Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1067

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Feature

MICHAEL MCDONALD SPEAKS FROM THE SOUL

Michael McDonald
Michael McDonald

There are distinctive voices, and there are unique voices. One of the latter without question being the powerful blue-eyed soul tenor of five-times Grammy-Award-winning singer/songwriter and
keyboardist Michael McDonald.

McDonald releases his new LP 'SoulSpeak'; the follow-up to his two recent Motown covers albums (2003`s 'Motown' and 2004`s 'Motown 2') - both Top 15 US hits which between them sold over 2.2 million copies.

Produced again by former UK pop frontman Simon Climie, 'SoulSpeak' (in addition to including three new songs penned by McDonald himself) features Michael`s instantly-recognisable interpretations of 11 carefully-selected soul-inspired songs. Ranging from universal evergreens like Dionne Warwick`s `Walk On By` and Stevie Wonder`s 'Living For The City', to lesser-known gems like Van Morrison`s atmospheric 'Into The Mystic' and the late-Sixties punchy Chicago soul of Tyrone Davis` 'Baby Can I Change My Mind'.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952, Mc Donald initially found fame during the mid-to-late Seventies as the soulful white vocalist in internationally-acclaimed rock outfit The Doobie Brothers before launching his solo career in the Eighties - when, ironically, his biggest success came through two classic global hit duets: 'Yah Mo Be There' with James Ingram (1984) and 'On My Own' with Patti Labelle (1986). Speaking from his LA hotel, a gentle-mannered, relaxed-sounding Michael (who is also a former touring member of Steely Dan) hooks up with `B&S` to discuss his latest project.

“It actually wasn`t easy for us to name this new record”, he begins in laid-back tones: “As our third album for Universal Music Group, it was a little bit of a departure. Because, while the first two were of course strictly made up of songs that were originally made famous by the Motown label and Motown artists, with this third record we decided to go outside the lines a little bit. We wanted to open the door to a slightly wider playing field, in terms of artists and copyrights, and to give the audience a little something different - to the point of even throwing in three totally new songs of our own just to add to the mix. But then, by doing that, we were faced with the problem of what we were gonna NAME this album - because it was a bit of a hotch-potch!”

“So, because of that, it became a question of what the songs had in common”, continues Michael, now in full flow: “And to me what they DID have in common was just that unique element of being songs that were all, in some way or another, about redemption. You know, as humans the thing that kinda possesses us through our whole lives is that we`re constantly looking to redeem ourselves in our own eyes. Which is why I think these songs always SPEAK to us so much. Because, though they`re familiar - we know the lyrics and we know the melody - instead of getting tired of them and moving on to the next thing, we tend to hear these songs 20 years later and they sound as fresh and as emotionally impactive to us as when we FIRST heard them. So in that way to me they kinda represent a language that speaks beyond the lyrics and beyond the notes to create some innate form of communication. Which is why we eventually titled the album `SoulSpeak`.”

Interestingly, the original concept behind Michael`s last three covers albums was initiated here in Britain: “Yes, it was actually the Universal Group UK who approached me originally with the idea”, he explains in slow, measured tones: “Back around 2001 they showed up when we played the Royal Albert Hall in London, explained that Universal owned the Motown catalogue and that they were looking to do a project involving a prime collection of classic Motown songs. They asked me would I be interested in being the vocalist, and I immediately said yes. And the reason I instantly pushed for Simon Climie as the producer was because I liked the sonic environment he`d created on Eric Clapton`s `Pilgrim` album. I felt that kind of spiritual feel - which was almost ethereal while staying true to rhythm & blues - would bring a kind of reverence to the project, so we wouldn`t just be going back and imitating old records. And, with Simon doing a brilliant job on that first `Motown` album, that kinda just put me on the path of doing older songs for these last three records. And an interesting experiment it`s turned out to BE! As the list of songs to cover seems to get longer with each record, rather than shorter! In fact, it`s been so much fun it`s now become kinda hard for me to think of going back to work and actually doing a whole new album of original compositions!”

Musically, an interesting aspect of 'SoulSpeak' is how, on songs like Stevie Wonder`s `For Once In My Life`, Michael`s interpretation stays close to the original; while on tracks like Bob Marley`s `Redemption Song` a totally new arrangement has been created: “Yes, while with some we did stay kinda true to the original, on certain ones we felt it would be a good opportunity to do something different”, he acknowledges: “And I don`t really know what dictates that, other than just the feeling at the time. Then, in terms of the final choice of songs, I think the hardest thing was letting go some of them we`d originally wanted to cut! You know, you review your list as you go along. And I think we tried to make the best choices that we could - in terms of allowing the listener to take a journey that we thought would make sense to them. We basically chose the songs on a musical level, in terms of how they all related together. And, while there are times when you`re in the middle of these projects going `Does this actually make sense?`, I think if you just follow your instincts along the way you do end up landing on your feet.”

Some songs on 'SoulSpeak' meanwhile were chosen for purely personal reasons. Such as the lead-off track - Jackie Wilson`s uplifting stomper 'Higher And Higher' - which is already making its mark on US radio: “Yeah, that song wound up on the record for reasons you might not expect!”, chuckles Michael: “My 16-year-old daughter, like a lotta kids her age, makes these mixtapes of all her favourite songs. Where she puts a million different artists on one CD and listens to them in the car whilst we ride around. And one of the CDs she put on had all these great young contemporary artists - everything from hip hop to alternative - and then all of a sudden here comes this Jackie Wilson track! So I was like `Wow! That`s kind of an oddball track for you!`... And she goes `Dad, I LOVE that song! You should COVER IT!`. So this 'SoulSpeak' record of course proved a perfect opportunity for me to actually cut it for her!”

Michael`s immediately-distinctive vocal style was originally honed in the St. Louis clubs as a teenage keyboardist/guitarist/singer with local combos like Mike & The Majestics and The Del Rays: “Yeah, for me that time was a kinda coming-of-age,” he recalls fondly: “Most of the guys I played with were much older than me, but we all shared a love of R&B music and actually backed Chuck Berry on a lot of his local St. Louis gigs. And, like most people, I started out emulating my favourite vocalists before eventually developing my own style - some of it out of self-preservation! Because I`d always wanted to be an R&B screamer, I realized early on that I wouldn`t sing for very long if I kept trying to sound like James Brown! So out of necessity my voice just developed into the R&B tenor you hear today.”

Indeed, the kind of small-capacity gigs McDonald was playing at the start of his career remain one of his favourite types of venue to this day: ‘Yeah, I loved those days! In fact, it`s the occasional times today when we do play small clubs - we played The Blue Note in New York just recently - that are often the most enjoyable shows to me. Because there`s something about the atmosphere that just wraps itself around me and takes me back to being that kid playing in local bands. You know, that vibe of being in a small venue and playing to an attentive crowd is still a great feeling. It just reminds me of being young and sitting in the back of a van in the Mid-West, in the summer, before air-conditioning was around. I`d be sweating my ass off, going to some crazy gig in the middle of the boonies somewhere - some High School gymnasium - and staring out the window thinking `What a great life this is! I love every MINUTE of this! I love BEING with these guys, I love what we`re about to DO`... And there was nothing better than packing up after a gig, going somewhere to have coffee, and then eventually making our way home. To me it was a lifestyle that I simply loved every minute of - and I still do!”

While his own solo career dropped in profile during the Nineties, Michael nevertheless made his musical presence felt through his `85 hit `I Keep Forgettin`` being prominently sampled on one of the decade`s biggest global hip hop smashes, Warren G & Nate Dogg`s `Regulate`: “What I particularly liked about Nineties hip hop was it had a certain reverence for the groove that I hadn`t been hearing in a while”, he explains: “I remember in the 1980`s a lotta stuff was very synthetic sonically and there was no swing to anything any more. But when hip hop came along it was like a real tip-of-the-hat to the old grooves. But then, having said that, though for an artist of my age one of the great temptations might have been for us to cover the old songs with a contemporary hip hop feel, we did make a point of steering clear of that with these covers albums. Not that I have anything AGAINST that kind of approach, it`s just that I wouldn`t have been the right guy to DO that. I just don`t think many people would have crossed the street to hear me doing a hip hop-influenced album!”

Understandably, McDonald`s return to multi-Platinum-selling status during the Noughties as primarily a covers artist has left him overjoyed for several reasons: “Obviously, the fact that all three albums have sold very well is one reason for that. But, as happy as I am about the success - not just for myself but also for the people who WROTE the songs - for me it was also just a wonderful opportunity to really do some music that I truly loved without having to fight the corporate battle of `Oh, I don`t think we hear a single here`! You know, for an artist of my generation doing music today, the A&R people can be kinda like kids on a playground! They really don`t wanna hear from you ANYWAY, and they`d rather see you come in with explosives stripped to your body than a new release in your hand! You know, you gotta sit there and listen to guys who were riding bikes with training wheels when you were making hit records, telling you they don`t really think you`ve quite hit the gong here. Which is a character-building experience - to say the least - for a guy of my age! So to walk in there with a record boasting 14 proven Top 10 songs, and know no-one in the room was gonna give me grief about whether or not I had a hit single on the project, was to me a bonus beyond imagination!”

With 'SoulSpeak' having already impressively debuted Stateside at number 12 Pop/10 R&B, Michael is currently planning an international tour schedule for later this year, which will include three June dates in the UK: Birmingham Symphony Hall (19th); London Hammersmith Apollo (20th); and Manchester Apollo (21st): “We`re gonna play as much material from the new album as we can”, he promises: “We`ll probably end up doing a 90-minute-to-two-hour show where we`ll do just a little bit of everything - the stuff I did with The Doobies; the stuff I did with Patti (Labelle) and James (Ingram)… And hopefully we`ll get some of our UK (artist) friends to come down and play and sing with us, if they`re available and feel up to it. You know, for us it`ll be kind of a return to somewhat familiar territory that we haven`t been to in a while. Playing for the UK crowds is always a thrill for us, and hopefully we`ll walk away having left the audience satisfied with what they`ve heard.”

The album `SoulSpeak` is out now through Universal Records
Words PETE LEWIS

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