A Conversation with Michael McDonald
Mike Ragogna: I have followed your career from early on and I admire your recent Motown revisits.
Michael McDonald: Oh, thanks. It was a lot of fun, those records. There was hardly any work, actually.
MR: You sounded pretty natural on them, like these songs were old friends.
MM: I think it was one of the reasons I even allowed myself the luxury of thinking I could be the person who could do this in terms of when Motown asked me. I remember thinking, "God, why are they asking me to do this?" At the same time, I wanted so badly to do it and I wouldn't allow myself to say no. I just said yes and figured out how to deal with all of my second guesses later.
One of the reasons why I kind of convinced myself to jump in with both feet was the fact that I had sung those songs for so many years in clubs growing up, and back then, the deal was trying to sound like the record and the artist. So, I had developed a semi-style of my own of just picking up certain phrasing aspects and certain aspects of the singer on the record. That served me well in clubs growing up, and it probably had a lot to do with me developing my own style of singing. It's an amalgam of all of those people. For that reason, because I have done these songs for so many years, I thought maybe I could pull this stuff off. It was more of a selfish endeavor than anything because it was a great deal of fun for us.
MR: It seems that for major artists that write their own material, they're supposed to keep covers to a minimum because of the pre-conceived notion that covers won't be as good as the original recording nor as good as an artist's own material.
MM: Well, there was plenty of that going around. (laughs) We kept a lot of the original keys because our paranoia was that these things still get so much radio play and certain radio stations play the oldies so people hear these records probably as much or more than they did back in the day when they were hits. So, you don't want to be that guy who comes on after they have heard Marvin Gaye sing "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in the original key and have it two steps down. We tried to keep things in the original key as much as we could. That was a little daunting at my age anyway. These guys were in their twenties when they originally sang them.
MR: You've still got that billion-dollar voice, and it sounded like you handled the vocals with ease.
MM: You're nice to say that. It wasn't as easy as it sounds, but we had some pretty funny moments and actually had a good laugh once in a while over me struggling on some of these things. It's funny, your voice is so malleable after a couple of tries and can sound horrible and somehow, your brain puts it all together and you figure out how to get up into that key.
MR: Tell us about the tour.
MM: Yeah. It's really a fun tour.
MR: And you've got a fun name for it.
MM: Yeah, it's called "Dukes Of September Rhythm Review." We are just having fun and kind of approaching it that way.
MR: Who are the Dukes?
MM: It's with Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and myself as a singular band. We kind of take the stage together and become part of the band. It really harkens back to what we all grew up doing, playing in bands and playing a lot of the songs that we are doing. We are certainly doing a few of our own thing, but a lot of the material is some great old songs that everybody knows that are still fairly obscure yet are still good songs. When you hear them, hopefully, you'll think, "Gosh, I haven't heard that song in years," but you know it and remember it.
MR: Some of your early credits include Steely Dan and Doobie Brother records, of course. So, these are friendships that go way back.
MM: Yes. You know 20 or 30 years at least. Boz and I go way back too and shared a lot of common friends in the '70s like Jeff Porcaro who is a common friend. Although I didn't know Boz as well back then, I still have a fond memory of sitting in Jeff's apartment in our twenties. He was playing me the rough mixes of Boz's Silk Degrees record, and I was playing him some rough tapes of some things I was working on at the time for the Taking It to the Streets record. We were both just kind of sitting around on a Saturday morning with nothing better to do than to listen to music that we were working on, kind of sharing our experiences. It's a fond memory for me.
MR: You're one of the lucky ones who got to work with Jeff.
MM: I love Jeff. He was one of the greatest people I have ever met.
MR: You know everybody says that, and even to this day, people seem to be grieving.
MM: At Jeff's funeral, you would have thought it was a Mafia Don or the Pope or something, there were so many people. It wasn't because he was a great drummer, it was because each and every one of those people knew and loved him a lot. He was just a great, great guy.
MR: On this tour, you'll all be performing songs from your three solo careers. Will you also play Doobie Brothers material?
MM: I will do a couple of things from the Doobie Brothers and one thing from my solo career, and Boz is doing something from Silk Degrees and subsequent records. Donald is doing mostly stuff from his solo career and, of course, we are doing a Steely Dan song or two.
MR: I interviewed Carly Simon for The Huffington Post not too long ago and we talked about "You Belong To Me."
MM: That was a funny and great experience. We worked together on a couple of tracks with the Doobies on a solo album that Carly had done.
MR: Were those on her Another Passenger record?
MM: Yes, I believe so.
MR: The Ted Templeman connection, he produced that album as well as your biggest Doobies records.
MM: And she had done "It Keeps You Runnin" and another track from the Doobies, and asked us to play on them. We had a great time. I jumped at the chance to write with Carly and what I wound up doing was sending this chord progression and a rough of the melody, and I just kind of mumbled over the chord progression of this song and I sent it to her thinking it may be something she would be interested in writing on. It wasn't a couple of weeks later that I got this cassette back from her. I don't even think she sang on it, I think it was with a hand written copy of the lyrics and wish I had it today.
MR: Check eBay.
MM: (Laughs) Don't know what happened to it. You know, I loved the lyrics and thought they were great, so I went into the studio and cut it and it ended up on our next record. It wasn't a huge hit for us, but it was a song that everybody seemed to like that were friends of ours, and I certainly was proud of it because it seemed to be something different for me and for the band. Then, about a few years later, she came out with it and had this top five hit and I remember, at that time, that we had never spoken this entire time. I called her on the phone and we kind of laughed about that and we said, "You know we should probably write more often and not speak to each other either as it seems to bring us good luck." It just seemed so funny that here, she had this big hit record with the song that we both wrote together without having ever spoken to each other through the entire process. So, it was an uncanny situation.
MR: Her son Ben Taylor told me that the song was a reaction to James Taylor's "You Make It Easy," this real bluesy pop number. Apparently, "You Belong To Me"'s lyrics were a reaction to James' song about temptation.
MM: Oh, wow that's great.
MR: You are also the co-writer of Van Halen's "I'll Wait." Is there a story behind that?
MM: Not really other than it involved Ted Templeman who put me together with David Lee Roth. The track was cut and they were kind of stymied on the lyric on this one, so Ted had recommended that they work with me. I got together with David in Ted's office, and I had put some ideas down. David had sent me the track and so I went over them with him and he seemed to like them. He may have made some changes at that point, I'm not sure.
Van Halen went and cut the song, and it's probably one of the more lucrative things I have ever done in my entire career because, as the Doobies, we did great with records. But Van Halen was the inception of mega-platinum record sales. We were platinum-selling artists, but to us, that was a huge deal to go platinum. Then these young bands came along and went quadruple-platinum which was unheard of at that point.
MR: You were on so many hit records and actually gave them their "sound" by lending them yours. For instance, you were a very memorable voice on Christopher Cross' debut.
MM: Funny story behind that. Christopher was in the studio next to us recording when I was recording with the Doobies, and he literally just walked in and introduced himself. We got to talking and were hanging out in between whatever we were working on, and his producer Michael Omartian said, "Would you consider coming over and throwing down this one vocal line...one line...you don't have to harmonize or anything. You just have to hear this one kind of response." I said sure and it was "Ride Like The Wind," just to show you how sometimes it's funny how those things happen.
MR: You've recorded many duets, some of your best known being with James Ingram and Kenny Loggins. But it seems your best loved duet is with Patti LaBelle on "On My Own."
MM: Yes. The Burt Bacharach and Carol Sager song. Again, for me, it was a thrill. At this point in my career, I am convinced that the best things that happen, happen almost totally by accident. You could plan a lot of this stuff, but in my experience, the duets that were planned and anticipated as a big deal, usually never were. With Patty, it was just an afterthought.
MR: What happened?
MM: There were these two tracks and Patti had just sung on one entirely. For some reason, at the last minute, Burt was thinking, "Why, this might just make a great duet." I might have been like the second or third guy they called for all I know. I just happened to be available and have always been a huge fan of Burt's and a good friend of Carol's. I had written with Carol, and I also was a huge fan of hers.
I grew up on Burt Bacharach, and he was one of the big guys along with Ray Charles. Certain artists were just really huge in my youth, and more than anything, just the thought of singing on a Burt Bacharach record for me was a thrill. It was funny, I had played that song for a lot of people, and I didn't really know how to categorize it. I was curious what people would think, if they thought it was a good performance because we had sung it separately from each other. It wasn't really a song that we sang; I sang the song to her voice on tape. The biggest reaction from most people was, "It's nice, it's okay."
My wife and I were at a play and this woman came up to me. She was a secretary to one of the big promotion guys at MCA, and this record was on MCA at the time. She goes, "You know, all of us girls at the office have been playing that record every day a hundred times. We love that record. I just wanted you to know that." And I said, "Oh, thanks very much, that's very sweet of you to say that." I turned to my wife and I said, "Mark my words. That records going to be a hit." (laughs)
MR: Yeah, in the day, they used to refer those singles as being "secretary hits."
MM: Absolutely. I mean, if I were a record mogul, the people I would be the most concerned with as far as knowing how my records are going to do in advance would be the girls on the floor in the promotion department. Outside where the desks are, they play music all day long and they're always playing. At Warners, it was always my experience when walking down the hallways, whatever the girls were playing on the stereo in their communal area, that was going to be the next big record from the label, and it never failed. If anybody should get paid six figures a year, it should be them.
MR: You've lived in Nashville for a while now. What has the Nashville experience been like for you?
MM: Living in Nashville for me has been a great, great experience. Nashville has always had a place in my heart from the time I was much younger. We used to drive there a few summers in a row when I was about 14 and was in a band, and we were on the road and would make the rounds of music. We got a lot of really good advice. We were never signing material or anything, we were just a Top 40 band looking to make a record. Many times, some of the guys were really gracious to take us in and do a demo with us. But we didn't have any original material, so we would end up singing some Top 40 song on tape just to get the experience of recording. It was always very wonderful. It had such a great vibe.
As a town, Nashville is such an historic place for music, not just for country music, but for pop music as well. And it has so much to offer artistically. It's such a Mecca for American music like Austin, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. But it's got its own unique thing. So, to be a part of that community has meant a lot, and to be recognized as one of the musicians from Nashville is kind of an old dream come true since I've always had a lot of respect for that city and the artists who came from there who I knew of. Some of the records made there and the music written there are some of the best stuff that has lasted all these years.
(transcribed by Erika Richards)
A Conversation with Brian Ray
Mike Ragogna: Brian, your man Rob Christie says you have a new single.
Brian Ray: I sure do, it's called "I Found You." It's on Sony Icon, and it's digitally distributed wherever digital music is sold. It's also available on my site, www.brianray.com, right now.
MR: Apparently, you've toured for a few years with some guy named...Paul McCartney was it?
BR: You may have heard of him before. He's an up-and-coming artist, and he was in a band I heard a long time ago called Wings. It seems as though he might have been in another band, though I can't recall what its name was.
MR: Is this guy any good?
BR: This guy is still writing the best songs on the planet and singing like a demon.
MR: Are you on the road right now?
BR: We're out on a national and beyond tour at the moment, and the reviews have been off the hook. He's doing a nearly three-hour show containing nearly twenty-three Beatles songs. The balance of the thirty-seven songs in the show would be from Wings and from solo work. He's singing like a crazy man. He goes from "Helter Skelter" to "Yesterday" back to back. It's just an insane thing to witness, and we're having a lot of fun out there.
MR: I can't imagine being a guitar player that plays an energized three-hour show almost every other night.
BR: Yeah, I'd say it averages out to about three days a week, sometimes four.
MR: So, the callous factor must be immense.
BR: Yup, I've got blisters on me fingers!
MR: (laughs) Of course, let's talk about some of your flashier gigs. You played the Roman Coliseum?
BR: Yeah, we played inside the Coliseum in Rome, and no rock band has ever done that before. So, that was pretty stunning. Then, the next night, we played outside with the Coliseum as our backdrop, lit up by us, and that was a free concert for five hundred thousand people. That was one of the most stunning shows that I think we've ever played.
MR: Do tell more.
BR: Mexico City has always been one of our favorites to play. The Hollywood Bowl was a stunning event. We played two nights there, the second night of which was one of our favorite shows ever. We've played Fenway, the new City Field, and both were just stunning shows. I think the most exciting for us, recently, was playing in the White House, in the East wing for the first family while Paul was getting the Gershwin prize for popular songwriting.
MR: When was that?
BR: That was just a few weeks ago.
MR: Was President Obama happy that he was there?
BR: You know, the guy needed a break. Let's just face it, the guy has not had an easy go of it lately. He was having a really nice time taking a three-hour break from his long days in the White House. He was sitting six feet away from me, in the front row, and the front row was two feet away from the stage. Literally, thirty-nine inches from the edge of the stage, there he was. And Michelle and the kids and a lot of the dignitaries, senators, and congressmen were there to make up a crowd of about two hundred, or so. As a band, we also got to back up Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Faith Hill, Emmylou Harris, The Jonas Brothers, and several others. It was just a magical evening, to be honest with you.
MR: How did Vice-President Joe Biden like it?
BR: Joe wasn't in the room.
BR: I think they have to split the team up whenever he's appearing, just to keep continuity in the government.
MR: Like Cheney, when he had to go to a bunker just in case?
BR: I think that Cheney had to stay in the bunker because maybe there was some heart equipment that he had to stay near, I don't know.
MR: Or maybe it was to hide him from those nasty Google satellites that couldn't verify his address.
BR: That could be it. It was something like that.
MR: I'll never forget when Lynne Cheney ended up on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. She brought a little statue of Darth Vader, I guess she thought that would be humorous in some way, acknowledging that Jon used to call him The Dark Lord. So, as she sits down, she plops it on his desk, and without missing a beat, Jon grabs the doll, throws it under his desk, and begins the interview.
BR: (laughs) Jon Stewart is so funny, I must say. He's brilliant, and he's a guy that goes on almost any subject. He's just a very interesting, smart guy.
MR: My favorite on the planet. Now, you also played a concert in Moscow's Red Square, right?
BR: Oh yeah, that was a big one. There have been just so many of them, I sometimes can't recall them all. But that was a big one as well.
MR: Another thing that the audience should know is that you not only have the aforementioned single, but also a new album called This Way Up.
BR: Yes, I sure do. It's available right now for pre-order on my site, www.brianray.com. I'm actually carrying along with me some limited edition signed CDs to the upcoming Paul McCartney shows because Paul has generously invited me to sell them at our merchandise stands. So, if you're coming to one of our upcoming shows, you will see my new CD there, and each one of them is signed for ten bucks.
MR: Signed, sealed, delivered, I love it.
BR: That's it. But it's a really fun new record, and I had a great time making it in one of L.A.'s coolest studios with some fantastic players. This album has two guys from Elvis Costello's band. Abe Jr., Paul's drummer, is on four or five songs, and he co-wrote one. Oliver Leiber--who is the son of Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller--has been writing with me. There are just some great players on there, and it was recorded in a fantastic studio using the world's best gear. And we had the best mixing engineer mastering it. I think it's really something to listen to, a great modern rock record, if I do say so myself.
MR: Hey, about this guy McCartney. Being in the inner circle the way you are, what have you observed about his creative process? When you witness it, what are you watching?
BR: Very interesting. Well, Paul is a guy who is living, breathing, eating, and drinking music. He always looks like he is on the verge of writing or singing or playing something new. As he walks from guitar to piano on stage, he'll be whistling some melody that has just occurred to him. He's really just a very active, vital musical force. It's all going on for him. So, whenever he's on any instrument, he'll just start to goof off on the instrument. He'll just start playing a little guitar line with a couple of chords and a basic rhythm, then his face just kind of spaces out, and he's just following an idea, creating in the moment. Or on piano, at sound checks, we'll be about to play a piano song, but he'll just start tripping out on some little piano lick. Often times, the band will just join him and go on a journey with him to follow his little muse around. After eight years of playing together, we do that fairly well. It's just a real joy to do that because you can feel how vital he is as a writing force.
MR: When you think about the things that people do with their time when they reach more mature ages, it's amazing to see somebody who is an epitome of music still constantly in motion.
BR: It is a stunning thing. I'm a guy who, like all of us, is sort of awe struck by Paul, his accomplishments, his ability, and just his presence, to be honest with you. To be trusted by him, and taken in by him, and called back over all these years is a real honor. Honestly, he could have anybody he wants in the world playing guitar and bass like I do with him. But he's chosen to call me back for eight years, and I'm just one of those lucky guys. It's been an amazing journey.
MR: Speaking of journeys, you've also toured with people like Etta James and Smokey Robinson. And speaking of Smokey Robinson, you wrote one of his big hits, "One Heartbeat."
BR: Yeah, I sure did. I co-wrote "One Heartbeat" with a friend of mine named Steve LeGassick who, by the way, co-wrote a song on my new record called, "Hey Miranda." He's a great songwriter, we just wrote this song about eight months ago together, and here it is, fresh on my record.
MR: "One Heartbeat" was a pretty huge hit. What's its origin?
BR: Steve and I wrote that song together for Smokey. We pointed it straight at Smokey even though we had been discouraged by the producer saying, "You know, Smokey is a great writer on his own, he doesn't really need any more songs." Steve said, "Let's do it anyway." We sat down to write that song, and within two weeks, the song had been written and we had a demo of it. We handed it in on a Friday, and we got a call Sunday saying, "Brian, great song! Smokey loves it! We want to cut it Thursday. Bring in all of your stuff from the demo. We're going to do it just like you did it." So, I arranged the song for Smokey Robinson, and it was a giant hit on three formats for him. It's now nearing three million (radio) plays at this time.
MR: It's encouraging to hear stories that illustrate how determination makes the difference.
BR: On that subject, Mike, my deal is that I'm a self-taught blues-rock guitar player from Glendale, California. I didn't graduate any music schools, and I don't have any ungodly talents in that area. But I think what's happened to me is that, yes, I've gotten opportunities, but the reason that I've been able to be in the position to have this job is because I've said "yes" to so many opportunities along the way that, at one point, I might have thought it would have been beneath me or not really what I had in mind. You know, I didn't want to do that blues gig at the Jolly Roger bar. I didn't want to do any of that stuff, but a better part of me said, "Just say yes, Brian." I've had one opportunity after another just because I said yes, and that's my message, man. That's the reason that I'm the right guy for Paul, I guess. Because I just said "yes."
MR: Nice. That coincides with a story about my old friend Rupert Holmes, who, of course, is famous for "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." Now, he also had a great solo debut album and produced records for Barbara Streisand. By the way, he told me that he was afraid when he died that his tombstone was going to be a pineapple.
BR: (laughs) You've got to be careful what it is that you release. There are so many stories like that where people's big hit was a novelty song.
MR: Exactly. Now, his point was that whatever success he's had was because he always said "yes." Whenever anyone would say, "Rupert could you...," before they could finish the sentence he would say, "Yes." That was his message. Some people have a hard time accepting opportunities because they aren't hip enough, you know? But that's the opportunity that came to you, looking for you, so how do you say "no"?
BR: Exactly, man. I mean, I said "yes" to a blues jam at The Jolly Roger for sixty bucks playing three sets. Even though I wanted to turn it down, something told me to say "yes," and the drummer that night was Rita Coolidge's drummer. At the end of the night, he said, "Hey, the guitar player with Rita can't make the next gig, you want to come?" And I turned into her musical director for three or four years. It's just been one series of events after another. Like with the Smokey Robinson thing; they told us not to bother, but we did it anyway. So, I really can't say enough about just showing up even though you may think that it's not the right thing for you. Woody Allen says that life and success is ninety percent just showing up.
MR: You're right, it really is. It's sad when it can be said about certain people, "You know, he just can't take 'yes' for an answer."
BR: (laughs) There you go. That's so brilliant.
1. Happy Ending
2. Saturday In The Sun
3. I Found You
4. Hello Lonely
5. Let's Fall Apart
6. This Way Up
9. Very Happy Song
10. Hey Miranda
11. Under The Sun
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Xavier Rudd
Mike Ragogna: You're an Australian artist touring the States?
Xavier Rudd: Yeah.
MR: And beyond being a musician, you're a surfer.
XR: Yeah, well, I come from the southeast coast of Australia, south of Melbourne by Bells Beach. So, I grew up on the coast, and I surf and do a lot of things outside of music. I've been touring America for the last, probably, seven years I've been coming here.
MR: What's the latest tour in support of?
XR: I've got a new record out, Koonyum Sun, and we're on the road right now headed towards Colorado.
MR: Koonyum Sun includes "Sky To Ground" which is a checklist of problems, though it has a very positive message and sets up the album's overall theme.
XR: Thank you very much. It's definitely been inspired by all my travel and things I've seen or things I know. The gift of life, I think, is the greatest thing we get to share as an artist or anyone who travels the globe for what they do. You get that gift of culture and appreciation of other places, which, in turn, makes you appreciate your home. So, it's definitely something I've drawn from.
MR: To me, this album is sort of like Paul Simon's Graceland on acid. You've got a mixture of reggae, Soca, African...but you can't single out the styles. They're very unique yet familiar.
XR: I use a bunch of eclectic instruments that come from my background and my place, and I made this record with Tio Moloantoa and Andile Nqubezelo from Johannesburg, South Africa, so, they bring all their culture, story, music, and energy. It's kind of a world feel, I think, for sure.
MR: You have been compared to Jack Johnson, and I think that's just ridiculous. You have almost nothing in common except that you both surf.
XR: I've toured with Jack, and we do both surf. He definitely surfs better than me. Musically, I think we're pretty different, but I respect Jack and what he does, and I know that he respects me and what I do.
MR: When I researched your tour, I was amazed at how many places you're playing. You're everywhere.
XR: Yeah, that's what we do. I've always been a live artist, and that's kind of what I do. That's how I do it.
MR: Where are some of the places the tour's brought you?
XR: Well, we started in Seattle. We've just begun, but we've been to Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, San Diego, and L.A. last night.
MR: What is your impression of the U.S. when you come here from Australia?
XR: Well, every country has issues to deal with. When I come here to the States, my impression of America is that I enjoy America. It's a beautiful place, there's a lot of cultural interaction, and I've enjoyed that. There are years of history of different cultures that are here living together, and there have been cultural differences in the past and probably still now. But I see quite a bit of unity here in America. People are quite bonded together and seem to be proud of who they are, where they're from, and they move forward together, and that's good. That's a treat as an artist because I'm bringing culture too, and people are passionate about it and can share in it. That's kind of my initial impression of America. If you wanted me to give a political analysis of America, then it would probably be a different story, but the general public of this country is fun to be around. People are happy, people are cool, people are proud, and it's cool.
MR: Xavier, is there any social issue you want to talk about?
XR: I'd like to mention the Kimberley region of northwest Australia. Kimberley is one of the last great wildernesses on the planet, and at the moment, it's being threatened by a proposed natural gas facility. We're talking land that has never been touched; beautiful, beautiful, sacred land. It's the biggest breeding ground for humpback whales. There are no recorded extinctions, it has the oldest rock art in the world, and the Australian government is looking to put ten thousand hectares of gas industry there. So, you can go to www.savethekimberley.com, and if anyone can lend some support or just wants to learn about an amazing place in the country, they should check it out.
1. Sky To Ground
2. Set Me Free
3. Fresh Green Freedom
4. Reasons We Are Blessed
5. Love Comes And Goes
6. Soften The Blow
7. Koonyum Sun
8. Time To Smile
9. Woman Dreaming
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)