Michael McDonald talks returning to holiday music with Seasons of Peace
Michael McDonald had one goal with his latest holiday album Seasons of Peace — to remind listeners of the reason for the season, to celebrate and promote peace.
McDonald has done his fair share of holiday albums, and this compilation record marks his fourth entry in the genre. He admits that he largely wanted to compile some of the original Christmas music he’s proudest of onto a new album to remind people he’s written his fair share of seasonal carols. In addition to the re-release of many of his favorite original tracks, the album features art that is very personal to McDonald — the cover art is taken from a larger painting he created.
In advance of the release of the album, which is available now, McDonald caught up with EW to talk about the process of creating a holiday compilation album, why he loves Christmas music, and his desire to spread a message of peace at this time of year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve done several Christmas albums before, what made you want to revisit the genre?
MICHAEL MCDONALD: I’ve always had a dream that I might write a Christmas song that might resonate with people during the holidays. We were lucky in a sense with these first couple of albums we did, they allowed us to write a lot of the music ourselves. Typically with a Christmas album, they promote [doing] standards that everybody knows and is familiar with. I get that, but I really wanted to compose some Christmas music. I always wanted to write that song at Christmas that you might hear year after year. Putting these back out is my selfish endeavor to try to let people know we have written some Christmas music, and it’s out there.
With songs you selected, it’s a mix of traditional carols and songs you’ve written. How did you select and curate the album?
It’s always tricky when you’re doing compilation because it comes down to what do you leave out and what do you keep? I tried to think of what would be interesting to people, especially people who maybe have already heard the other two records. We always try to do one new track. The track we did this year was Jake Shimabukuro and me. We were on another recording gig, and it was kind of a spontaneous moment. I said, “Jake would you mind if we just jammed on a Christmas song and recorded it real quickly for this record coming out?” I thought it would be fun to do a Hapa Holiday version of one of the Christmas songs. We did that on ukuleles, and he was nice enough to oblige me.
With the songs that are well-known carols, do you prefer to shake them up or stay traditional? How do you strike that balance?
With the Christmas stuff, you want to do something different. You don’t want to do Nat Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song” because you’re never going to [get] better [than] that one. You’re always looking for your own take on it. With a lot of those arrangements, especially the original Hallmark record [In the Spirit], we literally did that record in two weeks from beginning to end. I literally sat up at night in my house with my guitar and came up with arrangements for these songs when we were recording the next day…Those arrangements we didn’t have a lot of time to think about. The most preparation I did was maybe the night before. We just slammed that one out, and it’s really one of the most fun records I’ve ever done for that reason.
You said it’s your dream to write an enduring Christmas carol. If you had to pick one to be that song, which one?
From a certain perspective, I guess it would be “Peace” because the song says something Christmas is all about. It’s also a reminder that this is a philosophy that should transcend Christmas. But there’s no better time to reevaluate our desire to be good to each other than Christmas time. It’s that time of reflection. From a Christian perspective, it alludes to the Christ child, but it’s more a universal thing. We get so territorial with our religious philosophies when really what we should be looking at is the similarities. What is the ultimate message that any religion is trying to put forth? There’s going to be the extremes of any religion. Anything man can take and destroy, we almost most certainly will. We suffer from that on all fronts. But the heart of it, the basic philosophy that these religions were based on, it’s all about peace. It’s all about brotherhood and caring for each other and reminding each other that as human beings we have a greater responsibility to each other.
The album art is based on a piece of art you created. Tell me more about that and the inspiration for the design.
The actual picture, a lot of [it] isn’t in the album cover. It would be too big to make an album cover out of so we had to edit it down, but the idea of it was if only one person traveling through this world takes the time to send a message of peace on their journey, it casts a big shadow. That peace sign made out of twigs hanging from the dead tree is reflecting the light from the stars above onto the snow behind it, and the shadow stretches way out. Any effort to transfer the message of peace to another human being probably has much more [of a] far-reaching rippling effect than we realize. It’s never a wasted conversation. These days there’s not much talk about peace. We were a generation that tried to make it the foremost issue of our time. Somehow the backlash to that has become an era that seems to be marked and characterized by toxic fear and defensiveness and walls and suspicion of anyone that isn’t the same color and same religion as you are. That’s a sad consequence to see when in fact the whole effort was to enlighten ourselves collectively to the idea that maybe the most important issue we can be addressing in this time in humanity is peace.
You have a bunch of live dates happening at the moment. Will you do a lot of the Christmas tunes?
We’re doing quite a few of the Christmas songs from the record and even some songs that aren’t on the album. We try to promote the Christmas season and remind people that it is a season of peace. That’s what the season’s real meaning is about. No matter what religion you are, there is that point in time where we should celebrate that idea of peace and humanity.