The most familiar image of Michael McDonald, of course, is of the legend behind a keyboard, as he’s done for decades with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and, since 1982, as a solo act. But he went a different route for “Half Truth,” the latest song from his upcoming album Wide Open, penning the hard-hitting song on guitar with his son Dylan McDonald and Grady Walker.
“(Dylan) showed me the chord progression, and later that day I was messing around with it and came up with a melody,” McDonald tells Billboard about the song, which is premiering exclusively below. “I don’t write much on guitar, but the chain of events for this song led to that. The three of us came up with the words from there, and the song was written in one day.”
With three writers, McDonald adds, “there are really different answers,” but “Half Truth” has a deeply philosophical meaning to the singer. “I feel that the song is about forgiveness and the power of letting go,” he explains, “realizing that most of the things that we hold resentments over are not about the other person but your part in it, that really you are mad at yourself, that you don’t really get yourself into these types of situations if you are totally innocent but it’s when you are trying not to look at your part in a situation and trying to make yourself a victim. So you are mad at yourself. You walked into the situation with your eyes open.”
Wide Open, which comes out Sept. 15, is McDonald’s first solo studio album in nearly a decade, since the 2008 covers set Soul Speak, and his first of original material since Blue Obsession in 2000. But McDonald has been busy enough that he hasn’t felt that passage of time. “Time seems to fly, especially as you get to be my age now. But it has been a while,” he says. McDonald actually started working on demos for Wide Open about eight years ago, letting it take its time until he felt like he had the material with which to make an album.
“In many cases some of the stuff I wasn’t necessarily writing for myself, or with myself in mind; I was just writing a song and thinking it could be a song for this artist or that artist,” he says. “As a songwriter there’s always a sense of accomplishment having another artist do one of my songs, like Bonnie Raitt did a few years back with ‘Matters Of The Heart.’ But we finally had enough stuff together that it felt like the right time to do (an album) of my own again.”
Wide Open was recorded primarily at McDonald’s own studio in Nashville with drummer Shannon Forrest and features guest appearances by Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Branford Marsalis and Marcus Miller. The combination of time spent writing and recording led to as diverse an album as McDonald has ever made, which he’s not at all complaining about.
“It’s pretty eclectic,” he agrees. “It’s funny; We talked about this throughout the record, if there was some kind of consistent thread and we’re not sure what it was. But whether it was my voice or something else, it seemed to maintain some intangible theme that we felt made it valid as a collection of songs on one record — at least we wanted to think that, anyway. A lot of vocals you hear are the original (demo) vocals, which is what seemed to tie the tracks together.”
McDonald will be touring to support Wide Open into the fall, including an appearance on PBS’ Soundstage. And he may find some new fans in the crowd thanks to his recent collaborations with Thundercat, both live and in the studio. “I’m a huge fan of his music and his musicality,” McDonald says. “As a young artist he just seems to bring so much to his music from traditional influences. And I love playing with his band, this small trio he has that covers so much ground as musicians. I don’t think we’ve played any of those songs the same way twice, and that’s a lot of fun.”