Michael McDonald’s next move is one he hasn’t made in awhile — in the direction of his piano with pen in hand, ready to share some new tunes.
McDonald’s last solo album, 2008’s “Soul Speak,” was a mix of more soul covers as well as some original material. That’s a long time between albums, but he said he’s made a pact with himself to release a new album sometime this year. It will be his first album of predominately original songs in decades.
The solo singer, who rose to fame as a singer-songwriter with the Doobie Brothers, plays a show on June 11 at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino.
One of the originals McDonald talked about during an interview from his home in California was a song called “Hail Mary.” He said it is “possibly disguised as a love song, but in a more metaphorical way, really resonates with me. It’s saying, ‘Here I am taking one more crack at this kind of record.’”
Still, McDonald said he doesn’t see this as an important record for his career, an attitude that it appears he’s had the entire time.
“I just want the next one to be better than the last one,” he said. “When I was in the Doobies, there were guys at the label that would say, ‘This is a really important record for you,’ and I used to really hate that. I’m just happy if the audience can get something that resonates with them and the lyrical perspective, and some kind of music that captures the imagination of the listener. I don’t know that I’m capable of anything beyond that.”
Resonating with the audience
Plenty of fans have found many songs to resonate with during McDonald’s long career. He said his solo shows will feature songs from across his entire career.
“We do a certain amount of things I did with the Doobies and my solo career, and some of the duet stuff, some of the Motown stuff,” he said. “We try to touch on all the different eras of my experience and on this tour, we’ll try to maybe inject a couple of songs yet to be released.”
He said sometimes, sets will include a song he loves as a cover version. One song he and his band have been performing of late is “Freedom Highway,” the classic civil-rights-era soul/gospel song by the Staple Singers.
“That song marks a certain period of time in my life, in my growing up, that I like to remind people about,” McDonald said. “With everything that’s going on today, we really can’t afford to let people take away the progress we’ve made as humanity. We can’t go to sleep at the wheel. I feel like this song has a lot of power.”
The power of music
The power of music is what drove McDonald to start his career before he even turned 20.
According to his official bio, McDonald was born in St. Louis, Mo., and moved as a young man to Los Angeles in the early ’70s.
He mostly did session work in vocals and keyboards until he was invited to join Steely Dan in 1974. He’s most prominently heard singing backing vocals on their hits “Peg” and “Black Friday.”
Referred to the band by friend and eventual Toto drummer, the late Jeff Porcaro, McDonald described his big break with Steely Dan as one of the most exciting times of his life.
“I was one of those guys who got to join my favorite band in the world,” he said. “It seemed like a dream come true, to get the call and audition. It was like too much to even wrap my head around.”
McDonald joined Steely Dan on its final tour before they became a studio-only band. He said that both sides of the rock world taught him many things.
“I learned so much about songwriting and the musical aspects of it,” he said. “The theory behind Donald (Fagen’s) chord changes, it was a real eye opener for me. I took that experience to the Doobie Brothers, and it gave me more confidence as a songwriter.
“It just goes to show that it’s all the little things in life that happen, the little twists and turns that are unexpected, that are the biggest part of living. I’ve learned to see the things that aren’t a part of the plan be more important that you thought.”
Breaking up is hard to do
It was just a year after joining Steely Dan that McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers, where he became one of their lead vocalists and keyboardists. He also helped write some of their best known songs from this era, including “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin’ it to the Streets,” “Minute by Minute” and “It Keeps You Runnin’.” Although there were reunions later, the band first broke up after a farewell tour in 1982.
McDonald’s subsequent solo career included hits such as “I Keep Forgettin’,” “Sweet Freedom” and “Yah Mo B There.” He also earned a smash with singer Patti LaBelle on their duet “On My Own” and was prominently featured on hits by Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins, among others.
In the 2000s, McDonald earned platinum records for two solo albums that featured Motown covers.
In the last decade, McDonald has reunited with both Steely Dan and the Doobies, plus toured with Dan leader Donald Fagen and fellow rock-soul singer Boz Scaggs as the Dukes of September.
He also became one of the figures of what’s now known as yacht rock, a tongue-in-cheek classification of he and his other soft-rock players in the ’70s such as Loggins and Cross. McDonald said he appreciates the boost and does think it’s funny — and is loaded with his own deadpan humor about it.
“My kids certainly have got a lot of mileage out of it,” he said. “They love to Tivo this stuff and torture with me later. But I always tell my son (Dylan, also a musician) that when the music becomes less relevant, your comic value goes up and weighs heavier in importance in your career.
“It reminds me that you can’t take it too seriously, really. Every life is a flash in the pan. So, I’m grateful for any tip of the hat, whether it’s in jest or not.”