Michael McDonald on Thundercat, 'yacht rock,' and his unlikely comeback

Wendy Geller
Senior Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Few voices in contemporary music are as immediately recognizable as Michael McDonald’s. The vocalist, who rocket fuel-powered some of the Doobie Brothers’ biggest hits (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes,” and more), recently released Wide Open, his first set of original material in 17 years. He stopped by the BUILD studios in New York City to discuss the new work, as well as the charmingly unexpected resurgence of his career in 2017.

It’s safe to say that, outside of his initial ’70s superstardom, it’s never been a more opportune time to be McDonald. His soft-rock vocals and vibe, which tumbled sharply out of favor in the ’80s and remained uncool for decades, are now part of a major revival utilized by some of today’s most cutting-edge artists.

One of these, Thundercat — the Grammy-winning bassist known for his work with rapper Kendrick Lamar — recruited McDonald to sing on his most recent album.

McDonald explained that his friend and contemporary Kenny Loggins was instrumental in bringing the two of them together: “His son is a big [Thundercat] fan and had heard an interview with him where he mentions Kenny and me. So he right away told his dad, ‘You guys should write with Thundercat.’ So Kenny reached out.”

McDonald wasn’t familiar with Thundercat’s résumé, but after meeting him in a small-town California recording studio to work on a song, he quickly became a fan in return — leading to McDonald’s first appearance at Coachella. “It’s one of those places I probably never would have been invited to but for being a guest of Thundercat,” he noted with a wry smile. “It was a lot of fun. … It’s exciting because it’s kind of a wide-open format, very much a jam. There was a lot of freedom with [his] band live.

Indeed, it is this new interest in a genre music fans used to derisively call “yacht rock” (a term that was not used during its heyday) that McDonald finds amusing overall.

“During the ’80s, we were like lepers roaming the city,” he quipped, referring to himself and his ’70s contemporaries such as Loggins. “But I think that’s true of anything. I think a lot of it — looking back at any generation — there is a certain humor you can touch on.

“My kids enjoy that more than anything,” he continued. “I told my son — he’s a musician — ‘Don’t worry, when your music becomes less relevant, your pathetic comic value may be of some worth.’

“But it’s fun. No one’s more amazed than myself and my contemporaries are that we’re still working, still out there playing music. It’s what we love to do, and the fact that we get to do it at the level that we still sometimes can do it is really remarkable.”

Watch the full interview with McDonald below:

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