A Conversation with Narada Michael Walden:
Drummer, Producer, God Lover
by Scott "Dr. Music" Itter
Narada Michael Walden has always been a musical inspiration to me through his work as a drummer. Jeff Beck's "Wired" album and the Mahavishnu Orchestra release, "Visions of the Emerald Beyond," were both monumental stepping stones in my musical journey through life. It wasn't until I started to research Walden's career statistics that I came to find that he is responsible for 56 charted #1 hits, more than any producer in history. He has produced hits for some of the biggest artists that music has ever known; artists like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin - just to name a few. He is also a three-time Grammy winner, receiving the Producer of the Year Grammy in 1987. Okay &.so he's more than just a drummer.
With this interview, I wanted to learn who Narada (pronounced Narda) Michael Walden was. What drives this man to perform with such success? What kind of a person is this? Anyone responsible for so much success with so many different people has to have a pleasant personality and demeanor, right?
I had no idea how right I was, until we began our conversation.....
Narada Michael Walden: "Scottie, it's Narada!"
Dr. Music: Narada! How are you?
NMW: "I'm okay. I just jogged over to the studio [Tarpan Studios] and just wanted to make sure I touch base with you."
DM: You're popping up everywhere.
NMW: "I like to pop up. As long as you're alive, it's important to pop up."
DM: I hear the Oakland Symphony has acquired you now, too, Mozart. I hear Mozart is your new name around the office!
NMW: "Aww, that's very sweet. I was asked out of 130 people to be chosen of 1 of 4 to compose a classical piece for next year's opening gala."
DM: How does composing a symphony differ from everything else you've done?
NMW: "It's quite similar actually. The album before the one you mentioned with "Eternity's Breath" on it, is an album called Apocalypse. That album with Mahavishnu Orchestra had the London Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas, produced by The Beatles' producer George Martin, so I'm very familiar with the symphony. And also my earlier solo albums would have symphonic pieces. So I've always had a yearning that way.
So, in this new thing I'm gonna put together for next year, it'll be symphonic in nature, then I'll bring the drums in, then maybe even a choir and some rap. So, we'll see how it all goes. I really want to tie the worlds together - old school meets new school &..with Mozart wigs." (Laughs)
NMW: "Hey, now you're in Chicago. I'm from Kalamazoo."
DM: I do a radio show in Detroit each week, so I'm very in touch with the Detroit area.
NMW: "Well, Kalamazoo is smack in the middle between Chicago and Detroit. It's not really Detroit or Chicago; it's just right out in the middle. My dad's from Chicago, so I feel more of an affinity for Chicago. But, the music of Detroit also banged me on the head really hard. But, the music of Chicago banged me hard too, with Curtis Mayfield and his early productions of The Five Stairsteps, and of course The Impressions, and "The Monkey Time/Major Lance." There's so much music coming out of Chicago, then all of the blues stuff that came out of there as well. So, a lot of music in the Midwest, and really untouched by the rest of the world, quite frankly."
DM: Yeah! We always think of L.A., of course, and New York Chicago sometimes gets lost in there.
NMW: "You're right, because no one speaks up. But I think it's time that you speak up, I speak up, people who are from that neck of the woods start speaking up. We're more shy and humble in nature, so we don't really rattle the chain about things that much. You know the coast people think they're 'all that' because they're by the sea. But we almost take it for granted, these Great Lakes in our backyards!"
DM: Oh yeah. I think the Midwest is a breeding ground for so many things.
NMW: "Oh yeah, man. It's in the water. And also, the breeding of the people; we mix Indian blood, African blood, European bloods all these bloods come together [and] makes a gumbo that produces this sophisticated blues &.sophisticated ghetto mentality that just takes over the world. It's a combination of the world, man." (Laughs)
DM: Along with all the other stuff you're working on, you're working on a solo album with Sting and Clarence Clemons as guests?
NMW: "Yes, it's done. It's called "The More I Love My Life." And I also have another band album, so we're trying to get the release for this year . And, I'm also working on a Bach project."
DM: I see that "Brothers In Arms" is out from Temple Of Soul!
NMW: "Yes, brother."
DM: That is some funky stuff! Tell us about it.
NMW: "Well, Clarence is my brother. He has been since back in '85; he played sax on 'Freeway Of Love,' our first platinum with Aretha Franklin. I just adore him. He's got a heart of gold. We're very close, and God has been good to us. Whatever I can do with him, I'm always there for him. He's been one of my closest friends in the music industry to really be there for me. You know, it's funny how many people you can have number one records with, but when you look around, who'll be there for you? Who'll really answer a phone call? It doesn't work that way, unfortunately. It works more just a heart connection."
DM: Would you say that's the most negative thing for you about the music industry?
NMW: "But I don't even want to say negative. It's just human nature. It's just the God lesson; not to be attached to the result. We do the things that we love to do, we enjoy it and we love it, and then we move on. But life is moving fast for everybody, so I've learned to take the four agreements to heart: Agreement #1 says be impeccable with your word; Agreement #2 says don't take anything personal. Like the fact that you have a #1 record but you don't hear from the person. Don't take it personal because they're doing their own thing as well; [Agreement]#3 - don't assume. Always have the courage to ask the question; and [Agreement] #4, always do your best. So my best really is not to have any negatives in life. And the fact that I can breathe, and the fact that I can walk and feel gratitude in my heart, hey man&.it's all good."
DM: Basing your life around those four things has got to be such a positive experience.
NMW: "It's written by Juan Miguel Ruiz. My mom kinda turned me on to the book, and I really enjoyed those principles. They help me a lot because it's easy, if I'm not careful, to take it personal. If you don't like my song, my new baby or whatever, then you could take it personal. But you have to realize, just because somebody doesn't like something doesn't mean that it's not good."
DM: Right. Everybody takes it a little bit differently, and that's the beauty of music I think. It's a personal experience, it really is.
NMW: "Yeah, that's right. Something you may like, I may not like, and vice versa - and that's okay! That's what this whole thing is about, man. So that we can have a good time on this Earth, and find things that really bring us happiness, and make progress. Make progress, man."
At this point, Narada asked me what I do for a living. Now, let me tell you that this was a first. Never has an artist asked me about my personal life. Narada asked to know about me with genuine interest and caring, and for that reason alone I have a special place in my heart for him. I proceeded to tell him that I'm a stay-at-home Dad, and he told me how John Lennon was also, and how he loved to bake bread and listen to soft, relaxing music. Narada has a very special way of making you feel special; like you are important to this Earth.
DM: You've been with every major legend/influential artist you can possibly imagine Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles. Is there anybody left that you want to work with?
NMW: "Yeah, I'd like to work with Michael Jackson. I'd like to work with Prince. I'd like to work with a lot of the new folks that are coming up. Some of them I really admire. I like this girl out of the UK named Adele. I like Duffy. I'd like to work with them. I want to stay current in the music industry, so to stay with some young shots is important, you know? Yeah, so there's many many things I'm still looking forward to doing. In my mind, I'm still like 19."
DM: I always think of you as a drummer, more than a producer even. Is it 56 #1 hits [as a producer]? That's what I hear.
NMW: "Yes. It's been quite a few."
DM: How do you think of yourself?
NMW: "I think of myself as a God lover. A God lover who's here to do a great amount of work, and my motto is 'It's supposed to be fun.' So, I just look at whatever I can do and try and keep it fun so I can enjoy it, you know. The whole thing is, I can feel good about it and enjoy the process."
DM: I think there are a lot of musicians who are out there doing things and they really don't enjoy them anymore, and that's unfortunate.
NMW: "It's just a matter of re-thinking it. It's not a big dilemma. We think it can be a big dilemma, but it's really not a big dilemma. In the matter of a second we can switch it, if you just think, 'Would you rather be dead in the ground?' &..'Would you rather not have the gift of music?' &..'Would you rather be in a position where you couldn't play?' So really, in the twinking of an eye you can really change it around. And maybe think about this, the inspiration is flying 24 hours a day. All we gotta do is be receptive and reach our hands up and grab the birds of inspiration and bring them down. But they're flying 24 hours a day."
DM: Do you still find that you're one of the few drummers that use the traditional grip?
NMW: "Oh, I think there are many many great drummers who use all kinds of grips anymore. I never felt comfortable with just switching over to anything else because I was raised that way, and if it wasn't broke why fix it?"
DM: With the Grammys and so many awards of recognition that you've gotten, is there any one piece that you're most proud of?
NMW: "I'm most proud of the first Grammy I ever got for Aretha Franklin 'Freeway Of Love' Song of the Year. It was my first Grammy. There's something very special about the first thing you ever do. I'm also very proud of winning an Emmy for the Olympic theme song with Whitney Houston called 'One Moment In Time.' And I'm also proud just to be here today. I'm proud to have survived when a lot of my friends have passed on and couldn't hang on to the train track. And I'm very happy to be here now, to be able to talk to you. Just tell the world that life is a good thing, and God has really given us. With the flippers and porpoises and the seas, all these great animals and creatures running around here for us to enjoy, that I'm very happy to be able to have the gift of life, and I'm very happy to proclaim my happiness. This is what I'm here for. So through music, this is what I'm trying to do &.is inspire humanity, to be closer to God, closer to themselves, and closer to the real feeling of gratitude for being on the Earth."
DM: And lastly, I'm sure this will take a book to fully explain, but how did meeting guru Sri Chinmoy change your life and your career?
NMW: "Very very simply, guru was instrumental in giving me direction at a time when I really needed the direction. It came to me through Mahavishnu Orchestra and the music of John McLaughlin. That music just really inspired me and turned me around and gave me a focus again, because I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix's drummer. Jimi died the year I graduated high school, which is '70. So then John McLaughlin gave me a new hope, a new direction. So, guru with John McLaughlin kind of taught me 'Don't compete with Billy Cobham, compete with yourself. Compete with yourself. Be the best YOU you can be.'"
DM: OH! One more question! On "Led Boots" from [Jeff Beck's] Wired, at the beginning&. I heard that you guys played over the tape leader. Is that true?
NMW: "I did, yeah. But it wasn't something that I was trying to do, it was magic. You see, there is such a thing called magic." (Laughs.)
So, how can I explain to all of you how I felt after my conversation with the man that is Narada Michael Walden? Let me start by reiterating what I just said; I had a conversation with the "MAN that is Narada Michael Walden." I didn't speak with the drummer. I didn't speak with the songwriter, or the producer. I spoke with a MAN, a man that encompasses so much more than music. When I came into this interview, I considered Narada to be the best drummer I had ever heard. I considered him to be one of the greatest music producers in the history of the world. But all of that somehow seems so secondary and inferior now that I have talked to the man. I came to find that I was even more inspired by his zest for life, his spirit, and his enormous heart. I thought there could not possibly be anything that could overshadow this man's musical talent, but I was wrong. With his constant desire to deliver hope and inspiration, Narada is one of the most charismatic and pleasant people that I've ever had the chance to communicate with. The love, kindness, and caring that this man has for the world and everything in it, is something that finishes second to nothing.
Official website: www.naradamichaelwalden.com
For more info about the many ways that The Narada Michael Walden Foundation is helping others, please visit: www.naradamichaelwaldenfoundation.com
The "Special Thanks" section for this interview is one that is emotionally special to me. You see, I was contacted via email by a woman named Lisa Walden after she read some of my reviews. I did not make the connection. I responded with a heartfelt thank you, as I fully appreciate it when anyone reads something I write. She went on to explain that she was married to Narada for many years, and she appreciated the kind words I had for him. She then offered to put me in contact with Narada, and she is the very reason that this interview exists.
I think we can all learn from these two very special people, Anukampa Lisa Walden and Narada Michael Walden. Even though they are no longer married, they share a sincere bond of caring and love with each other. The world would be a better place if we could all follow the example set forth by these two extraordinary human beings.
Lisa There are no words that can express my appreciation. I appreciate you reading my reviews. I appreciate your belief and trust in me as a writer. I appreciate you being in this world.
Narada I am so very thankful for the kindness and caring you have shown me. Your loving spirit is something that inspires me in my daily life, and I thank you for that. You are a gift to this world.