By Thomas Mangano
I went into this interview looking for insights and got many of them. But I came out with something much more valuable; a friend. This is rare in interviews, but it does happen on occasion and I give myself no credit for the unanticipated delight. Every now and then, an artist allows themselves to appear as the fellow spirit and journeyman. Then you know you are in the presence of someone who is genuine at the highest level, and then you know “good” is about to happen.
Narada Michael Walden has one of the most impressive songwriting and production resumes in the business. From the early performances with iconic acts like: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Tommy Bolin and Weather Report to blockbuster productions with some of the most influential artists in the business, Walden has been an unstoppable river of energy traveling in many directions. Working from a spiritual center first awakened by the Guru leader Sri Chinmoy in the 1970’s, Narada (the name given to him by Guru), gives us a beautiful glimpse of a truly “inspired” and self realized artist. Ever growing and ever moving through a spectrum of musical styles with wide eyed wonder, Walden remains an eager student of change, intuition and optimistic exploration. Passionate about his work to assist others find potential, Narada is credited with co-writing/producing on a very long list of stars and their music including: Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and The Temptations, to name a short listed few. He has been honored by Billboard magazine as one of the top 10 producers of all time. Narada’s film credits include The Bodyguard, Free Willy, Beverly Hills Cops II, 9 ½ Weeks and Stuart Little and he also is credited with the EMMY-winning “One Moment In Time,” the theme to the 1988 Olympic Games.
His passion to create meaningful and trans-formative experience has also found expression in the creation of support networks for youth education and empowerment through The Narada Michael Walden Foundation.
In our interview, Narada freely discusses his musical beginnings and influences including the transformative introduction to Guru Sri Chinmoy and guitarist John Mclaughlin. We explored the formation of Tarpan Studios and talk about his latest album, “Evolution”, an album that honors both past and future musical legacies.
I hope you find encouragement in these words to create at your highest level. May you be inspired!
TM: Hi Narada, it’s a real pleasure to speak with you today, I’m a big fan of your work!
NMW: Thank you!
TM: You’re celebrating your 16th solo album, “Evolution”
NMW: Yeah, it’s pretty incredible- been quite a ride!
TM: Your new album is about musical legacies, not just the great artists who influenced your life, but also the one you’ll pass on to your kids. What is it about your musical life that’s most important for them to know?
NMW: Chicago. When I was a little boy, my Father would take us there and we would hear the most incredible music and see the mellowest people. The way they walked and talked and would just, “get on the city”. It was so important to me. I come from Kalamazoo Michigan, way out in the sticks in the country, so when we went to Chicago -man, it was like Whoa! The way they listened to and danced to the music! It was like they were living and breathing it. It always turned me on. We had house parties at my Uncle Charles’ house and the adults would all dress up in nice cummerbunds and tuxedo’s and they would dance to songs by Ahmad Jamal (Narada does rousing beat box example) and it would be so elegant! My cousin and I would watch from the doorway. Chicago really had magic for me so I think that richness and musical heritage is what I want to pass on to my kids.
TM: Do you see some of that in them already?
NMW: Yeah, they’re older and wiser than me already. They teach me stuff (laughs).
TM: When you look back on your career, there’s such a long list of accomplishments. One on the outside could say this is a blessed and meteoric rise to fame. But, I’m sure there were some long days in there as well as some hard trials along the way.
NMW: Oh I think every day is a challenge. The way I feel about it, each time I go to make a record, it’s like I’m starting from scratch. There’s no one theory that works for every record or every song. I can say when I’m starting out that I want a strong chorus, but how we get there and how we make it stand and walk tall is always a riddle to be solved. You have to burn candles and light some incense on it. It’s a humbling process. Music is like a fleeting mist. You have to entertain her and captivate her, love on her, welcome her into the room. Keep the space really clean and delightful, flowers and all that. And then she comes around and then my job is to capture that magic and beauty and put it on the tape or the computer, whatever we’re working on. For me, that’s how I feel about. There isn’t a single time that I walk into here (studio), and feel like I’m Mr. Bad Cat who knows all the stuff. In my soul I know a lot of things because I’ve been around powerful and talented people. But in fact, how I’m going to do it today is a complete mystery. Every day is like that.
TM: You’ve worked with many high profile artists and have a long and well respected career in production with many awards and recognitions. How do you describe yourself and your role as a producer?
NMW: I’m more of a musician. There are different kinds of people who are more like producers. I realized this early on. My first album was produced by Tommy Dowd , Tommy was a great engineer, a compression wizard and scientist and I learned from him a certain way of doing things. He worked on a chalk board and wrote everything out; he understood the parts of a song scientifically. George Martin, the first producer I worked with, you know, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jeff Beck Wired. He was more of a free reigning type and he let us do what we wanted to do but also was very much in tune with all sides of the process. He would go to the piano with me and watch my chord changes. There was a song called, “Love is Green” on the Jeff Beck album, and he said do you want some strings? And I said sure, do what you want – he was all prepared to arrange a string quartet to go on that song. He was just that kind of guy. So early on I was able to watch these great producers and how they did things. So my style is really that I’m a musician and I’m kind of quick, I like to be quick because if I take too long, I might lose the idea, it may evaporate. So I work quickly to capture it when it’s right there in front of me. I encourage the artist like I’m a coach, too jump higher, do more, be stronger, badder and better. I really love pushing a person and see what falls out. Inevitable in music something always falls out if you’re willing to be open to it.
TM: Modern technology allows you to get faster capture of ideas?
NMW: It’s a mixed bag. I agree, but I find working in the computer world just as befuddling as tape. There’s always something going on with it. It still takes time, but in a different way. Quincy Jones said, I feel like I’m painting a 747 with a Q tip! I feel like that all the time! (Laughs)
TM: It introduces science into the musical process.
TM: Early on you were introduced to Sri Chinmoy and his inner peace teachings. Do you still keep those teachings with you and how were you introduced to him?
NMW: Yes, very much so! I mean, it is part of my DNA. First of all, before I met Guru I had been raised in the Catholic Church. Going to mass every morning at the school I went to. It was called St. Margaret’s. I remember taking my drum catalogs to mass and praying on them, you know for the different drum sets I wanted. Low and behold! I have a whole warehouse full of drum sets now! So that prayer worked. And meeting GURU, I was talking with John Mclaughlin and I said whatever it is that you’re doing, as incredible as you are, I want to be like you! He said, well it’s because of my prayer life and my meditation life and my teacher Sri Chinmoy. I said yes, I see on the back of your album jackets these poems called, “Aspirations” or “Birds of Fire” written by him. He said, “Yeah, I’m going to see him at 6 A.M. in the morning in Queens, NY and I’ll tell him I met you.
I was amazed that he would be driving all night to go see this Guru at 6 A.M. in the morning to make mention that he had met me! The whole thing was just completely life altering. and then he called me a week later out of the blue, I had given him my phone number and told him my name was Michael Walden and that I played the drums and about a week later he called and said, “you know, I can’t go to the meditation, but I want you to go and meet the Guru in Norwalk”, and I said, OK. I brushed my hair back and shaved my little beard off, put on whatever white clothes I could find. I went down there to meet the Guru -and there that power was that I had felt behind his music, and he was meditating and singing and playing a harmonium. It was just a beautiful scene going on. Then they read from this book, called “Dance of Life, Part 2. All the poems are about longing for god: “how many days must I pray for you, cry for you, long for you? How many days must I wait to see your face? Poems like that, just over and over again, just like that. And then it kind of hit me, am I really ready for this? I mean, it’s one thing to ask, but then when it’s right there in front of you, are you really ready for it? After his meditation I went upstairs to buy that book, and as I came downstairs, there the Guru was in the living room, just standing there! He said, “You are Mahavishnu’s friend”. I said yes. He said, “You would like to be my disciple?” I said, I think I’m ready and then he just meditated on me for like 5 minutes and I stood there in front of him with my hands kind of folded. As he walked away, I felt an explosion within my heart and intense gratitude that this Guru, Mahavishnu’s teacher, would accept me that day. For me it was just, – I couldn’t handle it, man. On the ride home I couldn’t stop crying and writing poems of gratitude that he would accept me. That began my journey to becoming a friend with Mahavishnu and become a brother to him on a spiritual level. Then we became musical friends and that’s kind of how it unraveled.
TM: there’s something beautiful and mystical about that story. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
NMW: Yes, that’s true
TM: are there trappings of success
NMW: Trappings? Yeah, I think you have to watch out for getting stale, you know, buying into fame. You have to be humble for where it’s at, be grateful for where it’s at. Being flexible is where it’s at in music and staying current with what’s going on. I think these are important things, for me anyway. You know, I don’t want to be trapped into anything; I want to feel always free and able to create.
TM: was that a philosophy that helped you form Tarpan Studios?
NMW: Well, I opened this studio in ‘85 and Guru called it, “Tarpan” which means, satisfaction unparalleled. He said, “Every heart and every soul has satisfaction unparalleled. Because I really wanted to, you know, have my own place and then my manager at the time said, “There’s this great studio that’s looking for a new owner. It was called Trans Virgo. He said, “You should go take a look at it and maybe you could just take it over”. It was a wonderful structure with big beautiful high ceilings and all that. There had been some great recordings done here too, you know like, Rumble Fish, Aaron Copeland, some Grateful Dead recordings, things like that. I loved to have the place, so I just took it over. I loved to have a home where we could be creative. We opened our doors to great players. The great Clarence Clemons came to make his album with Booker T Jones. I‘ve had so much fun here over the years and with the people that I love. James Brown would come here, he came twice. To just be around him! Really more than anyone, he really changed my life with his music. I mean, if you’re a drummer, you gotta be able to play, “Cold sweat”, you know, “Get up off that thing”, the “Funky Chicken’… You know you’ve got to be able to understand that music to go forward or otherwise a cat like Jaco Pastorious doesn’t take you serious. You have to be able to play that stuff with all your heart! So James, -Minister Brown, we called him really, really put it down! And before him it was Ray Charles, the live album -the one in Newport! I carried with me in the snow at nine years old. He was playing songs like, “what’d I say”, “Frenzie”, “Tell the truth”… just absolute perfection! And I just tried my best to study it and even at 4 or 5 years old, I loved Nina Simone’s live at Town Hall that was a killer album. Horace Silver, etc. They were always playing this intense music. So with opening Tarpan, I always wanted to create beautiful music, but with the artists love. I wanted to capture what they needed. Most people come to me because they want to make a hit, once I could make a hit, then my phone rang a lot to make more hits. Then I had to become a student of- “well, what’s a hit?” It changes all the time. Sounds change and you always have to be a student of what’s happening now. But at the core of it, it’s the things I learned as a kid from people like Nina Simone and James Brown. Mahavishnu too.
TM: Among some of the artists you’ve played with is the great organist Joey DeFrancesco. Talking about all these great old masters reminded me of my interview with him.
NMW: I’m a major fan, but I only jammed with him once at the Great American Music Hall with John Mclaughlin. Somehow they coerced him into coming on to the stage, which was kind of weird because there were no monitors, just in –ears. I knew instinctively how to play with Mahavishnu, so we just worked it up. Joey was just hanging in there doing his thing which is just monster, I mean. The leader in the organ world, which is Jimmy Smitts, showed that you could have a back beat in jazz! That’s when I realized you could really make Jazz cook with a back beat instead of all this fancy stuff.
TM: Joey and I had an interesting conversation in an interview (see interview) about landmark recording studios and the energy that stays in these places where all the old masters played. They really become places of power in a way. He felt that way about Rudy Van Gelder’s place.
NMW: Yeah, Rudy Van Gelder’s place!
TM: Can you feel the spirits of those that came before?
NMW: Oh yeah, I agree, I agree. In fact, I made more than one recordings there with a cat named Alan Holdsworth and Alan was unhappy because he was only able to make one or two takes of each song and he wanted even more. But they kept him on a very tight leash time-wise, but i thought it was a pretty good record he made. At that time, Rudy’s wife had cancer and he wanted to sell one of his pianos right off the floor! In the studio! I just made about $40,000 from my work on the Jeff Beck Wired album for the songs I had composed. So I bought that piano. I really wanted it. That was the piano Herbie Hancock and all those guys played on such great recordings. I have it my living room!
TM: any tours planned
NMW: No, we know we want to do work next year and we found a good booking agent, he books Stanley Clarke’s band, who I adore. Those guys just rip it up hard core! So, I’m happy to have an agent that will represent us around the world with our touring. But I have babies, so I have to be really smart about how I do things. But I’m very much inspired to play music around the world and tour. Audiences are out there that want to feel something; they want to be touched by the music and the power and the majesty. So I’m really eager to go back out there and just make known my sound and my band and my mission and bring the music to new generations. My teachers tell me that it’s really important to keep it current and so there you go…
TM: What message do you have for your fans?
NMW: I love my fans. I love people who love music! Stay searching of mind and spirit! I love that my fans stay open to my brand of music, which is jazz rock, fusion, funk and all that mixed together. Do you play?
TM: I do, I play clarinet and keyboards. But at a different level, so I am humbled that you even ask.
NMW: I’m humbled too, it doesn’t really matter what level you are. Being humble keeps you learning at a fast rate, keeps it coming at a fast rate.
TM: It’s true; we are all students in that respect. What I’ve learned about my music over the years is that it is about self satisfaction, but it’s even more so about how you’re music is of service to others. You know, like what is its purpose in the world? I think when you decide what your music is about, what its purpose is, then that’s the best place to operate. Not so much in how your music ranks up. But you might have a different take on that. After all, you make the charts and the hits!
NMW: I agree with you! Rankings do not make sense to me. They never did. Many times the best music doesn’t get appreciated in rankings and then some of the most popular music that may not be the best music is more appreciated. So you really have to be heartfelt and open about what you love and to support what you love. I was never ranked popular as a drummer but Mahavishnu saw something in me and I’m grateful for that. In the production world, I had to have success. If I wasn’t making top 10 records, then I wouldn’t have had a job. Even as an artist, when it came down to my third album Atlantic Records said if you don’t have a hit in this new album, were going to drop you! wow, that lit a fire, so then I jumped into disco hard core and made,” I don’t want anyone else to dance with you and then followed with,” I’m alright and then on to “Divine motions. I just kept them coming because I didn’t want to be just dropped! It was terrible, so I always tried to be just open to the music and do what would help me survive. Yeah, and that why I love my version of “Freedom”on my the album, You know, Freedom, by Richie Havens. Here’s a guy who just brilliant! He did 6 encores at Woodstock and on the 6th encore in front of all those people, makes up that song on the spot! So I said, I’m going to take that song and do something with it and keep hi s legacy alive my own way. I love all those people in the 60’s, they were doing it for real. They had to! Or they were out of here. They had to bring it, Jackie Wilson had to bring it, Sam Cooke had to bring it, Smokey Robinson had to bring it, or forget it! Little Stevie Wonder went live at 12 years old, playing at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, it was incredible. And the people were screaming there was such a command. And I know people that have seen these kinds of shows who were just transformed by them.
TM: I was born in the 60’s so a lot of that stuff I caught on the back end and it was still transformative!
TM: what producers from the past do you really admire?
NMW: Ok, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye made one of the greatest albums ever produced, “What’s going on”. Everything that comes from that period just rings of a truth and a sincerity. You know you had people like Mary Wells and Little Richard – The Beatles made their sound by combining Mary Wells and Little Richard. I’m grateful to John Lennon and Paul McCartney for having made their influences known. At that time, black people didn’t get the recognition they deserved. In other parts of the world, but not here. The Beatles really helped that. It all helps me go forward in life. I can channel the people that have passed on to help me with my work. I tried to channel Rick James! (Laughs).
TM: What words do you have for our readers?
NMW: These are the best times of our lives and I want to encourage everybody to keep it together with love and harmony!