Michael McDonald: Working with Grizzly Bear pulled me out of my own little world

Michael McDonald: Working with Grizzly Bear pulled me out of my own little world
Photo by Danny Clinch

When you've collaborated with Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Prince and crushed it in the Doobie Brothers, can you hang up your hat and call it a day? Even if Yacht Rock, Family Guy, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin will never forget you, the legendary Michael McDonald believes there's always work to be done.

On Sunday, Michael -- or Mike, as he likes to be called -- returns to the Twin Cities to share an evening of songs that span his musical career. Before his show at the Mystic Lake showroom, McDonald shares with Gimme Noise the story behind his Grizzly Bear collaboration and a tale of the star that stopped him in his tracks.

Gimme Noise:Tell us more about your 2009 collaboration with Brooklyn indie rock stars Grizzly Bear.

Michael McDonald: These things always happen in a very convoluted way; it's always uncanny how they come about. In that particular case, a guy who played with me for many years, George Hawkins -- who is a great bass player -- has a daughter who is in music management. She's really good friends with Grizzly Bear's manager, so she contacted me about doing it. They were interested in me doing vocals, and I also know of the band because of her, so I thought it would be interesting. I was intrigued when she asked me, because she knows a lot of up-and-coming bands in Brooklyn. I knew I'd probably like it.

I made it a point to see them when I was playing a show in New York, and I was amazed by how great they were live, so by the time I got the track and got around to singing on it, I was up to speed on the band. I felt like I knew what it was they were doing musically.

Is it odd to have a band that has such different musical tastes from you ask you to work with them?

It's a lot of fun, really; I like that kind of thing. Coming up in this business, I worked a lot as a background vocalist in the days when L.A. had a lot of different types of artists, and I always enjoyed that challenge. I enjoyed getting inside of other people's musical styles and getting to participate in the studio, even though it's after the initial recording session and I was a background singer.

Working with Grizzly Bear was something I hadn't done in a while, and I haven't really been able to do that in these latter years. I had always enjoyed it; it's a real change of pace for someone who plays their own music most of the time. It pulls you out of your own little world, and I think with music, that's always a good thing.

In a lot of situations, geographics are not a good thing. People move because they think they're going to be happier -- that life will be better somewhere else. Usually it isn't, but the thing with music is that it works the opposite of that mentality. It's actually right for musicians to go off and do something else. Even if it's temporary, you come back with a whole lot of information that you wouldn't have any other way. I always look for those opportunities.

That's good advice for a lot of musicians -- especially those who are feeling stuck in a rut.

I think it's easy for that to happen. The creative process is something that can be very elusive.

You've worked with a lot of big names in the industry. Do you have any particular recollections that stuck out for you?

I remember a certain session where I had to do background vocals for Quincy Jones for the Donna Summer [self-titled album]. It seemed like everyone was in that room -- like a small "We Are the World" session. There was Michael Jackson, Kenny Loggins -- you name it, they were there.

Another particular session, it was an all male background production. I showed up, and it was James Ingram, Luther Vandross, Howard Hewett, and Phillip Ingram, and me. I felt like these guys were such formidable singers, I didn't know whether to break and run or try to get through it. [laughs]

Did you ever get starstruck?

One of the things I cherish the most over the years of working in the record business is when I had just moved from St. Louis out to California. When you move out of a small town, your chances of seeing a famous person becomes exponentially greater. You might see them at L.A. Tigers or someplace getting a coffee. You never know.

I remember the first time I saw a celebrity, I had been living in L.A. for a month, and I was at a juice bar in Topanga Canyon -- back then there was nothing like Topanga Canyon. There was guy with waist-long hair that was in front of me in line, and I recognized his voice. I realized it was Bud from Father Knows Best. [laughs] I couldn't believe that, because I watched that show as a kid growing up. My god! Bud! So that was a big thrill for me. I'd never seen a real television star before.

Out of all the people you've worked with that's the one you go back to?

Yeah, but keep in mind, I was 18 and only been living in California for a month. I still cherish and remember that moment.

We've talked a lot about other people's music, but let's talk about your solo stuff. You've been doing your own music for a while now, what do feel you want to leave as your legacy?

I really don't know, to be honest with you. By that, I mean I feel like I'm still trying to get there; I don't feel as if I've done that record yet. I've done records I've enjoyed, like the Motown records, and I certainly enjoyed doing Blink of an Eye, my first solo record, and the Doobie Brothers records. Still, I feel like -- and this is the same with all artists -- there's that one thing left. This thing that I haven't got to yet that will make me satisfied and make me feel that I've done it all. That's what keeps me going.

Michael McDonald will perform at the Mystic Lake Casino Mystic Showroom on Sunday, June 29, 2014. 18+, $35-$50, 8 pm. Purchase tickets here.

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