“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Michael McDonald
Smitty: All right, it’s my pleasure to welcome to JazzMonthly.com an incredible and strong singer, one of our most emotional singers of our time. He’s from my hometown so that makes him an extra special guest. He’s just released a great new record. You must hear this record. I highly recommend it. It is called Soul Speak. Please welcome the incredible and amazing Mr. Michael McDonald. Michael, how are you, my friend?
Michael McDonald (MM): Good, Smitty. How are you?
Smitty: Wonderful. Hey, it’s great to talk with you and wow, man, you are just locked in a groove and, I must say, you’re still in your heyday, man. You still got it happening, you know?
MM: (Laughs.) Awfully nice of you to say that.
MM: But yeah, we had a lot of fun. I mean, well, you know, all three of these records [Motown, Motown Two, Soul Speak] have been more fun than work, really, because of the nature of the projects and the fact that we get to deal with the great old songs that are just songs we’ve loved for many years.
Smitty: Yeah, and Motown and Stevie Wonder must mean so much to you. Just talk about—because you grew up in a time when the music was strong and had so much meaning, and I really think with this record especially you’ve really captured the essence of that time with these great songs and really put such a force behind them.
MM: Yeah, well I think probably the running thread for this album would be songs—and because unlike the first two Motown records, we kinda went outside the lines a little bit and did songs that weren’t just exclusively songs recorded by Motown artists and first we did the Dionne Warwick song “Walk On By” and the Van Morrison [“Into the Mystic”] song and even the Leonard Cohen song [“Hallelujah”], and the two Stevie Wonder songs [“Living for the City” and “For Once in My Life”], all of them have that one thing in common to me, which is they kinda have that great quality of, you know, instead of just hearing these songs the first time and maybe all loving them to death but not just growing tired of them over the years and moving on to the next adventure, they all have a certain quality of that after all these years, when we do these songs, they’re just as fresh in our heart and mind, and we love them just as much as we did the first time we heard them, and there’s some kind of enduring quality with these songs that to me was really what the common thread of all of them are, and they all seem to be about in some way about human redemption or looking for redemption in the right and wrong places but nonetheless have that great kind of human nature of quality about them that I think really makes them resonate with us through the years, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a common thing. I think that’s the common thread of this project. So tell me, was that the catalyst? What was the catalyst for doing this record?
MM: Well, like I say, this is our third record for Motown—and we wanted to do just something a little different than the first two, and then we even actually recorded three originals for this record [“I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” “Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me),” “Enemy Within,” “Only God Can Help Me Now”], which was again just something we thought we could offer on this project that was a little different than the first two, and although we recorded these songs along with the rest of the songs, we weren’t sure up until the end whether they’d actually make the record or not or we would want to put them on there or they would fit, you know?
But in the end we decided that they still had that same kind of basic essence and that they kinda fit and grew up with the older material and that in a way kinda gave us a chance to make a little different record for our third album for Motown. And what the next one will be as far as a record goes is hard to say. It’ll probably be more original compositions than these first three, but this seemed like a good segue back to that if that’s where we’re going and, like I say, kinda opened the door to a little wider range of material that we felt was a good opportunity to kinda give the listeners.
Smitty: Yeah, well, I’ll tell you, man, there are a lot of memories in these songs that we grew up listening to. Was that a strong influence in selecting these songs or was it difficult to select these songs that you have on this record?
MM: No, we did, and it’s funny with these three albums—I know I keep referring to three of them—but this one is kind of the end of a three-piece set, I guess, more or less to me, and with each record the list of songs that we were drawing from seems to get longer rather than shorter.
MM: And with each record we thought of more songs we wanted to do, and I think as artists we were more prone to want to do the really obscure stuff, like “Tuesday Heartbreak” and songs like that that albeit they’re songs we all love but maybe they weren’t the most biggest singles from those records and they’re not the songs you hear on classic radio so much, but with the record label, of course, they wanted us to do some of the well known hits, so we were always looking for a good cross-section for things like the “Grapevines” [“I Heard it Through the Grapevine”] and “For Once in My Life” and the really big records by those artists, and then the more obscure stuff like “Tuesday Heartbreak.” And for Van Morrison, you know, he had so many big hits, and “In the Mystic” was a hit for him but maybe one of the more obscure songs by him. And I don’t know. There’s something about finding those songs. It’s kinda like finding gems you grew up with and you get to do them.
Smitty: Well, I tell you, you did such a wonderful job. I tell you, the arrangements on these are fantastic and I’ve gotta speak of your background vocals. They are so hot, it’s ridiculous. Man, I mean, they really supported this project so well. I love those background vocals. Wow!
MM: Oh, well, thanks. Yeah, there’s a lot of people singing on them. I mean, over the course of time we always have our buddies here in Nashville that are so talented, the people that I know here and then there’s singers out of New York and some of them over in London—and I don’t think we did any vocals out in L.A. per se, but a lot of really talented people contributing to the overall beauty of the project.
Smitty: Yes, and I love Abe Laboriel on the drums and Nathan East on bass. I mean, this is just a beautiful project, man. I love it.
MM: Oh, thanks, Smitty. I appreciate it. And that was basically Eric Clapton’s band that played on it (both laugh), so these are the guys that go out with him live and play on his records, and we were lucky to be able to get them on some of their off time, rare down time, and get them in the studio with us.
Smitty: Yeah, and you were talking about originals on this project. I think that “Only God Can Help Me Now” fits perfectly on this project. Wow, that’s a great song.
MM: Oh, well, thank you, thank you. Yeah, we were lucky, I think, on this project to be able to include some originals, yeah. We wouldn’t have done that on the first two Motowns because we really wanted to dedicate the record to pretty much reviewing it and going back, in a retrospective kind of way, through the Motown history. But with this record, like I say, it was more or less almost anything goes, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, well, you’ve come a long way from Mike & the Majestics, my friend. (Both laugh.)
MM: That’s a while back. Not too many people know what that means.
Smitty: (Laughs.) Yeah, but I tell ya, Michael, your career has just been a stellar one and I don’t think you’ve ever put out a bad record that I know of, and it’s just great to see you still out there doing your thing and really having fun with it because I really loved it when you said at the beginning of this conversation that it was more fun than work, and I think that’s the key to really doing something that everyone will love, when you’re having fun doing it, you know?
MM: Yeah, I agree with you, Smitty. I think that with each record we’ve ever done, myself and whatever producers—on these albums Simon Climie has done such a great job producing these records, and largely I think that the real goal for us from the beginning was if we’re doing this kind of project and we’re not having fun, we’re doing something wrong.
Smitty: Absolutely, my friend.
MM: And so that always seems to translate through music no matter what genre or what kind of record you do.
Smitty: That is so true. How excited were you about having Stevie Wonder on this project?
MM: Yeah, well, Stevie’s been pretty generous with his talent and really nice of him to kinda step out and do these—the problem for us was once you’ve recorded a song with a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo on it, it’s pretty hard to kinda put anything else there or get anyone else to even dare to play a solo, so he was awfully nice and on a couple of tracks on the last record and on this record he played some harmonica for us, so that was a big thrill for us.
Smitty: Yeah, it was sweet too. Well, you know what, Michael? This great record Soul Speak is so appropriately titled because I think you really put a soulful touch to these songs and really reminded us of some very good times and maybe some rollercoaster times, you know? It just depends, but for the most part, some fun memories, great songs, and I want to applaud you for doing this great project.
MM: Oh, well, thanks. I appreciate that.
Smitty: Yeah, and everyone else involved. And would you do me a favor, my friend?
Smitty: Would you go out and rock the world with this stuff? Because it’s fantastic.
MM: Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I can guarantee we’re gonna have a lot of fun playing it because these are the songs we would play in our spare time or I played them in clubs for years, and every chance I got since then, it’s a thrill to be able to actually play them every night in our own show, and it’s more fun than any musician should be allowed to have, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, it’s a party, that’s for sure.
Smitty: All right, well, Michael, thanks again for your time and for talking about this great record and for your entire career, all the wonderful things you’ve done and the fun that you’ve brought to us as fans.
MM: Well, Smitty, thank you. I appreciate your time too and it’s been fun talking to you, and hopefully whoever gets back to St. Louis first, give them my best, you know?
Smitty: All right, my friend. We’ll do that. We’ve been talking with the incredible Michael McDonald. His great new record is called Soul Speak, it’s available in stores across the country. I highly recommend this great project. Michael, all the very best in 2008 and beyond, my friend.
MM: Same to you, Smitty. Take care, buddy.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.michaelmcdonald.com and www.myspace.com/michaelmcdonald and www.universalrecords.com
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