Posted September, 2016
How would you feel if you produced records for people like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, George Michael, Mariah Carey, Stacy Lattisaw, Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Sister Sledge, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight, Rev Al Green, Barbra Streisand, Lionel Ritchie, Elton John, Sting, Carlos Santana, Shanice Wilson, Tevin Campbell, Lisa Fischer, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Wynonna Judd and The Temptations?
On top of that, what if you were awarded Grammys for Producer of the Year, Album of the Year for a movie soundtrack for a major motion picture? Or named by Billboard Magazine as one of the “Top Ten Producers with the Most Number One Hits”?
Well, if you could claim all of those accomplishments, then you would have to be none other than Narada Michael Walden (he goes by Narada). And as amazing as all of that is, Narada has also earned equal acclaim as a solo recording and performing artist.
His solo work includes groundbreaking soundtrack work on such blockbuster films as The Bodyguard, Free Willy, Beverly Hills Cops II, 9 ½ Weeks and Stuart Little including Gladys Knight’s License to Kill for the James Bond Film, Jefferson Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now for Mannequin to the EMMY-winning One Moment in Time, the theme to the 1988 Olympic Games.
Let me stop and catch my breath.
Okay, I can go on now.
In early February 2012, Narada Michael Walden returned from a well-received 10-day stint of shows at the Blue Note in Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan to perform at the White House in an all-star band for President Obama’s “Red, White and Blues” concert with legends B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Trombone Shorty, Booker T Jones and more.
A while back, I had the opportunity to chat with Narada by phone while he was taking a break at his Tarpan Records studio. We chatted about a wide range of things, including his then just released album, “Evolution”.
In the press release for “Evolution”, Narada was quoted as saying that the album reflected his spirituality and his renewed feeling for life so our chat started off with me asking him to expound on that statement.
“From my side I had never had children before, I didn’t think I was going to have children. I waited very late in life to be blessed by the gift from God. I was sixty-one when I had my first child, but this completely stopped my world and it shocked me. Taking care of my oldest, who is now two years old yesterday – little Kelly. She’s just a bundle of energy, like a rocket ship. And, now, I have another one who is nine months old named Kayla who is kind of calm. Both these girls have completely won me over. It’s showed me there is so much to life. We are grateful. There’s just so much to life that’s right here in front of us if we’ll just open our eyes and see it.
“So when I started making music for this new album the experience I am having with my children kind of unfolded in this album and the sweetness I feel being with them and the happiness I feel being with them, so it’s a celebration doing that I get being with them. To see them dance around and jump around makes me very happy. So, that’s what about.
“You know my life is limited on the earth. They’ll outlive me so I want to make sure that they go forward, that they are given the gifts that God wants them to have. So everything is evolving. Nothing stays the same. You’re either slipping backwards or going forward. And I’d like my life to go forward, help my children go forward, help my wife and all my friends, everything move forward. That’s what my evolving purpose is. I really believe that God is good and great and mighty and blesses us on a daily basis. And it’s up to us to recognize that and be grateful for it. The more that we are grateful, the more the universe can bless us. It’s all wrapped up in my feeling of ‘Evolution’ and am I going forward with my life at this time.”
When I asked what he hoped people would get from his album, I expected to hear some canned, PR type answer. What Narada said in response was much more intense than I expected.
“I graduated from high school in 1970, so that would put there the last four years, ’67, ’68 ’69, ’70. A lot of what I think about my life stems from my high school meets now. So, the 60s feeling meets now is always kind of with me. I’m always kind of paralleling what I felt, what I saw from the bands in the 60s in a way, and the heart of the 60s and seeing people come together in the 60s, right? So, just break out and come together in that and/or you saw a lot of eruptions of violence, a lot of people coming together who didn’t like each other. In the south, you can’t go to school if you’re a certain color, you can’t drink from certain fountains, yet all of that started being exposed to where this was so ridiculous.
“So, I like that aspect of the 60s of how things were exposed and then we started working on making it better. I see the same thing happening now again. We’re being forced to come together as humanity to be a stronger people and I like that aspect of it. Like, now, when I was going on stage in New York City, as soon as I walked on the stage all that Paris outbreak happened with ISIS over in Paris. It brings us together to say, ‘what can we do to make our world safer and better for each other?’ Never mind the black, green, white, whatever color of our skins; let’s be tight and stand up for each other and look out for each other as a people. I like all that, it’s the 60s all over again. So, that element is always with me as I am living my life.”
I expected that an album of the amazing caliber as “Evolution”, that it had to have taken Narada a year or two to make. Not so.
“Not long. The Lord’s good to me so I can sit down and write songs quite quickly. I heard something a long time ago that says, ‘inspiration is with us 24 hours a day, we just reach our hands up to the sky and grab a breath of inspiration and bring it down into our lives.
“I learned that trick, so I can write a song a day. I wrote 40 songs for this new album, over a period of about 40 days and then producing it, you know however long that takes, but that’s always – I wear different hats basically to make everything sound beautiful.
“So I can’t really tell you how long it took but over a period of six months. I also took the song, “Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles a couple of years back and re-sang it and reworked. A few songs I had in my vault, like, “Tear the House Down”, that I wrote one with Lionel Richie twenty years ago. I took the inspiration of it and re-cut it.
“I felt like, again, going back, going forward, going back again, going forward. It’s some of the best things of the 60s back in my life and going forward.
“I think, ‘How do I make a hit out of the title like, ‘Billionaire On Soul Street?”, which my assistant mentioned one day - that title. I think, ‘How would Curtis Mayfield make a hit out of ‘Billionaire On Soul Street?” So, then I just channel Curtis Mayfield, or I’ll channel Rick James when I really want to get really funky and fun, that beat’s got it really going on, I channel Rick. Rick was a real good friend of mine. I played on his albums in the early days. He would say, ‘I wish I could play the drums like you, Narada. Then, I could have so much fun with the music.’
“So I channel Rick. I channel Smokey Robinson or I channel Hendrix. I channel all kinds of people whom I love and adore, musician wise, to open up different doors and keep alive that kind of feeling like we got back in the old days. When music actually meant something, it made you feel a certain way, the words are so high-tech that we couldn’t feel it. Yet, it’s important because my generation, my people who want my music, they want to feel something. They’re on their computers or they’re running around with their children or whatever, they want to hear something. That’s what I realized when I was on the road with Jeff Beck, a tour around the world about two years straight, a few years back, and it was packed everywhere. People want to feel something. They don’t mind coming and paying to see a show and feel something. People don’t buy as many CDs as they used to, but everyone wants to feel it. I’m aware of that. That’s what I am saying, when I put my music down I’m always aware of what would translate live; where I can go out there and play live and people are going to feel it. So I’m on that page too.”
What was different in putting together “Evolution” as compared to his other solo projects and other albums he’s worked on?
“As we evolve as people, I’m just a different person, now, than I was a year ago, even yesterday. I am always recognizing my growth and try to be honest to what I feel at this time. I’m an artist, and we open our hearts to where we are today and what does our heart want to say. It’s like a little journey we go on. That’s what makes me different today than yesterday, or the day before that. I’ve always wanted to be aware ---- also on this album--- to make an album that is more dance oriented. Because back in ‘78, when disco was very popular, I was at the helm of disco, again, making dance music. So I feel like here we are making music around the world people really want to dance. Their life is so intense that they want to dance it off and feel better about things. I just continued my act to go and I wound up playing live dance music, 60s live dance music meets now. So that’s predominately in my thought. Stevie Wonder is one of my teachers and he always says to me, ‘Narada, always keep it current’. So by keeping it current, I go, ‘What are we doing on the earth right now? Oh, we all want to dance again.’ Fine, but I want to dance with my own spin on it; and my own spin is really 60s meets now.”
I shared with Narada about the driving force in the creation of Boomerocity. My story prompted him to say:
“I think with the Boomer generation we changed things for the better and we’re still enjoying the fruit of that and we still want to maintain the good fruit of that and they’re learning from us; being brave to stand up and try it and come together as a strong people.
“Also on the album, I covered a jam by the great Richie Havens, who did a song called ‘Freedom, right? “Freedom” was his sixth encore at Woodstock. Can you imagine in front of all those people being asked to come back out six times? Because, for one reason, the band that was going to follow him was late so you had to kind of make up for a time. And, then, on the sixth encore he starts jamming and just looks around and starts singing ‘Freedom.’ I just love that. So, again, we need that message of ‘Freedom’ again. So I just asked the Lord could I do my version of Richie Haven’s song in honor to Richie Havens. Again, I just love all that unbridled spirit we had at that time meets now again.”
As for which song from “Evolution” Narada would point to as a calling card for the entire album, he shared:
“I want you to tell me that, I want you to say ‘this is what I enjoy’ because each person is different. I don’t want to ever limit someone of what they love by my own interpretation or whatever.
“From my side, my daughter speaks on the album at the very beginning ‘Evolution’ that’s very charming to me. That’s very charming, the message of that song speaks as I am speaking to you now. I should have taken better care of my mother earth. Am I taking care of my babies so they can do a wonderful job in our futures? So, that message is very dear to my heart. But, then, having said that, I like everything I put together on this record. The Paul McCartney and John Lennon tune, “The Long and Winding Road.’ My life has been a long and winding road. So, I’d have to say I offer it as a Thanksgiving meal and whatever you like, that’s what you’re going to enjoy.
Narada’s treatment of Richie Havens’ “Freedom” is especially powerful. I was interested in learning what drove him to cover that classic tune.
I’m a rock and roll man. In my heart of hearts, I’m a rock and roll man. I love the spirit of Hendrix, of Richie Havens, of the people that can do it, man! Really do it! I mean really just shake it up. That’s what I most admire. When I was a little kid, I admired Ray Charles’ live records. I admired Little Richard. Little Richard made me feel it! Wow! What the hell! They had so much control of their voice even when they were screaming, they would scream in tune. I just love all that control of the electricity! So, I’m turned on by that. I play drums. So, all that I can tell you is that we’re the heartbeat of music and we want to go full throttle. it just always spills into this burning ecstasy feeling. It just can’t help but overspill into that record.”
As I shared at the beginning of this piece, Narada has worked with an astonishing group of icons. That said, I wondered if there as anyone on his bucket list who he hasn’t yet worked with.
“I think there’s some new people coming out and people that are already popular and huge that I’ve met and that I’d like to work with. Beyoncé, I met her when she was younger but I would love to make a smash with her now. Adele is very hot in the world. I would like to make a smash with her. I met her at one of her concerts here in the Bay area and she was out in the street with no shoes on with all her fans around her, just loving her fans. I was very taken by her. My favorite song of hers is ‘Chasing Pavements.’ The chorus on that record is so Burt Bacarach-ish! So gorgeous! I want to work with her.
“To be honest, I’m open to anyone the good Lord wants to bring to me because I always say this, ‘Sometimes my mind is like, I don’t want to work with somebody.” But, then, that’s very limiting. I meet somebody who I felt that I wouldn’t have been so good with, then all of a sudden, ‘No, no! We get along like peas and carrots!’ So, I realize that I should never try to say this or that. Just be open to the flow of the universe and whatever God brings your way. Don’t block a blessing!”
I hit Narada with a two-part question: Do you feel like the music business needs to be fixed? And what would you do to fix it?
“If I was a music czar, I would be like Berry Gordy all over again. Barry Gordy brought an honesty and a sound of youth back to America - which we needed - with a bunch of funk and spirit and sound of great music. Be it The Four Tops, be it the Miracles, be it the Supremes, discovering Little Stevie Wonder. I think in our industry, now, we need a new influx of young and youthful stars as well as the rest just keeping their sound alive. But genuinely, the songs are really beautiful songs. I don’t want to see as an industry, and as a people, lose our innocence.
“Look at the song by the Beatles, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand." That song was a smash. We don’t think that way anymore. We don’t even think innocent-like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. How beautiful and what a charge you get from just touching someone’s hand that you’re crazy about. We were so innocent then. I don’t know if even we as a people could ever return to that kind of innocence, I would wish it if I was the czar – that we would make the music that touched the heartstrings of our innocence. To touch the heartstrings of human, pure emotion. That’s what I would wish for as a Czar.
“I’d find the greatest singers I could find. I’d find the greatest talent I could find - and the nicest people. I would want people who are talented and are nice who can get along, they aren’t going to try to mess it up and tear it up. And, once they get some power, misuse that power. I want people who could be God-ordained with their power. That’s what I want. I want to help angels do their work on the planet. That’s what I to help do if I’m the Czar. Great singers and great musicians who have a purpose of doing good for this world. That’s what I’m talking about, with wonderful songs. Yep, that’s what I’m talking about! It’s happening. We’re actually doing it and we’ll do lots more of it. “
We just did a big show at the Iridium in New York City, a small club.
It’s a mighty powerful place because a lot of press gets in there and the people that are really in the know in New York City come to your show. I really felt a powerful experience there just last week. And then we postponed the rest of our tour for next year when we’ll have more a chance to let Michael Jensen get up to speed, get our album out, where people will get to hear more of it. It’s just so new and so fresh. So that’s what we’re going to do with it. We’ll be doing a little more touring next year. And I’m also raising a family so I have be smart about leaving town and how long I leave town for because my babies are so young still. So, it’s a balancing act.
As for what’s on Narada’s radar for the next few years, he shared:
“We’re building our label records called Tarpan Records and we are building and finding new artists. We’re building how to get music out in the world where people can all share and appreciate it and the artist can benefit in a bigger way and can maintain a bigger piece of the pie. So I want to be smart about that, and I want to just do everything I was meant to do. I feel like when Quincy Jones helped Michael Jackson, he was ripe to really help Michael. And I want to feel like, in my heart, I’m ripe to help the next big superstar of the world, and superstars of the world. I want to be a good producer, helper and coach for them, as well as I want to be able to get out and keep my sound flowing, and make a bigger name for myself.
“I’d like to go on with my band. So you will know, ‘oh, it’s this guy; this guy sings some good stuff.’ So, I want to have that open to me. That’s what I’m saying. I want to keep it flowing, production and artistry both.”
Keep up on the latest on Michael Walden Narada at, where else? http://www.naradamichaelwalden.com