You’re used to hearing Michael McDonald’s silky baritone crooning Doobie Brothers classics such as “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “It Keeps You Runnin’,” or solo hits including “On My Own,” “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Yah Mo B There.” The five-time Grammy winner is also renowned for his backup singing, lending his distinctive pipes to hundreds of songs including Steely Dan’s “Peg” (among many others) and Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind.”
But few associate the husky-voiced singer with Christmas carols – until now.
McDonald and his Santa-like white beard is headed for South Florida for two holiday-themed shows (Friday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and Saturday at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami) titled “This Christmas: An Evening of Holiday & Hits.” And don’t worry, diehard fans – he’ll throw in a hefty handful of non-yuletide hits as well.
McDonald talked to Miami.com about the show, his experience working with Steely Dan, and what’s next for him in the studio.
What inspired you to do a Christmas tour?
First of all, we inspired ourselves to do a Christmas album and write some music for it – that was always the goal. Once we got that under our belt, we kinda felt that it’d be great to play this stuff live during the Christmas season. And so we did it for a couple of years, and it was a lot of fun. The only thing is, it’s a little tough to be out this time of year, because you feel like you should be in a cave sleeping somewhere, you know? But we had fun doing the record and coming up with the arrangements for standards, and writing some Christmas songs ourselves.
Maybe your songs will become Christmas standards as well.
Well, we’d like to think that, but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen.
Are you performing all holiday tunes, or some regular hits as well?
We do about half and half. We found in our first couple years when we did pretty much exclusively Christmas songs from our Christmas albums that people wanted to hear the hits, too. If you don’t do some of that, they feel like they didn’t get the whole monty or whatever – they wanted to hear “What a Fool Believes” and stuff like that, so we put them back in the show.
You started off as a backup singer with Steely Dan – was it difficult to step into the lead?
No, not so much. I guess I had just grown up singing so much in bands, in bars and in clubs around St. Louis and Illinois, and I played a lot of small towns outside of that , too. We did a lot of Top 40 stuff, so I grew up singing stuff from that era, in the ‘60s. And when I went out to L.A., that was just a good way to make a living, and I was lucky to get into what was basically my backup singing career that kicked off with Steely Dan. They used me, and then other people heard me. I really enjoyed that work a lot – it really seemed to be a keyhole to peer through into what people were doing on records at the time, before they were released.
How was it working with [Steely Dan bandleaders] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen? Were they as tough to please as legend has it?
I don’t know that I would consider them tough to please. I always understood that it would be interesting and a little more demanding, just as a challenge. I always had a good time with them, but they were just always doing something different, a little more sophisticated, if you will, than your normal pop records. So it was a good education – that’s how I looked at it.
It must have been a totally different world, creatively.
It was. They were at the time one of my all-time favorite groups, so any time I got the chance to work with them, I always looked forward to it.
Your voice is one of the most distinctive in rock history – is that how they chose you in the first place?
I think the reason I got to work with them more than any other reason, was that I could sing a lot of the high parts in a somewhat natural voice. I don’t know that I could today, but back then I was able to reach all the high harmonies with a fairly strong falsetto. And that was very valuable to them live – they really liked that. I don’t think I got hired because of my piano playing, that’s for sure.
When you joined the Doobie Brothers, was there any resistance from Becker and Fagen?
Oh, no, it was all friendly. In fact, Steely Dan was pretty much off the road by then, strictly a studio band. I don’t think they thought they’d ever tour again, nor would they miss it. But they called me when I was available, and I’d make myself available as often as possible. I never was an official member of Steely Dan – I was more one of the guys, peripheral, you know? With the Doobies, I toured with them playing keyboards and singing, and within a short time found myself becoming a member of the band, after “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
Do you have anything new planned for the studio?
Yeah, right now we’re finishing up a record. Hopefully, it’ll get done – famous last words – by February at the latest. And it’s the first record of original material that I’ve done in a while. Some of the stuff I cut eight years ago. It’s kind of a culmination of songs I wrote and cut in Nashville since I lived down there, in the last 15 years or so. So it’s a different album, really – not country or anything like that, but a large part of them are just demos that I made when I was down there, just to get the songs down so I didn’t forget them.
Would you be able to characterize its style, musically?
Well, it’s very altered from I think what people normally have heard me do, a large reason being that a good portion of this stuff I wrote on guitar, which is not my first instrument. I went to writing on guitar because I didn’t have a piano at home – I was living on a small farm down there in a small house, and my piano was at the studio. So when I was writing at home, typically it was on guitar or ukulele, and they take on a different shape or form. There’s one song on there we were working on the other day, and the guitar player who was working with us, he said, “You know, this kind of sounds like The Cure.” And I said, well, that’s something I’ve never been accused of [laughs]. So it’s kind of coming from a different part of my brain, I think.
Does it have a working title yet?
Not really. I was thinking the other day that if I was gonna call it anything, I might just call it “Altered.” That’s the only thing I can think of. It’s just a different take on my music from what I’ve done in the past. And a lot of it kind of reminds me of stuff I might have recorded with The Doobies or before that, like demos I made before I worked with Steely Dan.