pat mAcdonald has a bit of a cold when I interview him in the throes of a chilly but sunny March afternoon, but he’s ready and willing to talk, even though he may have—just for a minute—forgotten about our interview.
No matter. Decked out in what he calls his “everyday” uniform—black T-shirt, baseball hat and hoodie, London skinny jeans and black biker boots—the longtime songwriter, musician and producer is in his adopted home of Sturgeon Bay, and he’s quick to note he’s happy there.
“I like Sturgeon Bay. I like being able to walk to the post office…or down to the water,” says mAcdonald, a lanky 64-year-old troubadour with a musical resume longer than the Door Peninsula.
Sure, you may have heard of him as being half (with his ex-wife Barbara K.) of the 1980s band Timbuk3. Or as co-founder of the local Steel Bridge Songfest. Or as creative director and part owner of the atmospherically charming mid-century jewel—the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay.
But mAcdonald is more than just the sum of these parts. He has truly made a name for himself—both globally as well as locally—as a talented songwriter and mentor to those aspiring to get their words on paper, produced and performed.
Motels and Making Music
Green Bay native mAcdonald (he prefers this spelling because people used to always forget to put the “A” in his last name) has written songs in a French castle. Played on Austin City Limits. Performed everywhere from Madison to Nashville to Barcelona (one of his favorite cities). But Sturgeon Bay just seems like the right place at the right time.
“It’s a lot of family here…and it’s a comfortable little town.”
Not only is it like coming home—his parents, Bob and Elaine MacDonald, own the Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek—he and his partner (“in everything,” he says) melaniejane live in and co-own (with several others, including famed singer/songwriter Jackson Browne) the 18-room, retro-vibed Holiday Music Motel.
The Holiday was purchased in 2007 by a group of musicians and music enthusiasts that came together while working on Steel Bridge Songfest, an original music festival designed to celebrate and raise awareness for the preservation of the historic Michigan Street Bridge. Efforts were successful, and the bridge was saved and re-opened in summer 2011. The motel sits at the bridge’s approach.
“We liked the concept of the experiment of it…[it’s] an art project,” says mAcdonald. “It’s not necessarily about the hotel, but the music.” The hotel helps fund community-oriented musical and artistic endeavors, including the adjacent Tambourine Collaboratory, an artistic incubator, of sorts.
Laden with vintage 1950s furniture, chrome, Formica tables, a diner-type snack bar and other accoutrements—including a year-round aluminum Christmas tree bedecked with ornaments from every holiday—the physical space of the hotel is a throwback treasure. “Once we were in, [we figured] why not make the motel in itself really special,” says mAcdonald, co-founder of Steel Bridge Radio and the Steel Bridge Songfest in 2006.
The Songfest is an accomplishment that has brought mAcdonald a lot of enjoyment, pride, notoriety and some backlash in the Bay area.
“We got a lot of push back when we first started because [some locals] thought we were a bunch of freaks,” he adds. Plus, there was a good deal of controversy surrounding the old steel bridge itself. But now, a decade after it inception, the bridge remains and the fest is a hit.
“It’s been baby steps the whole time,” mAcdonald says of the event whose clever tagline is, “Music so fresh it hasn’t been written yet.”
mAcdonald adds, “More and more songwriters are interested in coming; the challenge for us is to keep the group small enough to make it manageable.”
Every summer, songwriters are invited to come and play “spin the bottle” to pair up with others and spend part of the week writing original music, which they will then record and perform at the weekend event.
“People leave their egos and their careers at the door,” says mAcdonald, who despite all his fame remains shy, yet modest and articulate. “It’s really cool in that sense. They’re writing together, they’re creating together…self-promotion is kind of filtered out in who we invite.
“It’s [about] creativity, not credentials,” says mAcdonald, who doesn’t write at the event himself, but rather calls himself “quality control.”
“It’s more into the creating of the music than the performance part,” he adds, “But performance is real important; that’s what makes our events unique. I don’t know of any other festivals on earth that combine the writing, recording, and performing the way we do.”
Now the event is one of three songwriting festivals held each year—Dark Songs is a Halloween event; Love on Holiday occurs around Valentines Day. And, of course, Steel Bridge Songfest in June.
In the thirty-some years since Timbuk3 hit it big with “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” mAcdonald has gotten a bit weary of people asking about the band and that song.
“Well, it depends on how they ask,” he says, adding that he is happy the catchy song, with equally catchy refrain, has lived on.
“The funny thing about that song,” he says, is “I can’t even take 100 percent credit for the words, although I do take 100 percent songwriting credit.”
His bandmate (and then-wife) Barbara said one day, “Our future’s so bright, I’ll we’ll have to wear sunglasses.”
“She just said it in conversation…[and] I pictured the nuclear theme. My mind just went to that,” he says, noting he changed that one key word—“sunglasses” became “shades.” That was one small tweak for mAcdonald, one big hit for Timbuk3.
Best known for that catchy tune—which was licensed for use in several films—the duo was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy in 1987 while the music video for the song was nominated for MTV’s Best New Artist Video.
“It’s kind of like…something that’s helped me survive,” says mAcdonald, who still sees royalty checks. “At one time, I figured half my royalties were from that one song.”
But while he did make a pretty penny from it, he didn’t want to commercialize his work and likely turned down millions over the years in not allowing his publishing companies to “sell him out” without his written permission.
“You kind of need to do stuff that’s ruled by your gut,” he says with no regrets.
First and foremost a songwriter—who wrote with Cher at one point in his career—mAcdonald remains a performer; in recent days, he and melaniejane have performed and recorded as Purgatory Hill. The lefty is primarily a guitar player, but he also loves more unusual instruments, especially encouraging those who come to Songfest to “bring their weird instruments.”
“I’ll play whatever needs to be played…I play the Lowebow [a cigar box guitar],” says mAcdonald, who says he learned guitar from his mother, whom he remembers singing Buddy Holly and Hank Williams tunes.
The Challenge Going Forward
These days, mAcdonald remains thankful to have his long, storied musical career—perhaps even more sweet after having survived stage 4 lymphoma that was diagnosed over a year ago. Now after undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant (using stem cells from his own bone marrow), mAcdonald is sometimes worried about cancer recurring, but remains focused on his future and the music. Always the music.
“I have a lot of ideas for a lot of things I want to do,” he adds. “Right now, doing these events and doing the motel is the hardest volunteer job I’ve had in my life. It’s just something I really believe in…I’m a music producer; I create a situation for music to be made…with a lot of help, of course.
“That’s the beauty of this whole thing,” he says of the collaboration that occurs at the Holiday, “If you’re here, you have something to offer; the whole challenge is to get the best out of every person.”