'Wide Open' Captures The 'Honest Emotions' Of Michael McDonald

Sep 16, 2017
Originally published on September 17, 2017 10:42 am

The husk and soul that characterizes Michael McDonald's voice is recognizable anywhere: alongside the jazz-rock of Steely Dan, during his stints as front man for the Doobie Brothers, or alone, as on Wide Open, his latest solo album.

Wide Open is McDonald's first solo album of originals since 2000's Blue Obsession, and it spans a long period of his life. Parts of it touch on his 31 years of sobriety; other parts, on his relationship with his son.

And though this record has been 17 years in the making, McDonald has not been idle. He's been plenty busy touring with Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs, and more recently, collaborating with younger artists like Solange and Thundercat. He's even appeared on a Grizzly Bear B-side.

McDonald spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about writing the new album, making music with his son and watching Ferguson, Mo. — his hometown — make national headlines. You can hear their conversation in the audio player, and read on for an edited transcript.

Scott Simon: What do we make of the title Wide Open?

Michael McDonald: Well, I always have trouble with album titles; it never comes easy for me. And I thought, if anything, the record is kind of a culmination of a lot of years spread over time... It would be hard to kind of pigeonhole this record, stylistically, so I thought: Well, it's kind of a wide open conversation of many different subjects musically and lyrically.

So now that you have all this music together in an album, how does it speak to you? What does it say?

You know? I'm not sure. I think, for most any songwriter, there's what you think you're writing about at the moment and what you discover that you might've been writing about later. For me, a lot of these songs, I think, represent a time in my life. I told my son the other day — we were talking about things — and he was saying how there are so many damn choices today. When you're young, it's a different world... And I said well, one thing I can tell you is when you're 65, you'll be asking yourself all these same questions anyways, so don't stress about it too much at this point.

Is there a song you want to point us to?

There's a song, I feel it's probably the most personal song for me, called "Honest Emotion." It's really just about that kind of autopilot that we go through life operating on. We have certain patterns that work for us and I think one of them is avoiding any real feelings that you might be feeling and trying to just deal with the ones that are comfortable. So that song, to me, kind of emerged over the last 20 years. Especially dealing with my life sober. I realized that all of a sudden, I had this whole set of criteria that I hadn't paid much attention to up to that point, and that I probably better get about the business of it before too long. And it's a song called "Honest Emotion."

May I ask how long you've been sober?

31 years this July 31.

God Bless!

Literally. [Laughs.] By the grace of god.

Good for you. Another song we'd like to ask you about: "Half Truth." The songwriting credit on this is Dylan McDonald. Any relation?

Yes, that's my son.

I knew that. [Laughs.]

He's a great songwriter. He's certainly much better at his age than I was.

What's it like to write a song with your son? How gratifying that must be.

Any parent will tell you, you kind of relive your life through your kids. He and I, one time we were listening to a Neil Young record in the dark in his room, just kind of sitting there, and he was espousing the benefits of vinyl and analog, you know. Going on and on and I was just like, "Yeah yeah yeah." But as I was laying there with him and we were listening to the Harvest record, I remembered the last time I listened to this record laying in my room in the dark I was 15, 16 years old and here I am with my son. And did I ever think that the next time I heard this record, really sat and listened to this record the way I am right now, would be with my kid 25 years later? And that was a moment. But writing a song with him, it's just something that we both love doing, and to be able to share that experience with him, of all people, is very special.

Do you have an age you feel when you're singing?

Yeah; I think I feel 14. You know, that's when I first started singing with bands on a professional level. A buddy of mine, who was in my band for many years up until he passed away a few years ago, Chuck Sabatino and I, we were both in this big dance soul band in St. Louis, kind of a popular band. We were the youngest guys, and all the other guys were 19, 20 years old. And we were 14 and 15 years old, and we were the two singers. It was more fun than a kid that age should be allowed to have.

We were the house band at a club in Ferguson called the Castorwave ... Ike and Tina [and] Chuck Berry played there. We used to back up Chuck Berry, we were the house band — and I think we were the very first band to ever play "No Particular Place to Go" live. He sent an acetate down to rehearsal, and our manager came up and said, "Chuck sent this test pressing of his new record and he wants to try it out live." And it wasn't until I was watching Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll at home one day ... [and] all of a sudden they went into "No Particular Place to Go," with the iconic record lick up front. And it dawned on me, and I said, "Oh my god! We were probably the first band to ever play that song live! That's rock 'n' roll history." In Ferguson, Missouri of all places.

How did it feel for you to see Ferguson in the headlines?

Honestly, Ferguson is like any other place. It was a small town with a small town police force. And you know this whole thing about "Make America Great Again" — I don't think it was so great for a lot of people. Especially if you were black in America growing up. I remember my two greatest fears when I was four or five years old was that they were going to drop the bomb, or that I might've been born black. It was 50/50 as far as I could figure out. I would go down the list of all the things I [wouldn't have been able to] do, from a kid's perspective: couldn't go to Dairy Queen; none of the people I knew would even talk to me. I thought about, "What do you do in this town on a Sunday afternoon if you're not white and Protestant?" It was just, to me, a terrible time in the United States.

And this is on the Missouri side of the Mississippi?

Yeah, and it was basically apartheid. There's no way to get around it. You can wax nostalgia all you want about America for a lot of reasons, and I do. And I love America as much as anyone else, but we're getting better, we're not getting worse. And we have suffered for every inch of progress we've made and this is not the time to fall asleep at the wheel. And this is not the time to try to turn the clock back to something that I don't think any of us, whether you have the sense to or not, really want. We want a fair and equitable society, and that's what we should be working towards, is making sure that everyone is entitled to what the Constitution guarantees in this country. And that's been a long time coming. We've got a long way to go, and I hope that we stay on that path.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANTED TO HURT ME")

MICHAEL MCDONALD: (Singing) La, la, la, la (ph).

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Know that voice?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANTED TO HURT ME")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Hey, hey now.

SIMON: Michael McDonald. He's recorded with Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers and on his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANTED TO HURT ME")

MCDONALD: (Singing) I've been waiting for you all my life, only to hear you tell me that you can't be mine.

SIMON: That's a song from Michael McDonald's first new album of original material in more than 15 years. It's called "Wide Open." Michael McDonald joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCDONALD: Thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What do I make of the title, "Wide Open"?

MCDONALD: Yeah. I always have trouble with album titles. It never comes easy for me. And I thought, if anything, you know, the record is a kind of a culmination of a lot of years spread over time, I mean, you know, a span of time that - for the material to develop. And it would be hard to kind of pigeonhole this record stylistically. So I thought, well, it's just kind of a wide-open conversation of many different subjects musically and lyrically, you know.

SIMON: So now that you have this music all together in an album, how does it speak to you? What does it say?

MCDONALD: You know, I'm not sure. I think there's always, for most any songwriter, there's what you think you're writing about at the moment and then what you discover you might have been writing about later. And for me, a lot of these songs, I think, represent just a time in my life.

And, you know, like I told my son, you know, the other day, we were talking about things and he was going - he was saying how there's just so many damn choices today. When you're young, it's a different world than it was. And I said, well, one thing I can tell you is when you're 65, you'll be asking yourself all these same questions anyway, so don't stress about it too much at this point.

SIMON: (Laughter) Is there a song you want to point us to?

MCDONALD: There's a song I feel is probably the most personal song for me called "Honest Emotion."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEST EMOTION")

MCDONALD: (Singing) I know that there is more to life, and there's a little piece I've broken off that keeps suspended.

And it's really just about that kind of auto pilot that we go through life operating on so much. We have certain patterns that work for us. And I think one of them is avoiding any real feelings that you might be feeling and trying to just deal with the ones that are comfortable. And so that song is, to me, especially dealing with my life sober, you know, I realize that all of a sudden, I had this whole set of criteria that I hadn't really paid much attention to up to that point and that I probably better get about the business of it before too long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEST EMOTIONS")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Honest emotions, even though we...

SIMON: May I ask how long you've been sober?

MCDONALD: Thirty-one years this July 31.

SIMON: God bless.

MCDONALD: Literally (laughter) by the grace of God, you know.

SIMON: Good for you. Another song we'd like to ask you about, "Half Truth."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL MCDONALD'S "HALF TRUTH")

SIMON: The songwriting credit on this is that Dylan McDonald - any relation?

MCDONALD: Yes, that's my son.

SIMON: I knew that, OK? (Laughter).

MCDONALD: He's a great songwriter. You know, he's certainly much better at his age than I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF TRUTH")

MCDONALD: (Singing) It's left to me to wonder why. But then you never said you were leaving either. You never even said goodbye.

SIMON: What's it like to write a song with your son? How gratifying that must be.

MCDONALD: Any parent will tell you, you kind of relive your life through your kids, you know. He and I, one time, we were listening to a Neil Young record in the dark in his room, just kind of sitting there. He was espousing the benefits of vinyl and analog and, you know, going on and on. And I was just like, yeah, yeah, yeah. But as I was laying there with him and we were listening to "Harvest" - the "Harvest" record, I remembered the last time I listened to this record laying in my room in the dark, I was like 15, 16 years old. And here I am with my son.

And did I ever think that the next time I heard this record, you know, really sat and listened to this record the way I am right now would be with my kid 25 years later, you know? And that was a moment, you know. But writing a song with him, it's just something that we both love doing, and to be able to share that experience with him, of all people, is very special, you know.

SIMON: Do you have an age you feel when you're singing?

MCDONALD: Yeah. I think I feel 14. You know, that's when I first started singing with bands on a kind of a professional level. And it was more fun than a kid that age should be allowed to have. I mean, we played at a club that is now kind of famous or legendary in Ferguson, of all places, called The Castaway (ph). And the bands that came through there - Ike and Tina. Chuck Berry played there. We used the back up Chuck Berry. We were the house band.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

MCDONALD: I think we were actually the very first band to ever play "No Particular Place To Go" live because he sent an acetate down to rehearsal. And our manager came up and said, Chuck sent this test pressing of his new record, and he wants to try it out tonight live. And it wasn't till I was watching "Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll" at home one day, I was sitting there, you know, eating my salad bowl full of Cheerios and, you know, nonfat milk, telling, you know, telling myself this wasn't fattening. And all of a sudden, they went into "No Particular Place To Go" with that iconic guitar lick up front, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO PARTICULAR PLACE TO GO")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Riding along in my automobile.

MCDONALD: And it dawned on me. I said, oh, my God, we were probably the first band to ever play that song live. That's like rock 'n' roll history, you know, in Ferguson, Mo., of all places.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK BERRY'S "NO PARTICULAR PLACE TO GO")

SIMON: How did it feel for you to see Ferguson in the headlines?

MCDONALD: You know, honestly, Ferguson's like any other place. It was a small town with a small town police force. And, you know, this whole thing about make America great again, I don't think it was so great for a lot of people, you know, especially if you were black in America growing up, you know. And I remember my two greatest fears when I was like 5 - 4 or 5 years old was they were going to drop the bomb or that I might have been born black. It's 50-50 as far as I could figure out, you know.

And I would go down the list of all the things I couldn't do from a kid's perspective. You know, I mean, I couldn't go to Dairy Queen. None of the people I knew would even talk to me. I thought about, what do you do in this town on a Sunday afternoon if you're not white and Protestant? It was just, to me, a terrible time in the United States.

SIMON: And this was on the Missouri side of the Mississippi in the '50s, yeah.

MCDONALD: Yeah. I mean, it was basically apartheid. There's no way to get around it. You can wax nostalgic all you want about America for a lot of reasons, and I do. And I love America as much as anyone else. But we're getting better. And we have suffered for every inch of progress we've made. And this is not the time to try to turn the clock back to something that I don't think any of us really want.

You know, we want a fair and equitable society. And that's what we should be working towards is making sure that everyone is entitled to what the Constitution guarantees in this country. And that's been a long time coming. We've got a long way to go now, and I hope that we stay on that path.

SIMON: Michael McDonald. His new album, "Wide Open." Thanks so much for being with us.

MCDONALD: Scott, thanks for having me. It's great to get to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL MARY")

MCDONALD: (Singing) One really lies at the heart of a memory, the power of... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.