Music » Interviews

Michael McDonald on the meaning of "Yah Mo B There" and the reasons to hate Jeff Sessions


Michael McDonald, the voice of blue-eyed soul ballads like "I Keep Forgettin'" and "What a Fool Believes," is back in a big way. - TIMOTHY WHITE
  • Timothy White
  • Michael McDonald, the voice of blue-eyed soul ballads like "I Keep Forgettin'" and "What a Fool Believes," is back in a big way.

'If I hear 'Yah Mo B There' one more time, I'm gonna 'Yah Mo Burn' this place to the ground," declared Paul Rudd's electronics-store salesman character in the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as the Michael McDonald music video plays on a wall of TV screens in the background.

McDonald, the singer who captained what came to be known as the yacht-rock phenomenon in the '80s, recalls taking his kids to a movie theater to see the film, and finding the scene not at all surprising. After all, he's well aware of the polarized feelings his music has inspired through the years. Plus, a friend who worked on the movie had been sending him daily rushes.

"They went easy on me compared to what it could have been," says McDonald of earlier versions that ended up on the cutting-room floor. "I thought a lot of it was hysterically funny, but I guess they felt it was too cruel or something."

Today, the blue-eyed soul era is being unironically championed by contemporary trendsetters. Thundercat's latest album, for instance, features collaborations with both McDonald and Kenny Loggins, whose respective ballads "I Keep Forgettin'" and "Welcome to Heartlight" are partially responsible for today's overpopulation crisis.

McDonald has spent much of the past two decades in comparative obscurity, recording a few albums of mostly Motown covers. That ended last September with the release of Wide Open, an album of original material on which the 66-year-old musician is backed by jazz luminaries Branford Marsalis and Marcus Miller, Toto co-founder David Paich and McDonald's Grammy-winning wife Amy Holland.

In the foreground, of course, is the St. Louis native's smoothly distinctive, instantly recognizable singing, with a timbre that somehow makes it come across as both tenor and baritone at the same time, kind of like a very laid-back Tuvan throat singer.

A former Steely Dan session vocalist, McDonald scored his own Top 10 hit with 1982's "I Keep Forgettin'," followed the next year by his aforementioned "Yah Mo B There" collaboration with R&B singer James Ingram. Later that decade, he joined The Doobie Brothers as lead vocalist on their 1978 hit "What a Fool Believes."

On the eve of a 50-plus-date tour to promote his comeback album, McDonald held forth on a wide range of subjects, from what the hell "Yah Mo B There" actually means to what should be done to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Indy: I remember when I first heard your voice, which as we all know is very distinctive. At the time, I didn't know anything about soul music, and I thought, 'Where is this coming from?' Did you ever have any moments of doubt or confusion yourself, where you were like "Wait a minute, how come no one else sings like this?"

Michael McDonald: I don't know that I ever thought of it that way. I grew up in an era when the worst thing you could do is sound too much like someone else, because then your career was over. Even on a local level; there was a singer in our town, Walter Scott, he was the heartthrob lead-singer dude in one of the best bands in St. Louis, Bob Kuban & The In-Men. They were kind of a big R&B dance band, and all the younger bands were trying really hard to sound like Walter Scott. But I liked the fact that you would never confuse Tony Bennett with Frank Sinatra, even though they might have been in the same genre of music. Or Ray Charles and Nat Cole, you knew who it was the minute you heard their voice.

So I kind of grew up looking for whatever it was that was unique about my voice, and typically I found it when I wasn't looking. Like, for instance, I decided I couldn't sing in my full voice all night long, for five sets a night. It was taking its toll on me. So I developed a style of singing that is more of a head-voice, that I could kind of fall back on when I was getting tired during a night's performance in a club, but would still, at least to a degree, have the intensity of singing in my full voice. And I found that it changed the sound of my voice, it made my voice something different than it was before, and more unique in a way.

So of all the songs on the new album, which would you say is the most representative of who, and where, you are at this point in your life?

That's a good question. I'm trying to go through all the songs in my head. All of them are kind of metaphoric; they involve some abstract aspect of my own psyche at this point, even though I typically set them in the scenario of a man and a woman. Like "Hail Mary," for instance. I thought it would be relatable to people from a love-affair perspective, but it's also about what it feels like to be this age, to get to a point where you kind of look around you and go, "Wow, am I where I'm supposed to be? Or am I living in a reality that belongs to a younger man?"

Actually, I can't remember not feeling that way.

Yeah, and the good news is that it doesn't get any better, right? But once your testosterone drops, you couldn't care less. [Laughs.] So anyway, that was the same kind of thing with "Find It in Your Heart." Like, what else is there in this life if it isn't a pursuit of the heart? Sanity and logic are overrated. They're really meant to keep you out of trouble — and they're well-used when you use them in that way — but it's also our nature to think things into the ground. And then thinking can become perverse, if you know what I mean, and logic can become an addiction that turns on you.

One of the songs that you didn't write on this album, "Free a Man," is a very socially aware song, maybe more overtly so than most of the work you're known for. Would you say that's a fair characterization?

Yeah, I'd say that's a very fair characterization. When I heard that song for the first time, I just fell in love with it for a lot of reasons. From a musical standpoint I thought "God, how much fun would it be to play that song live, to have something that's kind of a blues jam, but with jazz overtones and a great groove underpinning it rhythmically? And I love the words. I thought, "This is the conversation that we are having as a whole, as humanity, right now in this moment. This is exactly what's come to the surface as being important: The acceptance of each other as we are, the understanding that bigotry and racism are just a product of the inability to put yourself in the other person's shoes, which is the first thing we should always do. But in so many cases today, bigotry is still a part of the fabric of our society and its inability to function. It's something we thought we'd get rid of 50 years ago.

Or at least 10 years ago.

Yeah, and unfortunately we haven't. All people really want the same things. They want security, they want love, they want to take care of their own children. What does a parent feel like when his child's been ripped out of his arms and put in a camp in the middle of the fucking Mojave Desert? Fucking Jeff Sessions should spend a week in a Mojave Desert camp if he wants to know how that's playing out in terms of what's really right and what's really wrong. They ought to put that son of a bitch in a fucking paper bag and leave him in the desert, you know? But that's just me getting off on crazy shit. But my point is, that's why that song really spoke to me, and I thought "This is something I can get away with." I did have to alter some of the lyrics, because they were a little more poignant and hard-hitting than what I'm known for singing, so it wouldn't sound sincere coming from me. So I ran it by Richard [Stekol], who is one of my favorite songwriters — I think he's as good as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, he's just not as well-known — and he was fine with it.

Here's an easy one for you: Who came up with the phrase "Yah Mo B There"? Where did that come from?

I would have to credit James with that one. We wanted to write kind of a gospel song, and we were originally singing "I will be there." And "God will be there" didn't really sound right when we sang it.

You could have gone with Jah, like in reggae songs.

Exactly, and that's where Yah comes from. It's from the original Yahweh, the description of God describing himself. I am, because I am. So, yeah, Old Testament. And James kind of went with that, because it was a chance to maybe kind of look to a greater source than just two people talking to each other.

And finally, this is kind of an odd question, but maybe it can help set the record straight. Which term do you dislike more: yacht rock or blue-eyed soul?

You know, I have to say, I've come to appreciate both of them.

You have?

Well, you know, kind of. Yacht rock was originally meant to be a poke at acts from the '70s that were smooth and insipid when viewed from the '80s. But then you wait around long enough, and all of a sudden people are waxing nostalgic for the '70s again, and yacht rock has a whole 'nother meaning. People actually pay money to go see it.

What about blue-eyed soul? I guess being called any kind of soul can be seen as a compliment.

Yeah, I think so. I don't know if it's always meant to be, but for me, the fact that the African-American audience even gives a guy like me a nod at all is a great compliment. Because that's the music that I really came to love as a kid growing up. The only time I really thought about it was when the guys from Universal in the UK came to me and said they wanted to do a Motown record. And my first thought was, "Why are they talking to me about this?" I mean there are so many incredible young black artists who are more contemporary, and they have more of a cultural history leading back to this stuff.

But in the same breath, I was caught up with how much I love the music, and how long I had been singing it in Top 40 cover bands growing up. I have to say, it did concern me at first. But then I thought, "Well, I've learned to say yes first, and if it doesn't work out, nobody really cares anyway." You know, nobody is going to know about it, I mean, they'll just fire me and get somebody else.

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