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Michael McDonald hears echoes of an earlier era, and it’s inspiring

Michael McDonaldTimothy White

Michael McDonald’s voice is one of pop’s greatest instruments. Whether singing lead on classic cuts like the Doobie Brothers’ hopeless-romantic chronicle “What a Fool Believes” and his own smooth-soul classic “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” or backup for the likes of Steely Dan and Christopher Cross, his raspy, yet tender croon is instantly recognizable. McDonald’s 10th solo album, “Wide Open,” which came out last year, is his first collection of original material in 17 years, following a series of tributes to Motown Records. As befits its title, it’s expansive and thoughtful, with the singer accompanied by arrangements that recall the era of vintage soul sides. In advance of his show Saturday at Emerson Colonial Theater, the Globe spoke to McDonald, 66, by phone.

Q. How did “Wide Open” come together?


A. While recording the Motown records, I was making demos of songs and song ideas. I was working with [“Wide Open” co-producer and Toto drummer Shannon Forrest] — we co-oped on a space in Nashville and combined our old gear. When I was in town, I’d say, “Hey, I’ll buy you dinner if you help me put this demo down tonight.” So we’d go to dinner, and go back [to the studio], and within an hour or two we’d throw down some idea that I had. Usually it was just him on drums and me on some keyboard or guitar, maybe synth bass if we really got into it. We kept compiling song ideas, and I didn’t even think about it.

I went over to see his new studio, and he said, “Hey, by the way, I’ve been tuning my room to those files of your demos.” And I said, “Wow.” And he goes, “And some of that stuff isn’t bad. I think you might have a start of a record here.” That was music to my ears, because otherwise I was thinking, “I gotta start writing some songs, and I don’t even know where to start.” For the most part, we kept the vocals from the demos, because I just couldn’t seem to replace them. They seemed to feel so relaxed and natural; even though they weren’t perfect, they felt real in some way I wasn’t able to reproduce.


Q. Hearing that you structured “Wide Open” around vocals is interesting, because I really like how stretched out and expansive it feels.

A. Yeah. [Even with] the Doobies, going in the studio was always a battle of trying to reproduce the demo, and we never could. When we first laid down tracks, many times I didn’t have all the lyrics but I would sing along with the band, just to give them a feel — mumbling anything that comes to my mind, like a guide vocal. When I’d listen to those rough tracks, I’d wish I had the lyrics so we could use that vocal, because it always felt somehow more real than anything I was able to do later. I was playing and singing at the same time; when you’re doing that you tend to sing differently, because you’re singing right in the moment, and later on, you’re trying to re-create something that you really can’t.

Q. Do you think there’s a difference in the way you approach writing songs today compared to the past, whether with the Doobies or solo?


A. Yeah. I find this a very exciting time. There’s a resurgence of the song among new artists. I love Leon Bridges’s new record [“Good Thing”]; I’ve immersed myself in it for days. I love his lyrics. They’re very smart and conversational and real, and that’s what I really pick up from his music. And the new David Crosby album, “Sky Trails.” There’s a guy who’s in his 70s who is at the top of his game.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a couple of records that I actually sat and listened to for days on end. It’s nice to feel that way about the music around me again, because that’s how I felt in the ’70s. I spent so much time [back then] listening to albums like [James Taylor’s] “Gorilla.” They were so inspiring, and they really yanked me into wanting to make another record. I really learned so much from listening to those artists, and I feel like I’m reentering a phase of my life where I’m actually doing a lot more listening again.

Q. Thundercat is incredible, too. [McDonald and his frequent collaborator Kenny Loggins appeared on the producer and songwriter’s 2017 love song “Show You the Way.”]

A. That [collaboration] was a lot of fun for me. He’s a very talented guy, and very prolific — in a way, I feel like a shrinking violet around him. The guy never stops writing and putting down ideas, and he’s got an energy that I wish I had about a tenth of. I got the chance to go out and play shows with those guys. It was a whole other experience, because it’s very much a power trio [playing] funk, fusion, R&B, rock almost at times. There are so many genres wrapped up in his music, and that’s the thing I love the most. James Taylor, especially on “In the Pocket” and “Gorilla,” would explore so many styles. Some of these young artists are doing that again, and I always love that. I don’t really so much care for records that are pretty much a lot of the same thing.


Q. You have one of the most singular voices in pop. How do you keep it in such good shape?

A. You know, “By the grace of God” is my best answer. When I was younger, I was pretty cavalier about my voice — I don’t know that I even thought about it that much, to be honest with you. Today I’m a lot more conscious about trying to get the sleep I need on the road, because it really becomes a death march if you’re not getting enough sleep. There’s just any number of little things I try to be cognizant of now, because I want to be able to sing as long as I can. But I look to some of the old gospel singers, and I realize that if I relax, and don’t push too hard and don’t work it out the wrong way, I could probably keep going for a while.


Q. Well, “What a Fool Believes” alone is a complete vocal workout, so . . .

A. It is, and [at] about that time of night, too, it’s like hanging on for dear life sometimes. [Laughs]

Michael McDonald

At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $49.50, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com

Interview was edited and condensed. Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.