written during the time I did the three Motown records on the Motown record label, so…
Tavis: You sold a few of those [laugh].
McDonald: Yeah, it gave me a chance to kind of catch up with my writing a little bit.
Tavis: Does writer’s block ever set in for you, or you’ve never had that?
McDonald: Every day [laugh], every day. It’s a kind of an ongoing thing with me, you know. You know, I can take four years to write a song and I think I have, actually.
Tavis: What’s that about with you? Like is that just your way? It just takes a little longer or…
McDonald: Yeah. I think it’s just my way of doing things. I’ve actually had people get mad at me that I wrote with over the years because I just take longer than I probably should. But what I’ve found was and the reason I do that is, even with some of the songs of this record, songs I started eight years ago, I was changing lines as we were mixing the thing and jumping out and, you know, punching in vocal lines.
I mean, not that often, but I do it enough. And it always seems like that song just wasn’t quite written until that moment in the way that I would have liked it to have been written. Would it really make a difference or would anybody know the difference but me? I don’t know. But it seems like, you know, I’m a firm believer with songs that they’re finished when they’re finished.
Tavis: Yeah. I told my team you took long enough that vinyl came back [laugh].
McDonald: That’s the movie.
Tavis: That’s how long you been out, that vinyl’s back in now.
McDonald: And don’t we love that?
Tavis: We do love it. What do you make of the fact that, in your career, you’ve seen this stuff come and go and come again?
McDonald: Well, I think vinyl is back because it’s still a relevant medium, you know. I think it still sounds better than — in some ways, digital sounds better and digital’s come a long way and it’s really neck and neck. But I think there are certain things about vinyl…
McDonald: Not the least of which is beautiful harmonic distortion. We were used to that, you know. So I think — and there’s also the third dimension with vinyl because it’s analog. So we mixed this record. We did it as much analog all the way as we could and, when we mixed, we mixed actually two analog tape and digital medium. The engineer sat me down. He said, “Now, listen to both mixes.”
The digital mix was beautiful. When he put on the analog mix, the half-inch tape, I could actually hear the drums reflect off the back wall and that’s something you don’t get with digital. Your brain fills that in, but you don’t really hear it. You get strictly right and left and your brain fills in the rest. It puts the dimension to it.
Tavis: Tell me about the decision to call it “Wide Open”.
McDonald: You know, I think for me initially what it meant was I’d often thought that there was all kinds of music that I wrote that I didn’t normally do. You know, typically with the Doobies, my job when I kind of got to be at least familiar to any audience, was as a keyboard player with the Doobie Brothers.
I don’t really play guitar that well, but I always wrote on guitar as much as keyboards. I even played guitar in a band not well, but when I was a kid. So I always felt that there was an area of my writing that I didn’t really make records with, you know. So this record, I kind of made a concerted effort to figuring, hey, this could be my last, for all I know. I want to put it all out there.
Tavis: What is that arena or that avenue that you tapped into that you hadn’t written from that space?
McDonald: I think mostly just music I wrote on guitar that seems to take on a different chordal harmonic structure. You know, they’re all different vehicles for me as a songwriter, you know. A keyboard allows me to do certain musically that I don’t play guitar well enough to do, and yet vice versa.
A guitar allows me to approach a song in a different way that is hard to do on piano or keyboards. You know, I’m one of those — like the old saying — I do it all, but none of it that well [laugh].
Tavis: You’re being a little too modest, I think. Obviously, we’ve had this conversation so many times over the years. You know I’m a huge Doobie Brothers fan, a huge Michael McDonald fan.
I was so tickled and it was so cool just to see how people appreciate your work and how the generations appreciate your work. I saw you kill at Coachella and that stuff’s on YouTube everywhere. But I was really tickled to see Solange performing with you, “What A Fool Believes”.
Tavis: That must have been cool hanging out with…
McDonald: Oh, it was amazing. You know, I knew she was on the bill and my daughter calling me constantly that day. “I’m at rehearsal. I can’t…” She goes, “Have you seen her yet?” “I don’t know that I will.”
And the next thing I know, one of the guys in the band I was rehearsing with said, “Oh, I know Solange. She’s a fan of your music. You should get her up to sing on something.” I said, “Well, I’d love her to come up.”
So, apparently, they went and mentioned it to her and she was sweet enough to come out and we rehearsed “What A Fool Believes” and she killed it, you know. I was a here with my daughter [laugh] for at least a week [laugh].
Tavis: The things that your kids will go for, yeah. You hang out with Solange and dad is a hero for a few days.
McDonald: Yeah, dad was it for a while.
Tavis: We all saw you talking to my assistant, Danny Miles Davis. I saw you talking to Danny. Danny is from Missouri, you’re from Missouri, and you guys were chatting about the fact that of you guys lived in Ferguson. You’re from Ferguson.
McDonald: I am from Ferguson.
Tavis: And Danny, at one point, lived in Ferguson, being from St. Louis. I haven’t talked to you about this, but so much has happened since then and so much sadly continues to happen between cops and citizens. That’s not to demean all cops, of course, but how have you processed all of this stuff over the last few years, given that you are from Ferguson?
McDonald: Well, it’s really caused me think more widely about my experience growing up there, you know. You know, in this country, people are exposed to so little of what really goes on with everyone in this country.
When I grew up in St. Louis, this country was in a state of apartheid, you know. It was the 50s, you know. You wouldn’t have seen a Black person walk down the main street. And I realized that I remembered being a kid when I was like maybe four or five.
Some of my earliest recollections were, you know, God, are they gonna drop the bomb? Because we all heard about the bomb. And wrestling with the idea of, well, what if I’d been born Black? You know, what if? It was 50-50 as far as I could tell. There’s no prerequisite. You either are or you’re not.
And I struggled with, you know, what does a Black kid do on like a day like today? Who would I know in my family or who would even speak to me? Who would I cross paths with? Could I walk into the Dairy Queen? Sounds silly, but…
Tavis: No, not silly at all.
McDonald: But when you realize that here’s a four-year-old kid — it made me realize that there’s something amazing about the fact that when we’re that young, we see the injustice in it. We understand that there’s something wrong and it’s something that adults should be able to fix.
Tavis: Well, your generation was supposed to fix all this. Your generation was supposed to not pass on racism…
McDonald: That’s right. Isn’t that the truth? We really believed that we would be the generation that didn’t burden the next generation with racism and needless hatred and toxic fear, you know. Because that kind of hatred is only based on ignorance and toxic fear.
I don’t care what you say, how you try to describe it, how you try to rationalize it. That’s all it is, you know. We are all in this together and this whole thing about America Great Again, you know, America wasn’t so great for a lot of people. America is on the road to living up to its own Constitution and I have every belief that it will.
You know, in times like we’re going through right now are as turbulent as they’ve ever been. I believe these are the growth spurts that are leading us to greatness, you know. I like to believe that, anyway, and I think that it’s important that we stay aware of that and we remember that we have to have open discussion.
It’s like when my wife says to me, “Mike, I’m worried about us. We don’t talk much anymore. You get out on the road and we call and we make small talk. We’re married and we should stay intimate. We should stay connected.”
And I say something like, “Well, you know, somebody’s got to pay the bills and I’m out here working for good reason. When I get home, I got to mow that lawn. Hey, I’m glad you have time to sit around and think about all this stuff, but I got to work.”
Really, all that is is I’m afraid to talk. I’m afraid to have that conversation. I don’t really want to be that intimate or that serious in our conversation because it’s something I’m not sure of. I don’t even know why I’m afraid of it.
But that’s how we are as Americans. We instantly go to these sound bites that we’ve conditioned to believe. It’s like the kids who are going down on one knee in the NFL. What more applaudable way to protest peacefully is there, really?
You’ve got guys kicking out hotel windows shooting innocent people because they’re [bleep] off about something, protesting something. We don’t know what that is yet. Timothy McVeigh protesting the government blows up innocent people. People shooting doctors in…
Tavis: Health clinics.
McDonald: Health clinics, you know. I much prefer what these kids are doing. They’re not risking anything but their own livelihoods because they believe the truth is that important. I admire them, you know. I think we all should. I think our flag does not just represent the military. It represents freedom for all Americans. That’s what the people in our services have died for. That’s what Americans have died on.
You know, generations of their family died on the streets of this country to protect my freedom and your freedom and our civil rights. We should not turn back the hands of time. We should not fall asleep at the wheel.
We should move forward and, however uncomfortable it is to discuss that, we should embrace it. I think that it was brilliant. How much power was in that protest that grabbed the attention of the nation without hurting anyone, but potentially their own livelihoods? They were willing to risk that.
It’s important that we understand what these young men are trying to say and not, all of a sudden, jump to conclusions about their disrespect. And we’re being guided in this free-for-all of who’s disrespecting who by a guy who has no business criticizing anyone about disrespecting the military, of all things.
Here’s a guy that, you know, made fun of John McCain’s POW status, dissed a Gold Star family whose son died in the service of this country. Who the hell is he to criticize anyone else’s means of trying to bring our attention to what they believe is an important truth?
Tavis: You said a whole lot there that I want to go back and pick up some of that. Let me start with this. I am fascinated by — fascinated is the wrong word because what I love about you is that you’re always open. What I’m trying to juxtapose is whatever that — I don’t want to call it…you said fear, so let’s go with fear.
Whatever that fear or hesitation is when your wife says, Michael, let’s talk about X, Y or Z, whatever that is, I don’t hear that in your lyrical content. What I’ve loved about you all these years is that you are as open and as frank and as transparent about your writings. So where does the courage come to do that?
McDonald: Well, I always wished I was more that way. I did really honestly, consciously hope that this record would be a little more honest and even songs I’ve written in the past because I’ve always written in the third person.
And a lot of times, it’s easier to write those things down than it is to actually have the conversation one on one, you know. I find that it’s much easier for me to be honest emotionally in a songwriting sense than it is with the people I love the most, that I’m the closest to.
That’s always been a hard thing for me. I think I just grew up in an era and a time and in a familial situation. My family, you know, we didn’t hear a lot of I love you around and we took it for granted that we all loved each other.
Tavis: Sure. I get that, sure.
McDonald: You know, it was a different time.
Tavis: Yeah, I get that.
McDonald: You know, in our family, sarcasm was king and I was a shrinking violet [laugh]. I couldn’t keep up with them. I wasn’t that witty. So songwriting became my…
Tavis: I’m laughing because I know this would never work, but I guess the answer to your wife when she says, Michael, let’s talk about X, Y or Z, say, “Honey, I’ll write you a song. Let me write a song about it [laugh]”. Somehow, I don’t think she’s gonna go for that.
McDonald: No, she doesn’t go for that [laugh]. But, you know, it’s always been a thing that’s fascinated me about not just myself, but all people. It’s so hard for us to have the conversations we need to have the most, you know.
Tavis: And it makes sense. I’m connecting these things in my own mind because you’re right about that. If we are afraid to have these conversations in intimate, personal spaces, then it’s not a quantum leap to understand why the other issues you raised…
McDonald: As a nation, yeah, you got that right.
Tavis: There you go, about why the country can’t have these conversations.
McDonald: Yeah. There are certain areas that they’re just hot buttons that, all of sudden, we run to our — whatever it is — our go-to arguments about instead of just listening to each other. And the funny thing is, I know we all at the bottom of it and at the heart of it, we want the country to be better.
We want the country to be great. We want the country to be what people have died for. Like I say, not just on foreign shores, but on the streets of this very nation, people have shed blood for the freedoms that the Constitution guarantees all Americans.
Tavis: The other thing I want to go back to is — and I’ve joked with you before many times about this. I have my list of the top 10 most soulful white guys who ever lived, and Michael McDonald is on the top of that list. You got to throw in Kenny Loggins. You got to throw in — don’t get me started. You got to throw in Elton John, Hall & Oates. There’s a bunch that you got to throw in there.
But you are on the top of this list, which is fascinating for me to hear you now explain and to share what it was like being a white kid growing up in that era, in that part of the world, and yet you come out, one of the most soulful white guys to ever sing. How did that happen?
McDonald: Well, I think St. Louis — and Daniel…
Tavis: Did Michael McDonald just give Danny a shout-out? Did I just see that? Did Danny just get a shout-out [laugh]?
McDonald: The regional music of our era, of Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, was African American influenced music. I mean, we grew up listening to that. And that’s another thing that I always found kind of funny is, you know, when we talk about Italian food, we refer to it as Italian food, because it’s obviously comes from Italy, and French food, you know.
And when we talk about what is largely African American influence on our culture, we call it American. Because it didn’t come from anywhere. It happened here.
Tavis: Right [laugh].
McDonald: But it’s largely African American.
Tavis: I take your point, yeah.
McDonald: The food we eat, the music we listen to. You know, everything about what we are culturally as Americans, the real art that comes from America largely came out of the African American community, that we can actually call American, you know.
Tavis: How did you feel then — you had three Motown projects?
Tavis: I have all of them and love them all. How did you feel then on a nightly basis traveling around the country singing the music of your era and the music that obviously came out prior to your era? But how did it feel doing three Motown records?
McDonald: Oh, it was great fun, you know. It almost made it hard for me to do this record because largely those three Motown records were just a great deal of fun. Even some of the workload wasn’t so heavy on me because I wasn’t producing it.
Even some of the tracks, although I had input along the way in preproduction and did some keyboard over-dubs in the end, we were always in touch. But I wasn’t really grunting in the trenches when the tracks were being cut. I went over to Europe to do the vocals and stuff, so it was kind of an easy duty for me. You know, I love the music, so there was just nothing that wasn’t fun about it.
The only thing that might not have been fun was we really wanted to keep some of the songs in the original keys. You know, there were a couple of times I went, “Hey, damn, this guy was 19 when he sang this song. I’m 57” or whatever I was at the time. But, you know, we got through it and then it was just always fun playing them alive. Because, you know, it’s electric. People, they love that music.
Tavis: Let’s talk about the content. I want to circle back to your new project, “Wide Open”. Talk to me about the content on this project.
McDonald: As far as…
Tavis: The songs. What people are going to hear when they put this on.
McDonald: You know, it’s funny. In hindsight with a lot of the songs, when I wrote them even up until the time we mixed the record, I don’t think I was even all that aware of what they meant personally. I always have a habit of like taking some kind of a personal thought or emotional concept and putting it into a framework that I think people will easily relate to. It typically is man and a woman, that kind of thing.
But like a song like “Hail Mary”, there’s probably more of my own inner feelings in that song not necessarily having to do with a man and a woman so much as just that feeling of being this age. You know, I’m surprised that…
okay with that, you know. Then you realize that you’re still in there somewhere…
into the end zone one more time, even if it’s only in your mind. And that’s kind of, for some reason, it catches us by surprise at this age. You know, when I was making this record, I still had all the drive and passion to get together with my friends and make music and catch that take on the fly.
Even though I was also the guy driving in the left-hand lane at 40 miles an hour with my blinker stuck on [laugh], there’s no getting around that. Or the guy you don’t want to encounter in the parking lot. But nonetheless, I still like to rock and roll and hit a groove. So in a way, that song is kind of about that for me too. You know, that old Hail Mary pass, you know.
Tavis: I got stuck on this track, “Blessing in Disguise”. Tell me about that.
McDonald: Well, that was a song — the music was originated by John Peppard, an Irish buddy of mine. He lives in England now, but great songwriter. He’s written with Garth Brooks and people like that. He would always come over to town, and it’s funny. My mother and an aunt, they were like a boardinghouse.
You know, guys that I knew from out of state and when I lived in California or when we all lived in Tennessee, would stay at their house because they would offer their spare room to everyone. So John loved coming over and staying, but we wrote a lot together. You know, I kind of worked with Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bernie Chiaravalle on that song.
You know, we kind of developed the idea. It seemed like the music just had a kind of an anthemic feel to it and that the idea of looking at life as a big picture. I think all of us can, to a man, at some point, if you live long enough, you realize that all the worst things that ever happened to me turn out to be the best things that ever happened to me.
Tavis: A blessing in disguise, yeah.
McDonald: Yeah. You know, they’re always that blessing in disguise if you live through it. There’s always something to be learned, you know, and that never stops. Branford Marsalis…
Tavis: Branford plays on it, yeah. Well, you have been a blessing to all of us, your music has been, and not in disguise. Out in the wide open, you’ve been a blessing to all of us, and that is the name of the new project from Michael McDonald.
It’s called “Wide Open”, his first new project of all original stuff in 17 years. If you’re a Michael McDonald fan like I am, you are going to love it. Michael, thank you. I love you, man. Good to have you back on the program.
McDonald: Tavis, thanks for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure, brother. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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