It’s not like Michael McDonald hasn’t been busy. The songwriter and Doobie Brother has recorded two albums of covers of Motown classics, the first of which went platinum and the second of which went gold. He’s released an album covering artists from Bob Marley to Leonard Cohen. And he’s collaborated with younger stars such as Solange and Thundercat (the former called the Doobie Brothers “musical/harmonic/chord change heroes”).
Missing from that list? An album of new material. In fact, until last year’s “Wide Open,” McDonald’s last album of freshly-written songs came out just after we “survived” the Y2K bug: 2000’s “Blue Obsession.”
amNewYork caught up with the legend to talk about collaborations and trying new styles 40-plus years into a career.
Seventeen years can go by fast. Why now for a new set of songs?
I’ve spent the last eight to 10 years — maybe more — doing three Motown projects which occupied my time during that period. I’ve always had eyes toward doing another solo record of original material, but the Motown stuff was such a great opportunity. We did quite a bit of touring with those records. A lot of the songs on this record were songs that I actually demoed during the making of those Motown records, in the hopes of getting back to them. And I’m kinda slow by nature.
Over that time, you’ve also started to acquire a younger fan base, too. How did you connect with Thundercat for 2017’s “Show You the Way”?
I’m flattered for sure — unexpected is another word I’d use. Out of fear of being complacent, I try to listen to new music. I really love Steve Bruner’s [real name of Thundercat] whole take on the way he writes, his music, and all of the different influences that I hear there from jazz-funk fusion. And really, that’s a lot of what was happening when we were coming up, was that funk music entering the jazz realm. To see these young guys carrying on that tradition is really encouraging and inspiring to me. It was a lot of fun to go out and play with Steve and his trio, because it is a power trio, a funk power trio, if you will. We played the songs, but we never played them the same way twice.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you “jam” the way you do on “Free a Man.” How fun is it to go into the studio and try something new?
That was a lot of fun to do, that song. From the moment I heard that song — it was written by Richard Stekol, one of the best songwriters that’s ever been. I hold him in the same place as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. This was different for him, and what caught my ear was that if this was a song that we played live, we’d be able to jam and do something different and [it] would bring something special to our live show. Lyrically, it’s the conversation we’re having now as a nation, because like it or not, no matter what side of the conversation you’re coming from, it is the conversation we’re having. We’re coming to terms with “What is America?” What constitutes America? What is freedom? Who’s entitled to it — and shouldn’t it be everyone?
Michael McDonald performs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday at The Rooftop at Pier 17, 89 South St., pier17ny.com