There is just something about Michael McDonald’s voice that makes people happy. I know I break out my impression of it at least a couple times a week, and I bet I’m not alone. It’s soulful and full of emotion, and as instantly recognizable as Freddie Mercury’s, Roy Orbison’s, or Jackie Wilson’s. The fact that he’s not on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Greatest Singers is, in fact, a travesty. McDonald took his timbre-mine of a voice from St. Louis to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, working mainly as a session musician and singer, until his big break, joining Steely Dan. From there, he jumped to The Doobie Brothers (also a travesty that they’re not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). Chances are — if you’re a GenXer or Millennial — you know him from this period; “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “It Keeps You Runnin’” are the standouts. His later solo works (“Sweet Freedom” and, of course, “I Keep Forgettin’”) weren’t too shabby, either, with millions of albums sold, particularly his Motown releases.
McDonald is a five-time Grammy winner and has platinum albums on his wall (I don’t know if they’re actually on his wall; I didn’t ask him — but he has sold that many records). He’s worked with the likes of Ray Charles, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and indie rockers Grizzly Bear. If he passed you on the street, you may not notice him, but if you heard even a few seconds of one of his songs, you would know that voice.
Recently, McDonald spoke with Folio Weekly about the holidays, playing “I Keep Forgettin’” 10,000 times, and his alter-ego Camp Counselor.
Folio Weekly: Holiday concerts have worked their way into your touring schedule the past few years. What is it about holiday music that speaks to you?
Michael McDonald: First and foremost, we get to kind of break away from our normal routine. Growing up, I used to enjoy the holidays, and then for a little while there, as I became an adult, the holidays started to depress me, and I really didn’t understand why. Doing the two Christmas albums, and rearranging some Christmas songs, all of that sort of served to help me enjoy it again. Approaching them as a musician brought a certain level of enjoyment of the holidays back. The next step was to go out and perform. The idea that people will come out and watch and you’re celebrating the holidays with a bunch of people that you don’t know or wouldn’t necessarily celebrate with makes it fun. It’s just a different time of year where we get to play songs with subject matters that, I think, we don’t feel like we are hitting people over the head with the subject of peace and looking at life a little differently. The holidays are our excuse to get out there and play songs that reevaluate “what am I doing for peace in the world?” [and] “what am I doing for someone else?” and “how do I make my life worthwhile?” The holidays are the times to think about those things. We think about the people that aren’t here anymore, and when you get to be my age, you start to build quite a collection of those people. You realize that these people were such a gift to you, the fact that they were in your life, that they had the affect that they did, you know, when you’re growing up, these people you see at the holidays, sometimes you don’t appreciate it, because you think they’re going to be around forever, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends. It’s a time to realize what a gift they are, and so it’s a chance for us to get out and play music and send that message.
Did you have a favorite holiday song growing up, or is there one you play now that really resonates?
I think one of the songs I enjoy playing during the Christmas season is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I remember that song from being a kid, and it’s become a standard during holidays, but it’s one that, I think, speaks to the heart of the matter of what the holidays mean. We put a lot of religious emphasis on the holidays, but we have to remember that everyone has a different view of that … What I think is the real commonality that we all share during the holidays is that it seems to represent a time of reaching out and getting together and making a point of letting each other know how we feel about each other, and we try to share with those people, and just that celebration of love and the human connection. And I just play it on ukulele with my keyboard player, and it’s a point in the show where we get to talk about the people we miss and those who are no longer with us.
Your career has spanned decades, with multiple hit records and great songs and accomplishments. Do you find any challenges getting back out in front of crowds and playing “Taking It to the Streets” or “I Keep Forgetting,” or is it fresh for you still? Are the holiday shows a chance to take a break from those sorts of things?
No. If I was only playing those songs for myself, I probably would’ve stopped playing them years ago. But, being a musician, what makes the moment work for me is the audience. It’s never the same experience. You are in front of different groups of people, and their reaction to it is what the song becomes all about in that moment. When they react to a song in a way where you can feel their delight; that’s where all the power lies for me, in that moment. It isn’t like last night or the 10,000 nights before, it’s about tonight, right here with these people. The songs take on that life, that moment … that never gets old.
You were recently nominated for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Congrats. When you were starting out, playing in your first band, is that a world you ever saw yourself inhabiting?
Um, I think the honest answer would be yes, that was always a great desire of mine. I think I inherited my love of songs and songwriters colloquially from my family. They were all passionate about music, a bunch of Irish-Catholics who loved to sing, whether they could sing or not. It didn’t matter — they loved to do it. My dad had a beautiful voice. I grew up following him around, watching him sing in St. Louis bars, and I inherited his love of a great song and artists. Some of my fondest memories are of driving around listening to his car radio. Whenever Nat King Cole or Ray Charles came on, he would crank it up; those were the songs he loved and that was the era. So I developed a great love for that music as a kid. I actually remember walking through the hallways of my aunt’s; she lived in an old apartment building that had marble floors. I was kind of shuffling my feet in rhythm and singing a melody, I must’ve been 11 years old or something like that. I remember stopping in the middle of doing that and thinking, “I can do this, I could write a song.” In my classically Irish-Catholic family, it was something I could do that would please everybody. Either that or a priest or a gangster.
I don’t know if you know this, but you’re one of the most impersonated musicians on YouTube, with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake among the notables paying homage. Have you seen any of these, and if so, what are your thoughts? Also, have you seen the one about “Michael McDonald/Camp Counselor”? If not, I suggest you check it out.
Ha, yes, I have seen that one. Nothing gets past my kids; they send me texts and make me watch everyone they see. I’ve been dragged into some of those experiences (youtube.com/watch?v=JeCD4bIkQwg) and it’s flattering at some level. At some point, when people stop listening to your albums, you can always make it this way.