Inside Michael McDonald's Unlikely Comeback

Following team-ups with Thundercat and Solange, the singer reflects on his recent resurgence and what inspired his first LP of new songs in 17 years

Michael McDonald reflects on his unlikely musical renaissance and what inspired his first album of original material in 17 years. Credit: Timothy White

"Can you believe how we party at the Ridgefield Playhouse?"

On a beautiful July Sunday in this wealthy Connecticut town, the evening's MC is warming up a crowd of well-heeled couples at the venue's annual gala. They're waiting for Michael McDonald – known for his stint helming the Doobie Brothers and his Eighties solo hits – who pads onstage in Converse sneakers and dark slacks, sits behind a Yamaha keyboard on a red Persian rug, and proceeds to tear through a gripping set that includes many new songs from Wide Open, his first album of originals in 17 years, out Friday.

McDonald's voice remains exceptional, a throaty bray – unyielding in the middle, shredded around the edges – that's still capable of overpowering even a muscular band. With his mild onstage patter, spectacles and a shock of white hair falling over his left eye, McDonald seems like an amiable college professor. But this impression falls away when he begins flinging wrenching phrases about romantic peril to the back of the 500-person theater, conjuring a whirlwind of bruised ego and heartache.

"His voice is easily one of the most definable voices of our generation," country stalwart Vince Gill tells Rolling Stone. "Nat King Cole was one of the great singers of his generation. Ray Charles was that. Michael is in that ilk – one of the greatest soul singers to ever draw breath."

Despite his evident gifts, McDonald hasn't recorded much over the past three decades, sticking mostly to cover projects, including two albums of Motown renditions. "I knew I needed to do another record of originals," he says, speaking over the phone two weeks after the Ridgefield show. "But I wasn't sure how that was going to take place. I try to let things happen at their own pace and hope for the best."

It's undeniably a good time for him to return. The sounds of late-Seventies and early-Eighties pop radio, where McDonald's voice was inescapable, have come storming back in the work of Daft Punk, the xx, Rhye, Phoenix, Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley, Haim, Justice, LCD Soundsystem and Tobias Jesso Jr. Thundercat, the bassist known for his work with rapper Kendrick Lamar, recruited McDonald to sing on his most recent album. After Solange performed with McDonald at Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, she wrote that "the Doobie Brothers are my musical/harmonic/chord change heroes."

This groundswell marks an about-face: For decades, the songs McDonald made or contributed to – in addition to the Doobie Brothers and his solo career, he lent vocals to records by Kenny Loggins, Carly Simon, Christopher Cross, Steely Dan (whose late Walter Becker he honored in a Billboard interview last week) and more – were regarded as overproduced opiates for the one percent and derided as "yacht rock."

"In the mid-2000s, you would have been beaten up if you said you were listening to soft rock," says DJ Supermarkt (Marcus Liesenfeld), a Berlin-based selector who runs a popular party called Too Slow to Disco that draws heavily from the McDonald era. "If you wanted to make people really angry, you talked about Michael McDonald," he adds. "It was the archetype of something that was not OK." (His comment echoes a gag in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Paul Rudd's character threatens to go on a homicidal rampage if his TV-store co-worker doesn't stop playing a McDonald DVD.)

This reflects a common critical bias that hurt McDonald, many of the artists he worked with and their Quiet Storm counterparts on R&B radio, all of whom favored delicacy over brute force and melodic complexity over basic three-chord cycles. "Some people have an aversion to sophistication; it makes them feel uptight," asserts Marcus Miller, a jazz bassist who recorded with the soft soul luminary Luther Vandross and plays on McDonald's latest LP. "I would hear people react weirdly to Steely Dan and groups like that," he remembers. "As long as it feels good, what do you care if there's a lot of chords in there that you don't understand? But some people need to prove how down they are with how raw the music is."

Thundercat welcomes the new generation's historical revisionism. "People in general are corny, and the way they process stuff is as such," he explains. "Screw that: There's trolling, and then there's making art. In reality, what was happening with the music [during the period when McDonald's music was popular] was that it was progressing."

Perhaps because of years of backlash against his work, McDonald is wildly self-deprecating. He finds it "very flattering" that younger artists are revisiting his songs, but adds, "for the life of me, it's not something I would've expected." He suggests that his current position of favor is the result of a natural process. "If you get far enough away from the time when you were a part of the music scene, people start to give you quarter, start to evaluate your stuff from a different standpoint," he says. That is undoubtedly true, though only part of the story, the other being that McDonald wrote a number of remarkable songs, and that the brazen climb into the chorus of "What a Fool Believes" has lost none of its luster 38 years later.

McDonald doesn't see it that way. "I never really felt like songwriting was my strong suit," he states. "I wish I was Don Henley and a lot of other people. I'm a very slow songwriter; it takes me sometimes years to write one song, if I ever finish."

It's no surprise, then, that many of the tracks on Wide Open have existed for a while, and that it took outside pressure to push McDonald to turn them into a record. He recorded most of the demos with the Nashville-based drummer Shannon Forrest (who has played with Lee Ann Womack and Willie Nelson, among others) during the period he was making the Motown albums. McDonald wrote with the vague idea of giving some of the tracks away to country singers, or maybe Bonnie Raitt, who used him as a backing vocalist in 1977 and cut one of his tunes in 1995. Forrest eventually went back to the demo files in a new studio and heard sparks in the recordings. "He said, 'I think maybe you have the start of a record here,'" McDonald recalled.

Wide Open finds McDonald returning to the sounds that made him so popular in the late 1970s and 1980s – mostly keyboard-heavy soul, with occasional excursions into blues ballads or the ringing drive of old hits like "Don't Look Back." "A lot of artists do well with reinventing themselves all the time, [but] I'm like the guy who's wearing clothes he shouldn't be doing when I do that," he declares, once again in self-effacing mode. This claim could also be disputed: surely an artist who has co-written songs for both Van Halen and Dionne Warwick, Cheap Trick and Aretha Franklin, is comfortable in a number of different outfits.

McDonald's favorite topic as a songwriter is the inability of lovers to communicate or understand each other – that's the stuff of "What a Fool Believes" and "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)," where hard-headed narrators fail to differentiate between romantic fantasy and cruel reality. Everywhere you look on Wide Open, relationships are similarly tattered. "I realize it's in my nature to want to hold on to what I thought it was," McDonald sings in "Strong Enough." "Why should I lie awake like it's my own damn fault?" he wonders bitterly in "Half Truth." "You call it love," he gasps on "Ain't No Good," "but baby I've got my doubts."

One of the keenest numbers on Wide Open is opening track "Hail Mary," which works as another love song, but also plays as an address to a fickle pop market from a performer who remains somewhat unsure of himself. "After all this time ... does the sound of my voice still carry any kind of message to you?" McDonald wonders. "Or should I just let it die?" "I'm almost posing it to the listener," he acknowledges on the phone. "What do you think [about my return]? Is this nuts?"

In response, he allows himself a rare moment of assertiveness. "I never really knew what to expect at this age – you might not be free of that passion to knock it out of the park one more time, run around the bases one more time," McDonald says. "I'm trying to get my turn at bat again."