“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,” said 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.
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 joined The Doobie Brothers as lead vocalist on their 1978 hit “What a Fool Believes.”. He 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.
On the eve of his latest run of shows (which includes a stop at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl on Saturday night), McDonald held forth on a wide range of subjects, from his unique vocal style to what the hell “Yah Mo B There” actually means.
Forman: I remember when I first heard your voice, which as we all know is very distinctive. . . . 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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael McDonald performs on Saturday, Aug. 3, 5-9:30 p.m. at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For tickets and more information, call 805-272-3881 or visit libbeybowl.org.