Interview

Michael McDonald Picks The Song Of The Summer

Stereogum’s annual Song Of The Summer contest is still anyone’s game, and who better to assess this year’s competitors than Michael McDonald? This fall the golden-throated, oft-imitated singer/songwriter will release Wide Open, his first album of original tunes in 17 years. The R&B legend famously lent his chops to hits by Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers before finding solo success in the ’80s with jams like “I Keep Forgetting’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Yah Mo B There.” A series of covers album for Motown — not to mention shoutouts in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Yacht Rock, and 30 Rock — cemented McDonald as a cultural touchstone during the aughts, and in recent years we’ve seen him become an unlikely collaborator of indie acts like Grizzly Bear, Holy Ghost!, and the New Pornographers (sort of). This spring he made surprise appearances with Thundercat at Coachella and Solange at Okeechobee. Both times he was asked to play his indelible ’79 Record/Song Of The Year “What A Fool Believes.” Stereogum caught up with McDonald in New York recently and naturally we wanted to know what he thought of “Despacito.”

STEREOGUM: What’d you think of Coachella?

MICHAEL MCDONALD: I loved it, the infrastructure of it all. When I go to these festivals now the creature comforts are amazing and I think back — festivals were just like a matter of, in the summer, “Well we’re gonna get as many people crowded into this mud hole as we possibly can, just so we can sell ‘em tickets, and we’ll get all these bands to play.” Nobody really thought of them as events.

STEREOGUM: You went with your daughter — did you get to see a lot of new bands?

MCDONALD: Yeah, she kept me awake through the whole thing, made me go to the bitter end every night.

STEREOGUM: You’ve been hanging out with Thundercat and Solange, so you clearly have good taste in current music. The idea here is I’ll play you some of the contenders, pop hits that have been tipped to have the staying power to be Song Of The Summer. We’ll discuss which you think could be the anthem that people will hear coming out of car stereos, on the beach, etc…

DJ Khaled – “I’m The One” (Feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, & Lil Wayne)

STEREOGUM: Have you heard this one before?

MCDONALD: No.

STEREOGUM: That’s Quavo. He’s on about a hundred tracks this year.

MCDONALD: This one’s not doing that much for me. [laughs]

Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee – “Despacito (Remix)” (Feat Justin Bieber)

STEREOGUM: It’s the first Spanish language #1 in the US in 20 years.

MCDONALD: I like that it’s addressing a whole audience in the US that doesn’t get addressed that much on pop radio.

STEREOGUM: Does it sound like a potential Song Of The Summer to you?

MCDONALD: I like the traditional flavor of it. It almost has a reggae feel but it’s also got a kind of Latino rhythmic syncopation to it.

STEREOGUM: The last Spanish #1 was “Macarena” so I think this is an improvement.

MCDONALD: Things are looking up.

The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – “Something Just Like This”

STEREOGUM: Have you ever heard of the Chainsmokers?

MCDONALD: I’ve heard the name. There’s no real melodic change, it’s just everything underneath comes and goes. The same chord progression.

STEREOGUM: You see a lot of EDM-lite acts at music festivals these days. Does that surprise you, that that’s what’s resonating with young people?

MCDONALD: It’s a different animal. There’s a very simplistic kind of formula. It reminds me of when rock n’ roll first started and it was the same 12-bar, three chord change thing. And all of our parents’ generation kind of went, “This is the same thing over and over again.” So I hesitate to be that person [to criticize].

STEREOGUM: Coldplay are on this song with them.

MCDONALD: I love Coldplay.

STEREOGUM: This is a new look for them.

MCDONALD: I just did an EDM track — it’s yet to come out — with Nile Rodgers. I hope it comes out some day.

STEREOGUM: Is that for an album?

MCDONALD: I have no idea what it’s for. It’s a song we did together with a DJ from Ireland. I liked his stuff a lot, he was pretty creative. He was using weird influences in his mashups, like old ’40s jazz piano tracks. Records that I never heard. And somehow putting beats under it to change the whole rhythmic feel of it.

STEREOGUM: It’s great the see the resurgence of interest in Nile Rodgers’ music.

MCDONALD: A man that never rests. Every time I see him he’s getting on a plane to Europe.

Selena Gomez – “Bad Liar”

STEREOGUM: That’s the bassline from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” being sampled.

MCDONALD: Although it’s a single chord song, I like her voice and the melodic approach to it. Sounds like something you’d hear on the beach.

STEREOGUM: You’ve been sampled many times and that’s worked out pretty well.

MCDONALD: It’s funny how those things come about. Usually the record company will approach us. A lot of times those records are already out on the street and a label will sign the act and figure they better get the clearance. There’s part of me that can’t imagine [back in the day] walking into Warner Bros. having sampled a part of a track of a record that was huge, like “Every Breath You Take.” And just rewriting my own lyric and using their melody and going “This is my new single, what do you think?” They probably would’ve had me picked up and taken away. Having said that, it’s become an art form in its own way. It’s kind of like, collage art or something. You can be highly creative but you have to accept it for what it is.

STEREOGUM: Some artists do not welcome being sampled. Don Henley hates when people mess with his songs.

MCDONALD: I don’t hate it and at times I’ve been flattered by it. But I don’t choose to do it myself. I would rather stay in the realm of “Can I write a melody without plagiarizing anyone?” And I haven’t always been successful at that!

Mac DeMarco – “One More Love Song”

STEREOGUM: This is a left-field contender.

MCDONALD: I like Mac. I even met his aunt. At Coachella we all hung out. She reminded me very much of my sister.

STEREOGUM: His mom is the hip mom now. She runs his fan club. Did you get to see him perform?

MCDONALD: I tried to get there on time but we got hung up so they were just finishing his last number when we got there. But I’m familiar with his music. I love his stuff. I like this track. You know what I love about his music, it has a very original musicality to it. It doesn’t sound like, “Oh here we got with the formula,” you know? You don’t know what’s coming next, and there’s something very refreshing about that. I got a feeling his music is gonna resonate throughout the year.

STEREOGUM: Could be a Song Of The Autumn. Here’s another left-field candidate from the indie world…

Father John Misty – “Total Entertainment Forever”

MCDONALD: He was also at Coachella the day I was. I saw him live. I thought it was great. It was a very eccentric show with a big orchestra. It seems like an amalgam of so many things. I love his lyrics — the “Dying Man” song is such a great lyric, where the guy checks his news feed to see what he’s gonna miss. I was given a great perspective on his music by being able to hear him live and then listen to the album on the way home with my daughter.

STEREOGUM: He’s very clever on social media. I noticed you haven’t tweeted in a few years.

MCDONALD: I’ve been set up with a Twitter account and I just never use it.

STEREOGUM: Not your thing.

MCDONALD: Apparently not. I use Facebook but I find that I’m … if I put up a picture of my dog there or a sunset or something I get a million hits. If I mention anything to do with my career, three people respond. And/or if I say anything political, I have to duck afterwards. I try to be selective.

STEREOGUM: Let’s try a throwback. Summer ’86.

Michael McDonald – “Sweet Freedom”

MCDONALD: [laughs]

STEREOGUM: When’s the last time you watched this video?

MCDONALD: Quite a while. I had black hair. This video, apart from the film clips, and [Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines] showing up, was a complete bust. Even the director was like, “This is not going anywhere…” When those guys showed up, they just started goofing off and it became the whole video.

STEREOGUM: You were trying to lip sync.

MCDONALD: I’ve never been good at that. There were these little goldfish in these bowls on all the tables and the lights from the video shoot — the poor things were all dying. They kept having to replace the goldfish.

STEREOGUM: That’s on you, Michael McDonald.

MCDONALD: When I go to hell all those goldfish will be waiting for me.

STEREOGUM: You can’t stream this song. How come it’s not on Apple Music or Spotify?

MCDONALD: [Songwriter] Rod Temperton.

STEREOGUM: You still play this, though, right?

MCDONALD: Every night. I try not to diminish that list of five or six [songs the audience wants].

Michael McDonald – “Find It In Your Heart”

STEREOGUM: This is gonna be the first single from your new album?

MCDONALD: This is myself on keyboards. Tim Akers played some synth. Shannon Forrest, the producer, played drums. Michael Landau played guitar. Steely Dan horns.

STEREOGUM: Wide Open is your first album of original songs in 17 years. Why the rush?

MCDONALD: That’s about the pace I work at. This record came about in an odd way because a lot of them were just demos I cut not with any real idea that it would be a record. I always kept writing [during the Motown years]. Shannon and I were co-opting on a space and I was lucky that because of that he was using the studio a lot for his productions and his session stuff, so when I would sneak in at night … I’d tell him, “I’m in town, I got a song in my pocket … if I buy you dinner will you play the drums for me?” And he’d stay late after a long day of work and was kind enough to help me make these two-man demos. It was a good place to start ’cause I had this world-class drummer.

STEREOGUM: OK one more.

Lil Uzi Vert – “XO TOUR Llif3″

STEREOGUM: Song Of The Summer?

MCDONALD: It’s … interesting.

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Michael McDonald’s Wide Open is out 9/15 via BMG. If you haven’t yet, vote in Stereogum’s Song Of The Summer 2017 survey below.