“You just try to pick the songs that are most meaningful to you,” says five time Grammy-winner Michael McDonald about the inspiration for his new album, Soul Speak. “These songs span my life—they’re the ones where I can remember where I was when I first heard them, the ones that made me interested in becoming a recording artist, the songs I’d always imagined myself singing.”
Soul Speak is the natural follow-up to McDonald’s two smash explorations of the Motown Records songbook—the platinum-selling Motown from 2003, which was nominated for two Grammy awards, and the next year’s gold-selling Motown Two. But this time, McDonald didn’t restrict himself to any one style or record label or decade; he wanted to interpret songs that he loved, regardless of genre. So while some of the selections—“For Once in My Life,” “Walk on By,” or the album’s first single, “Love TKO”—fall squarely within the blue-eyed soul territory that we associate with Michael McDonald, others, like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” are a bit more surprising.
The selection on Soul Speak that may be most special to McDonald, and which he confesses intimidated him the most, is “Redemption Song,” with its simple folk melody and classic Bob Marley lyric. “I love the song, but it’s so personal to Bob Marley, to a culture, I thought, how do I sing this lyric? Is it presumptuous?,” he says. “But I think it says so much about what all the other songs are about, looking for redemption in a person or a place, and staying humane in the process. That lyric just says it as it is—that there’s victory out there, but it’s never going to come in the form or the time you expect it to.”
Soul Speak also includes three original songs by McDonald, a reminder that he has a significant history as a writer as well as an interpreter. “We actually went back and forth choosing the originals,” he says. “’Only God Can Help Me Now’ and ‘Getting Over You’ are kind of retro feeling, so they fit pretty easily. ‘Enemy Within’ stands on its own, but (producer Simon Climie) thought it added a little bit of a turn that the album needed, so it wasn’t just a collection of oldies.”
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