Pittsburgh music fans, particularly those who favor the tropical party variety, are used to seeing the name John McDonald with the attachment “and the Mango Men.”
For years the group served the Parrothead community by playing Jimmy Buffett covers with a sprinkling of originals.
The frontman’s new album, “Right Place, Right Time,” bears just his name. No Mango Men.
“I guess I have evolved a bit,” he says. “Some of the Mango Men are still around and playing with me, but I’ve grown and changed stylistically. I’m not radically changing the musical direction, but I’m frankly trying to be more artistic and cultivating my own sound.”
The singer-songwriter, originally from Boston, hasn’t moved away from island rhythms and reggae and manages to generate them living in Pittsburgh, not on a houseboat in paradise. “The closest island I’ve been to in the past few years is Neville Island,” he says.
“I guess it’s somewhat of a contradiction. The island thing, the tropical thing, to me it’s part of a broader umbrella and I’ve always been fascinated by the tropical and exotic, with a little flavor of pop and rock. It crystallized for me when Paul Simon did those records in ’85 and ’90. And I’ve always liked Bob Marley, and David Byrne has always been into percussive stuff and Peter Gabriel, and, of course, Buffett incorporated steel drum into his sound. So my interest in island and tropical music grew out of my appreciation of different flavors.”
The album, which he refers to as “reggae/rock/world fusion,” is closer to Buffett than Simon, Byrne or Gabriel with upbeat rhythms, positive energy and folky/crooning vocal style.
It was co-produced by Rick Beresford, who teaches songwriting at Belmont University in Nashville, and has written for such artists as George Jones, the Everly Brothers and Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Mr. McDonald says he was about to give up on music and head back to graduate school when he met the producer through Nashville Songwriters Association International.
“He really pushed my limits as a writer and I think I’m a much better songwriter for having met him.”
Mr. McDonald has another more unlikely inspiration, which is his master’s in philosophy from Duquesne University and the works of Nietzsche.
“I find over the last 10 to 15 years, Nietzsche, in particular of all the philosophers I’ve studied, he really dramatically emphasizes trying to be your own individual and he has a dramatic emphasis on creativity. He’ll anger you, he’ll frustrate you, but he’ll encourage you to become who you are.”
How does that fit with tropical pop songs?
“I tell people, ‘If you spend a couple of years reading German existentialism and French post-structuralism, believe me, you’ll be ready for a little tropical party.”