It’s not every musician who would enjoy being known as the “king of yacht rock.” The once-pejorative term refers to those songs that washed clean the pop charts from 1975 to ’85 with calm grooves, sunny production and breezy melodies. We’re talking about hits by stars like Kenny Loggins, Toto, Christopher Cross, and, of course, Michael McDonald — all of which are fleet and lush but hardly edgy or energetic. Still, McDonald considers his unofficial role as the genre’s chief “flattering. I’ve embraced the idea that you’re either yacht or you’re not,” he said, with a laugh. “The fact that anybody is even talking about me at my age is remarkable unto itself."
Not only are they talking, the 66-year-old, husky-voiced singer has been answering with a dramatic surge in both his workload and his emotional engagement. Last year, he issued his first album of original material in 17 years, titled “Wide Open,” followed by a guest appearance on the new record by Thundercat, and a collaboration with ace ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro for McDonald’s upcoming Christmas compilation, “Season of Peace,” out Oct. 12. He’s supporting it all with a national tour that comes to The Paramount in Huntington on Sunday, Sept. 23, before he makes his first foray into the world of cabaret with a two-week engagement at Café Carlyle starting Oct. 23.
“Wide Open” offered a particular challenge to McDonald, both creatively and personally. It followed three albums dedicated to cover songs two of which featured material from the Motown catalog, while the other surveyed the rich history of soul. McDonald changed course, he said, “because I was afraid of being pigeon-holed as that guy who does other people’s songs. It’s a lot harder work for me to get back into the trenches as a composer-producer.”
The effort paid off with a more forceful, and funky, sound than we usually hear from this often-measured musician. McDonald credits some of that to writing the songs on guitar, rather than his usual piano. But much of it also has to do with him finally giving up drinking after decades of indulging. “Sobriety is where my life started to expand and grow,” he said. “Prior to that, it was shutting down, little by little — and maybe not so little by the end. I was losing any sense of joy or peace or just gratitude for living. I feel like since I’ve been sober, I have more to say than I might have when I was closing in on disaster.”
That’s why he chose the title “Wide Open.” “Life has opened up to me again,” he said.
You can hear the difference in his performance. McDonald’s singing on “Wide Open” captures the best qualities of his style, which offers a rare balance of a soul belter’s strength and a singer-songwriter’s introspection. “I’ve always tried to marry the two,” McDonald said. “Growing up, I had gigs where we did all the James Brown and Mitch Ryder stuff. We did our share of screaming and yelling over high energy dance music. But what I always liked about the singer-songwriter genre is that it’s more subtle and personal. You get to tell a little more of a story.”
During the four decades he has spent exploring that balance, McDonald has been a member of some of music’s most popular acts, including Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, and later, as a guest with Chicago. The mega-success of those bands still makes him marvel. “We just thought of ourselves as guys hanging around the studio trying to get on any session that would get on the radio,” he said.
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McDonald’s image as a mellow singer has never made him a critical favorite. But, the fact that he has lasted, and amassed a track record of diverse hits, has accrued increasing respect over the years. In a parallel way, the “yacht rock” tag started as a snarky remark when it was coined back in 2005, but it now bears its own badge of honor. Today, younger acts, like Grizzly Bear have sought McDonald out to collaborate in the studio. His upcoming Café Carlyle stint represents a fresh challenge. For it, he’ll strip down his songs, performing them as a duo with jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli. “My ultimate goal is to do a show like this solo, like Randy Newman does,” McDonald said. “I’ve always admired him for doing that. That’s how you know if you’ve got the goods or not — if you can sing the song alone and it all comes through.”
AHOY, THERE: MORE REQUIRED YACHT ROCK LISTENING
When you think of “yacht rock,” some obvious vessels sail into view, like Michael McDonald “What A Fool Believes,” Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” or Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It.” Here are 10 less obvious genre gems:
America, “Ventura Highway” — No breezier sound can be found than the cascading guitar hook that graces this 1972 smash.
Tim Moore, “Second Avenue” — One of the most beautiful ballads in all of soft-rock (an early alias for “yacht rock”).
Ace, “How Long” — The genre at its most soulful, courtesy of an early vocal from singer Paul Carrack.
Stephen Bishop, “On and On” — A charming knockoff of Paul Simon’s soft mid-'70s sound.
Climax Blues Band, “Couldn’t Get It Right” — Proof that the genre can make room for light funk.
Andrew Gold, “Lonely Boy” — The ideal nexus of yacht rock and power pop.
Stealers Wheel, “Stuck In The Middle With You” — A super-catchy ditty that later turned up, improbably, in an ultraviolent scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Nicolette Larson, “Lotta Love” — The mellower, more commercial version of the Neil Young classic.
Mike + The Mechanics, “The Living Years” — A second appearance by singer Paul Carrack, making him a runner-up to McDonald’s “yacht king” title.
Orleans, “Still the One” – Not just mellow, it’s sentimental, too. — JIM FARBER
WHO Michael McDonald
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23, The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO $99.50-$175; paramountny.com