The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter talks about taking his soulful voice on tour for the 2015 holiday season.
Singer/Songwriter Michael McDonald
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with five-time Grammy winner, Michael McDonald. Later this month, the former lead singer of the Doobie Brothers will once again take his unmistakable voice on the road for the holidays with his 2015 “This Christmas” tour. He’ll also get us in the holiday spirit tonight with a special performance of a Christmas classic.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation and performance from Michael McDonald coming up right now.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Michael McDonald back to this program. The multiple Grammy winner and former lead singer of the Doobie Brothers was recently nominated for induction into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame, my man.
Though he’s been in the studio working on new material, he’s once again taking his soulful baritone voice on the road over the holidays with his “This Christmas” tour. And before we start our conversation tonight, just a taste of what this tour has to offer by taking a look at a clip of Michael lending his unmistakable voice to the Donny Hathaway classic–love it–“This Christmas”.
Michael McDonald: Another guy from St. Louis, Donny Hathaway.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another guy from St. Louis, as you said, Donny Hathaway. For me, everybody has their favorite Christmas stuff, but for me it ain’t Christmas unless I hear that. I mean, Donny Hathaway. That song is just…
McDonald: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a classic now, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. Must be something in the water in St. Louis. You, Donny Hathaway, Miles Davis.
McDonald: Well, I’m maybe on their coattails [laugh].
Tavis: You obviously still—since you’re doing it, I assume that there must be some joy you find, some sublime joy you find, in being on the road.
McDonald: Well, it’s funny because, honestly, I don’t like being on the road per se. You know, the traveling part gets old and kind of tedious, as you could imagine it would. But, you know, to play live, it’s worth it, you know, to get out and play live in front of a live audience.
That’s the thing that keeps us doing it, and it’s the great joy and the thing that makes us–I mean, you got to know how grateful I am at my age to be still going onstage [laugh], nothing I foresaw in the future for me when I was…
Tavis: What is it about that live thing as opposed to the studio thing that just gives you that sort of kinetic energy or charge, whatever it is that you get out of it?
McDonald: You know, it’s a funny thing. I’m not sure how to put that in words other than it was something I did very young and it just all of a sudden became that thing I wanted to do again and again. I couldn’t get enough of it, you know.
Unfortunately, in later years, other things came into that category [laugh], but one of the healthier ones was getting onstage and playing music. But there’s just something about it. It’s a reaction from people that you get that–I might have said this before, but I don’t know any other way to get it than to get up onstage with an instrument and play some music for them, you know.
Tavis: I’ll follow you because you went there, all jokes aside. Although you were funny when you said it, but on a serious note, how grateful do you feel? Do you ever process or think about how fortunate, how blessed, you are–my word. Doesn’t have to be yours–to still be here? Because there are a lot of folk in your era who got so strung out that they couldn’t make their way back.
McDonald: Incredibly grateful, you know. It’s funny. I don’t think I even knew what gratitude really was until I got sober, you know. I mean, I don’t think I had the capacity to really–I had an idea of what it should be and I kind of talked about gratitude back in those days, but it wasn’t really until I, I should say, was in recovery for a while that I started to really be grateful for the things that I should have been grateful for the first time around.
You know, I kind of lived in my head and I was very much that person that develops an addiction, you know, with substances and stuff. We’re just trying to feel okay in the world, you know, and I learned later that just finding a power greater than myself, so to speak, that I could feel comfortable in the world.
Then, you know, it’s almost like things start to replay in your life, like the birth of your kids and your wedding day, and things like that. Probably at the time, I was thinking, okay, God, what now? How do I handle this, you know? I never had the time to stop and go, you know, this is right now in this moment as good as life gets.
Tavis: What’s amazing about that is there are some people, as we just established, who don’t make it back and they end up dying tragically too soon. There are others who survive, but their instrument has been lost. Then there are others who experiment with these drugs at a certain point in their life and, for whatever reason, they have been favored to still have the instrument.
They still have the voice and, in your case and others I could name, it’s not just the voice, but the range is still there. To what do you attribute the fact that, for those persons like you who tried things back in the day, but came through it voice intact? That’s like an amazing blessing to me.
McDonald: You know, I was very lucky because I actually did lose my voice in that process of all that at a point in time, but I was lucky to get a second chance, you know. You know, as you mentioned, a lot of people don’t make it. It’s really the majority of people that don’t make it.
Addiction is an elephant in the living room in our midst as a society, as a culture, you know, and it’s a hard thing to talk about because, as an addict, I don’t like to talk about certain aspects of it, that I feel like it’s not my place to because I’m certainly no expert on it.
But I do believe that the consciousness, like with AIDS, like with other diseases that cost this country billions of dollars, if you just want to look at it that way from an economic standpoint, that kind of hide in the shadows. It’s not until we kind of come to terms with them and bring them out into the light that we start to actually make great strides against, as with AIDS and other diseases.
Tavis: And yet, in the midst of all that [laugh], to our great joy, you still made such great music and you won Grammy awards and you–I mean, you’ve done the Doobie Brothers thing, you’ve done the solo thing, success in both arenas. So in the midst of all that, you still had all this great music pouring out of you.
McDonald: Well, you know, yeah, we had a great run as a band and I still play with the guys from time to time. We’ve remained great friends. I think that’s one of the things I’m most grateful for is it didn’t do away with our friendships because that’s really, in the end, like a lot of things I learned in sobriety, things I thought didn’t have any idea how important they were became the most important things to me as a direct result of getting sober.
I don’t think, if you had given me a piece of paper and a pencil and asked me to list what I wanted to get out of just being sober a day at a time, that any of those things that are important to me today would have been on that list. I just didn’t have the sense to…
Tavis: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to. I’m going to ask it anyway. If you want to move on, we’ll move on. Was there a primary reason for your stepping away from the Doobie Brothers? And if so, what was it?
I ask that because, again, just like there’s some people that don’t make it back from addiction, there’s some folk who go solo and they go not just solo, they go really low. I mean, to the point like you never hear from them again because the best days they ever had were with the group and they disappear.
You didn’t have that. I mean, your friendship stayed intact, as you said, but you had great success with the group, you had great success as a solo artist, but what was the reason for your stepping away then, if you don’t mind sharing?
McDonald: You know, I’m not even sure I know myself other than, at the time, there was some part in that as things kind of wound down for me, not the other guys. But I think too that, in the end, probably more to the point would be when the band reformed, I didn’t join with them again.
But I think primarily because the band kind of wanted to get back to their original form and there were so many of us that were Doobie Brothers. You know, it would have been like the UCLA marching band [laugh], you know, if we tried to get everybody back at a point in time.
But the original band who had really a majority of the hits, Tommy Johnston, Pat wrote a lot of the original hits. So we all felt that that was the right direction for the band to take and certainly with no hard feelings. And I was kind of off, you know, starting to put a band together and tour and I had done, I think, one solo record. You know, that’s just been my journey.
I think it was the right choice. I don’t know for what reason other than it allowed me to kind of explore my own musicality apart from the band. In some ways, it was an unlikely partnership when I joined the band. I was like maybe the last guy on earth that should have been a Doobie Brother, you know.
Tavis: Why do you say that, though?
McDonald: Well, you know, I came from such a different background. Although I played all kinds of music, I really just joined them as a piano player and then took over some of the vocals. But then when the writing came, the guys were very generous, you know, as was Ted Templeman, the producer.
And they invited me to write some songs, but the songs were very different from what the band had done up until that point. You know, to the band’s credit, the band was always up for anything and always very explorative musically, you know.
So a lot of the guys–Jeff Baxter was a big participant in, you know, kind of exploring new arrangements and different kinds of music with the band. You know, my compositions were part of that, but it was always a band effort. But then, after a while, I think it was time for the band to kind of get more back to their rock and roll roots, you know.
Tavis: I’m listening to you talk because in my mind I’m thinking about all the great songs you wrote back then, all the great songs you’ve written since then. Fast forward a few years after the Doobie Brothers and now you’re nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As we say in my neighborhood, that’s high cotton [laugh], high cotton. I mean, think of all the folk who’ve written songs and now you’re on the list as a nominee for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How do you process that?
McDonald: It’s hard. It really is. But, you know, again, I’m glad to be able to be in a frame of mind where I can actually be grateful for it because do I deserve it? That’d be a hard question to answer, but I am grateful for it. And it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to imagine, really, for me because, you know, I just came up playing in bars, you know [laugh], so I never saw that one coming.
Tavis: Not too, too long ago, I heard one of the best lines I’ve ever heard from somebody who received an award, and your comment about whether or not you deserve it reminded me of what this guys said. He stands and receives this wonderful introduction, gets this great award, and he says, “I’m not even sure that I deserve this, but far be it for me to question your good judgment [laugh], so I’m gonna accept this award.”
McDonald: That’s a good answer actually [laugh].
Tavis: I fell out laughing, man. If they say you deserve it, then just don’t question their good judgment. Just take it and go on home and put it on a shelf somewhere. But I ask this question often–maybe too often for people who watch the show regularly–but I love asking it because I love to hear the difference in the answers I get.
So the question I ask of great songwriters when they come on this show, whether it’s Smokey Robinson or anybody else, Prince or anybody, what for you, Michael McDonald, makes a good song? What’s a good song for you? What makes a good song?
McDonald: Great question because I think there’s a certain intangible that all songwriters sense in a finished song that—I mean, it’s funny because some of my favorite songs that, say, for instance, I’ve written weren’t necessarily popular songs of mine, but…
Tavis: For your diehard fans, give me one of them. Give me one or two for your diehard fans who really know your corpus.
McDonald: Sure. Well, you know, one of my favorite songs–and we don’t even play this song live–is a song called “Matters of the Heart”, which I just felt like, for me, that was one moment where I kind of got a chance to say something, you know.
And for me, a lot of songwriting early on was I was in bands and we would come up with a groove, the music part of it, and then write words. And it was almost like the words were incidental sometimes. You know, we tried to say something clever, but we mostly were focused on the track, you know.
So, you know, when I split away, I kind of ventured off into this new world of kind of writing songs that were lyric-driven maybe a little more. But there’s a feeling you get when you finish a song and you go, you know, I don’t know why, but if no one else even agrees with me, that’s a good song to me.
And I think every songwriter wants to walk away from a project or a songwriting session with that feeling, you know. That’s what you’re always shooting for. Of course, you want to hear your songs on the radio and all that, but it’s really that personal triumph of creating something of worth hopefully that you feel other people will relate to or will resonate with other people.
Tavis: You’d be an authority on this. Somebody said to this not too, too long away, maybe even on this program. I don’t know that you agree, but this is a person who had been in a band and also as a solo artist as well.
What I recall him saying to me was that–I’m paraphrasing–when you’re a solo artist, you can focus more on the lyrical content. When you’re a part of a band, it really is about the groove. So the words are not unimportant, but it’s a band and you got to get that groove right.
McDonald: And, of course, some of my favorite guys are the guys who do both well, you know. But, yeah, with the Doobies, for us we were–I mean, I think the lyrics are always important. I don’t mean to sound like it’s a back burner thing.
But truly you do get focused on the music because you’re working with other guys on that part of it, you know, and you’re trying to come up with an arrangement that you think will make a good record.
Tavis: So a little birdy told me–and I think I may have mentioned this at the top–that you’re in studio working on–first of all, let me just back up. Your Motown stuff was just delicious [laugh]. Those couple of Motown projects, man, were just so amazing. I still rock to them to this day, you know, they’re so amazing.
McDonald: Thank you. More fun than work, I got to say.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I can see that. I can see it. More importantly, I can hear it in the project. So you’re back in the–well, you’re always in studio, but you working on something now?
McDonald: Yeah. I’m actually finishing a project. It was produced by a friend of mine. He’s a drummer, a great drummer, world class drummer, A-list guy in Nashville and in L.A. He’s presently drumming for Toto. He’s out touring with Toto.
Tavis: Great band, yeah.
McDonald: And Boz Scaggs, and he’s played with a million people, but a great engineer, a great producer, and we just finished a record of original songs. It’s the first record of original songs I’ve done in a long time and, trust me, I feel like I’m going back to work now [laugh]. It’s only taken eight years to do this record.
Tavis: Is there a challenge to doing original music as time passes, as you–I want to be gentle here–become more chronologically gifted? On the one hand, it would seem like you’ve lived more life and there’s more to say, but does the songwriting become more challenging?
McDonald: It does. On a personal level, I think it does because, as you get older, you start to question what you think, you know. When you’re younger, you think, well, whatever I’ve written, that’s it, you know. But, you know, it’s just because you’re young and you have that confidence of anything you say is relevant, you know.
As you get older, you wonder how relevant is what I’m saying to other people? So you have to be careful, I think, not to second-guess yourself too much. I think that was the biggest challenge for me in doing this or any record where I was doing original material again was not to second-guess what I want to say and keep it simple, you know.
Tavis: You, obviously, must have taken some time out of your studio to do a favor for a friend because Judy Collins was just here not long ago, and we talked about your work with her on her “Duets” album. That track you guys did together was awfully nice.
McDonald: Thank you. That’s a song written by my wife and…
Tavis: Your wife wrote that song?
McDonald: Yeah. Bernie Chiaravalle and John Goodwin, the three of them.
Tavis: See, I missed that. I missed that part of the conversation.
McDonald: Yes, she was a composer of that song. It was on her last solo record, but Judy did a beautiful job on it, as Judy does on everything. She’s phenomenal. It’s amazing, again, that–I saw her on a PBS thing and she was doing some Sondheim music. It’s just amazing how much facility she has, you know. After all these years, she’s better than ever.
Tavis: Shout out to wifey, because it’s a great track [laugh]. It’s a great track on Judy Collins’s project. If you missed her on our show, she was here a few nights ago, I guess, and she has a new wonderful “Duets” project out, all men, Judy and all men.
Michael McDonald’s one of them, so he has a wonderful track on Judy’s project and you’ll love it. Speaking of being young, you were commenting earlier about being young, I think, and everything you said was relevant when you were young. Your son has his own band now?
McDonald: He does. Dylan McDonald & The Avians.
Tavis: And The Avians [laugh]. What a great name.
McDonald: They’re playing actually in town at the Hotel Café coming up. They’re a great band. They really are.
Tavis: And what’s his sound? We know what dad’s sound is. What’s Dylan’s sound?
McDonald: Nothing like me, but, you know, he’s just got his own thing and it’s interesting. I always tell him I think you’re ahead of the curve because your stuff reminds me of stuff that it’s not what you hear on the radio necessarily today which is more of like a kind of more simplistic approach to record-making and stuff, you know.
His stuff has a bit of a sophistication, but it’s wonderful music. He’s got a new record he’s doing right now that I really love. You know, like all parents, I went down there to hear it and I was going to give him my like, you know, we’re going to have to pull the plug on this thing, you know. This is costing money [laugh].
He played me the stuff and I just sat there and kind of went, wow. Okay, what do you need [laugh]? It just blew me away, you know. It’s such a great record.
Tavis: Must have been a good feeling, though.
McDonald: Yeah, it really was, and I’m mostly proud of him when I hear them live too because they really pull it off and I can tell he really loves what he does, and that’s important.
Tavis: Well, if he does it great live, he got it honest. He got it from his daddy [laugh]. And speaking of hearing it live, that’s your cue to grab that [laugh].
McDonald: Okay. God help us.
Tavis: Yeah. Michael has his little–is that a ukulele?
McDonald: It is a baritone ukulele.
Tavis: A baritone ukulele. So Michael’s going to give us a little taste of what you’re going to hear if you are fortunate enough to get a ticket to see him during his “This Christmas” tour, which is moving across the country. It’s going to be in the Midwest, I saw. Starting in your hometown? St. Louis?
McDonald: Start in St. Louis, work our way up to Michigan, then we go down south.
Tavis: So go online or go somewhere and find out where Michael–go to our website. We’ll link you up at PBS and see where Michael’s going to be and get a ticket and treat yourself to a wonderful holiday concert this holiday season.
So Michael’s going to treat us to a performance of a Christmas classic that I know you all will enjoy. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Michael, always good to have you on this program, my friend.
McDonald: Thank you, my friend.
Tavis: Keep the faith. Here’s Michael McDonald.
McDonald: I would only do this for him.
Tavis: My man [laugh]. Thank you, Michael.
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