Michael McDonald

By THOMAS FILE

We all know that voice.

It might be from his early career making hits with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, or from his chart-topping solo career turning out iconic tracks like “What A Fool Believes.” Or perhaps you’ve grooved along to his Motown albums, or celebrated the holidays with his reimagined Christmas standards. More recently, you might even know him from collaborations with indie-rock cool kids “Grizzly Bear” or “Thundercat.”

No matter how you know him, on Feb. 28, Key West music lovers of any age will have the special opportunity to catch Michael McDonald live at the Sunset Green Event Lawn.

What made this the right time to release your first original material in 17 years? It was something I felt increasing pressure to do after the Motown Records, which for me were not even work, but were a pure labor of love. But during that time, I was always putting ideas down in my studio when I was home off the road.

In recent years, one of McDonald’s frequent collaborators (who is also, not coincidentally, a world-class drummer) built and tuned a new studio largely off those recordings. He goes, “You have to start a new record here. I think the demos we did of those songs are probably some of the best performances you’re going to have.”

Has it been particularly challenging or rewarding taking the new songs on the road? It’s been both, honestly. Ultimately, if we had our druthers, we would just play the whole new album. But that doesn’t fly with the audience, and rightfully so. They want to hear the songs that they know you by. And we enjoy playing those for them. It is a challenge to figure out how many of the new songs can you get away with, but so far, the audiences have been great.

Obviously Key West is a unique part of the country with its own local music tradition. Does that make it exciting to come down here? That’s how I came up, playing in a small town in Missouri, playing in local clubs. Those are some of the fondest memories I have. There’s part of me that still fantasizes, “God, could I live up in some place like Muscle Shoals, and play music locally at night and work at a studio where there’s good records being made?” That’s really the dream of a musician. Have a little lake house, play in a great club at night, and have a local studio where people are making some noise.

Your career started off with some amazing collaborations, and more recently, you’ve kept up that trend with much younger groups. I feel extremely fortunate to have been asked by certain artists, whether it’s Grizzly Bear or Thundercat, to collaborate. Kenny (Loggins) really engineered those. I don’t know what to make of why I’ve been so fortunate. I don’t question it too much. I just look forward to the opportunities.

Later, McDonald returns to this theme of collaboration and his early days as a session player. I always tell my son, “Playing those top-40 gigs taught me everything I ever needed to know about songwriting.” In a way, playing top 40 music is the ultimate experience of the working musician.

Was it especially rewarding to write a song (“Half Truth”) on the new record with your son Dylan? Absolutely. We don’t get the chance to write together as much as I would like. That one came about when he was showing me a chord progression. It was kind of a guitar lesson he was giving me. For me, I thought it turned out to be one of the better tunes on the record.

You obviously have a good sense of humor. What’s it like when you see yourself parodied on Family Guy, or to do a bit with on Jimmy Fallon? I personally love the “Yacht Rock” webisodes. (Laughs) Oh, it’s great fun. In its own way it’s also flattering, the fact that anybody even remembers any of us from the ‘70’s is mind boggling to me. I’ve told my son from time to time, when he’s laughing at the Family Guy thing and kind of ribbing me, “Hey, someday when your music becomes less relevant to your listeners, your comic value might be your real value.”

Final question. How many yachts do you have? (Laughs) None actually. I had a motorboat for a while, but I got rid of it just before it became my worst nightmare.

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