A new season of peace
The many styles of Michael McDonald
With millions of records sold, songwriting credits on bestselling singles, multiple Grammy wins and a built-in audience who attend his regular schedule of concerts each year, Michael McDonald has earned the freedom to pursue any creative direction he wants.
“Music was always that search for something outside of myself,” he said during a recent phone interview.
“I think what happens to most people who are still doing this at my age, you start to realize all kinds of things that you haven’t gotten around to that you probably don’t have that much more time to do it if you’re going to do ’em,” the 66-year-old music veteran said, then laughed.
Among his wish list are playing in South America, in small cafes around Europe and as a duo with his son, who is also a musician.
“Music is on a much more personal level to me as I get older. I find that there’s a whole world that I haven’t explored yet. Maybe it’s kind of where I started, and maybe it’s full circle that I approach it that way.”
His attention to detail, coupled with a yearning to embrace new outlets and challenges, can be heard on his latest release, “Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection,” which compiles his three previously-released holiday releases and adds one new track, “Winter Wonderland,” featuring ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. The cover art comes from a painting by McDonald.
His distinctive husky baritone wraps around a mix of traditional fare and originals that journey along a diverse musical path. “O Holy Night” has a bossa nova rhythm, “Christmas on the Bayou” offers foot-stompin’ zydeco, “Wexford Carol” embraces its Celtic influence, “Children Go Where I Send Thee” revels in New Orleans funk and “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” rests on upbeat R&B grooves. He even merges the somberness of “White Christmas” with a hard blues version of “Winter Wonderland.”
He will mix holiday songs with his hits when he performs Dec. 13 at Stambaugh Auditorium.
The variety of styles on “Season of Peace” reflects the influence McDonald absorbed from his geographic surroundings.
“I look back at growing up in St. Louis and most of what I learned there was very regional, R&B / dance music. Then, coming to California, I became more aware of artists like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. There was an anything goes type of atmosphere. I always associated that with my musical journey. It always had to do with where I was at the time.”
Living in Los Angeles in the early ’70s, McDonald sharpened his talents as a studio musician before becoming an integral part of Steely Dan, most famously on the backing vocals on “Peg.”
Steely Dan’s exacting approach in the studio has been well documented. Asked if he learned anything from those recording sessions, he said, “So much of what I learned about writing pop music, chord progressions and things like that I learned from experiences with Donald (Fagen) and Walter (Becker).
“I had been writing before that, but that was really an education for me. I went away from that gig a changed songwriter. I brought a lot of what affected me by being in Steely Dan to my own craft personally, which I translated to what we did in the Doobie Brothers.”
With the Doobies he successfully helped redefine that band’s sound on a number of chart-topping singles including “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes.”
After the band broke up in 1982, McDonald had numerous solo hits as well as rewarding collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Vince Gill, Chaka Kahn, James Ingram and Patti LaBelle, among others. Plus he co-wrote the Van Halen hit “I’ll Wait.”
In the past decade, he’s gained a new generation of listeners, which has led to working with some of indie rock’s biggest acts, such as Grizzly Bear and Thundercat, and performing with jamband superstar Warren Haynes during his annual Christmas Jam.
They discovered McDonald under the new category of Yacht Rock, which encompasses the popular soft pop sounds of the ’70s and ’80s. That style and his music have been referenced on Youtube videos and “Family Guy” episodes.
“It was just a great opportunity to laugh at yourself,” he said, “and in some ways it wound up endearing that music that otherwise people probably wouldn’t have given much attention to.
“We’ve reaped the benefits of that. It’s proof that no matter what it is and how out of style it might become, it’ll come around again.”