Michael McDonald interview, 11th May 2003

By Blue Desert: Henrik Bohm, Jan Bau and Carsten Weide (photographer).

As a part of the promotion for the latest Motown album-release, Michael McDonald went to Europe to play a couple of gigs with the new material, to meet the press etc. Blue Desert meet with Michael to talk about the new album, the past and the future.

– Blue Desert: Dear Michael, what a great experience it is to meet you after your great concert last night. We really enjoyed the show. You sat the stage on fire.

Michael McDonald: Thank you, yes it is actually quite funny because we had a gig in London a week ago, and we thought that the audience was so great and that they would spoil us on the tour to come; and then we came here to Copenhagen the audience was even more enthusiastic, and gave us all a great feeling on stage.

– BD: You are now promoting  your new album Motown. How did the idea come about of re – recording old Motown classics and doing them in the unique Michael McDonald style:

MM: Well it was actually not my idea from the start it was Tony Swain from Universal Records who got the idea and presented it to me in Royal Albert Hall a year ago. I jumped on the idea and though it would be interesting to remake these songs and still keep the original approach, and since Universal owns the rights to these songs, it was very obvious to give it a serious try. I got to talk to the English producer Simon Climie whom I knew of from other interesting projects such as the amazing Eric Clapton album “Pilgrim”.

From the start, like many others, I grew up in the Motown timeframe, Motown music was something I really gravitated to as a kid, as did most kids. Marvin Gaye´s Super Hits album (1970) and the Diana and Marvin album (1973) where just records I played thousands of times. This was at a time when I had some time on my hands, as a musician living out in California, I think I was listening to more (Motown) then than when I was back home. The Stevie Wonders album, Music Of My Mind, Talking Book and Songs In The Key Of Life they were all albums that when I was on my own where always on the turntable.

– BD: How did you pick the songs for this album?

As an artist you look at the Motown catalogue and realize that there are a tremendous amount of unknown songs. Then you try to find the songs that nobody has heard and then you realize that it is not the case, but give the audience the best experience. I looked at about 150 songs that I have chosen and when the songs were to be decided, we where only looking at about 2 or 3 songs that where on the record company´s list.

To give you an example I really wanted to record the classic Marvin Gaye´s “What´s going on”, but Universal Records rejected the idea, even that I thought that the song had a great touch of reggae and soul at the same time, and that we played it a lot of times live at the concerts, it was still not interesting for the Universal to give it a try. Well – so fortunately it all ended up with 12 songs that I enjoy a lot, and gave the band and I some great moments in the studio. The great feel through the recording sessions was our ability to follow our instinct and still at the same time keep the concept on track. The only song that we recorded that gave us a hard time was Reflections that had this reggae feel, and developed into some difficulties around the natural meaning of the song, but it all ended up quit acceptable – we think. This was by the way one of the songs that I had suggested.

It was very important to keep the original concept of the songs and still have the new pop approach.

It was furthermore important not to sound like a compilation album, build on random Motown songs without any new sound/ideas added.

– BD: Talking about the style of the songs on the album it is clear that most of the songs have different tempo and approaches compared to the original songs. How was that decided?

MM: Yes it is true that we rearranged almost all the songs, to give it something new and fresh. To mention one of the songs “How Sweet It Is” we took that song a couple of bars down. It was quit easy to be creative because of the tremendous quality of these songs, so Simon, the band, and I managed within a short time to find the touch that we where looking for.

– BD: This album is recorded in Europe with European musicians. Is there any reason for that in terms of commercial expectations or getting the audience attention?

MM: Not so much for commercial reasons but more the fact that the Americans have lived with these songs for decades and feel that these songs only can be performed by the original artist, and the fact that the Europeans hopefully will enjoy the way we decided to perform the classics. To give an example the Beatles when they toured in the US, they performed with their own versions of Smokey Robinson songs, and the audience loved it. We hope that the same will happen with this album.

– BD: Michael – we all know that you have a great personal as well as professional relationship with Kenny Loggins. Any news about Kenny?

MM: Yes – actually I am working closely with Kenny on his new album, where I have the privileges to compose together with Kenny on some of the songs. The album is ready for release but there is only one thing missing. Kenny still needs to find a record company to get it released. Yes it is actually true J.

– BD: Speaking of collaborations. Your singing with David Pack and James Ingram and to be very honest it is like being in heaven. Are there any chance of more songs featuring the three of you.

MM: Oh thanks – yes I hope so, but nothing has been planned yet.

– BD: Speaking about friends and families: In the early eighties you produced two wonderful albums for your wife Amy Holland and another album by the group Delta featuring your sister Maureen McDonald.

MM: Yes, Maureen still sings, but not professionally unfortunately, but I think on a personal basis that she has a wonderful voice. I think the last time she sang, was for me at my 50 years birthday, which I enjoyed a lot. Now and then she play with some local bands

– BD: Over the years you have done a few duets with Amy, although not on one of your solo albums. Any chance of more family duets in the future?

MM: Amy is recording a new record as we speak, but more folk inspired since it is Amy´s true self, and something that Amy has wanted to do for a long time.

– BD: Speaking about musicians from the past we simply can not avoid naming Jeff Porcaro, whom you worked with almost through your entire carrier, until his untimely death.

MM: Jeff was for sure one of the greatest of all time. Jeff was one of the most creative and intelligent musicians, with a tremendous amount of energy and warmth, and inspired us all to perform at our best at every session and concert. He was and still is the best example of the complete artist with a great talent, and an individual with lots of humour and “craziness”. Jeff was very considerate towards others and an extremely popular human being. That was evident at his funeral where hundreds of people where attending, five times more than the church could contain. This is probably one of the people I miss most.

– BD: Touring in Scandinavia in connection with your “Blink Of An Eye” album, you and the band seemed somewhat surprised about the very enthusiastic response. Had you not received any previous indication of your huge popularity in this part of this world.

MM: Talking about popularity, the band and I really were in shock at one of our concerts in Café Opera in Stockholm around 11 years ago. The crowd was simply out of this world, and looking at these Swedish girls is simply way to risky. At the same time I meet the Swedish top musician Mauro Scocco. He and I discussed different ideas, and it turned out that Mauro asked me to join as a singer and keyboard player on one of his songs on his album “Beat Hotel”. I decided to play the keyboard and avoided to sing at all, since my Swedish pronunciation is way to American.

– BD: Finally Michael, is the rumour true about a project with you together with a big orchestra – in the style of “Tell It Like It Is” from the album Blue Obsession?

MM: Actually this is an idea from the record company, but nothing that I personally have planned for. The next album will be more in the same line as my previous recordings. Not that the “big orchestra thing” never will go on, maybe I do that next.

– BD: As true fans we are very happy to meet with you in person and wish you all the best in the future. And hope to see you very soon again in Copenhagen.

Thanks to Annette Wigandt – Universal Music Denmark for setting up the interview.