Michael McDonald Reflects On The Albums That Influenced His Life

On the record

photo by chris schoonover

The following feature appears in the September 2017 issue of NYLON Guys.

“I’m very fortunate just to be working at my age at all,” says the soul-pop crooner Michael McDonald, now 65, before launching into a story about a conversation he had decades ago with fellow singer-songwriter Randy Newman. “He was joking around, saying, ‘I don’t want to be that guy who shouldn’t be onstage anymore who’s still up there. I just hope somebody has pity on me and shoots me.’ We laughed about that,” McDonald recounts over coffee in the shag-carpeted listening room of his publicity firm’s New York office.

“Of course, that was all of our fears being musicians in the ’70s: ‘Are we gonna be those guys?’ But here we are. We’re those guys.” McDonald chuckles at the recollection, but the truth is, he’s not that guy. And that’s not just the opinion of his longtime fans—those who’ve followed him since his tenure in classic bands Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers—it belongs to the Pitchfork set, too. 

To wit: Indie rockers Grizzly Bear and jazz-funk bassist Thundercat have both recorded with McDonald. (Thundercat even brought him onstage to play at this year’s Coachella festival.) Mac DeMarco counts himself a fan. And none other than Solange dueted with McDonald on a Doobie Brothers song at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in March. McDonald is at a loss to explain why younger artists have sought him out in recent years. 

“I don’t really know,” he admits. “It’s not part of any plan that I have or any invention of mine. I’ve almost come to the point where I wait till I see what’s next.” One thing he can foresee is the release of Wide Open, his first album of original material in 17 years, featuring guest appearances from jam-band icon Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule) and the jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. In the meantime, McDonald happily agreed to look back at the records that make him who he is today.

Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
"There was so much high-end, grandiose production in the early ’60s, and all of a sudden here comes this guy who’s strumming the guitar and singing lyrics in rapid succession that don’t even rhyme, and yet making this incredible point that wouldn’t be made any other way. The songs really spoke to me, especially 'Like a Rolling Stone.' It’s that stream of consciousness—it’s the story of so many people, so much human experience, all in one song."