NATURAL SELECTION: NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN TARGETS CURRENT DANCE MARKET WITH CLASSIC-SOUNDING EVOLUTION
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Narada Michael Walden, the master musician, producer and songwriter whose resume includes playing a major role in the creation of a staggering 57 chart-topping tunes, garnering three Grammys and earning an Emmy, pays homage to the classic sounds of the Sixties and Seventies with his current album Evolution, available now. “It’s really just me recreating that idea…to hit a current sound for now, a dance market for now, so that’s what I put my mind to,” says Walden of leaning on an old school vibe as the basis for his album’s 13-track advanced course at Funk U.
Sound aside, the heart of Walden’s inspiration to create his retro sounding record lies, well, in the sound of precious heartbeats. As he is quick to note, this professor of percussion and production, this scholar of songwriting and soul, says his main motivation to step back into the studio was “my personal feeling of spirituality and that feeling renewed for life by having my children Kelly and Kaylah in my life and my wife Katie.” In short, Walden’s personal and professional evolution are on display and in perfect harmony on Evolution.
Narada, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to speak with you today.
Thank you, Jim. I appreciate it very much.
Just a quick 30 seconds on who you’re speaking with today: next year I will have been in the radio business for 30 years.
Ooh! I like it, man. Congrats to you. Our generation, we’ve seen the best of times and heard the best of music, so I just really wanted to uphold that. I don’t wanna see us deteriorate spiritually, emotionally to a place where we never experience truth. We’ve heard the great stuff.
Yes, we’ve been very, very blessed. Let’s talk about Evolution, shall we. The title track opens the record and the song opens with a child’s voice. Tell me about your personal evolution since becoming a father.
Ah, man, God bless you for asking me that: thank you. The album opens with my first-born daughter, Kelly – that’s her voice at the tender age of just one-year-old. My whole inspiration for making this album revolves around her and now my second daughter [Kaylah] and how my life has changed bringing children into my world. They are so beautiful and divine and angels, and their energy being so pure really made me reach out and wanna do something that I could pass onto them, for their futures, and speak to them and to the world that we look out for our babies, we look out for our world, we look out for our humanitarian heart for each other, care for each other, and that we continue to celebrate life. So I’m hitting on all those things. I’m also returning to my live band in the studio; we’re cutting a dance vibe, a good feeling groove in the music, so that’s very accessible. I want people to say they can dig it, and then I can get the message through. So that’s what I’m trying to do is marry the worlds.
We will definitely talk a lot about the great dance music on this record here in our conversation. So this is where you’re at personally. Let’s talk about the professional evolution. How has the business of making music evolved – or devolved?
Well what it is to me is just this: we make records differently in the sense that we have Pro Tools, we have digital equipment – which when I first came on the scene was all tape. I still have my tape machines here (Walden spoke to me from his Tarpan Studios in San Rafael, CA), if I want them, because I love that sound. But I will speak musically: I came in this morning and I played for (Tarpan Studios manager) Kimrea Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers’ “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” That was a hit that came out back in 1968. The chord changes were so sophisticated and gorgeous. So beautiful! That’s kinda how we were raised up; being able to hear really beautiful chord changes; beautiful music, be it The Delfonics, be it Marvin Gaye’s music, Stevie Wonder’s changes on “My Cherie Amour” or The Supremes’ “Come See About Me.” The chord changes we were listening to gave us a sophistication in our ear. And I think that as music progressed to nowadays, it got so simplified, which I think is fine on some level. I’m not criticizing today’s music because there is still great music being made. But on a whole, we rarely can hear the beauty of a Burt Bacharach in a top 10 [song]. So that’s what I’m talking about. I wanna see us maintain beautiful music in our top 10, and inspiring music in our top 10. Not just everybody sounding the same. When we came up, if you sounded like somebody else you were put down for it. Nowadays you’re raised up if you sound like somebody else. And again, not to put today’s music down, because I’m very inspired by radio; I listen to it constantly. What I dig is like a cat like The Weeknd coming out with (singing) “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you.” You can tell his influences from the 60s and 70s; the funk. And “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars; you can tell his influences and he’s keepin’ it alive. So I dig all that. I just wanna feel like we keep the beauty alive in music. The beautiful aspect of music. The flowers in music.
Let me take you back even further for one more question, and then we’ll really dive into the record. Did you have the proverbial – or maybe literal – “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment? Was there a specific moment when you knew music was gonna be what you were gonna do for the rest of your life? Was it a song that came on the radio? Was it a show you went to, or something like that?
Well, if I’m honest, man, I feel like I was born into this thing; I feel like I asked God before I ever came to the planet, “Can I have the gift of music?” And God said, “Yes, I’ll give it to you, but then you gotta stay pure with it, you gotta inspire the people with it and remind them to stay grateful.” And I said, “Okay Lord, I’ll do that.” I feel like I came to the planet knowing I wanted music. I did not want to come to this world without the gift of music. So I knew from a very early age, watching records spin, playing along on a pie tin on a pillow to records. And my family was always playing me, like, Nina Simone at Town Hall, (jazz musician) Jimmy Smith, or Cannonball Adderley or (jazz pianist) Horace Silver’s 6 Pieces of Silver or Silver’s Blues: always playing me these pieces of music that would just jar me. I mean I’m four or five years old listening to that music. So I’ve always know that music was it. When The Beatles came out, I was maybe nine or 10 by that time, and I was very taken to see Ringo Starr flirting with the chicks in the balcony as he was playing. I loved that. He showed me that you could play drums and be very charismatic, and make the girls scream. I dug all that! But I also want to say one more thing: The Beatles were very beautiful in that what they said was, “Our favorite female vocalist is Mary Wells,” out of Detroit, MI. “And our favorite male singer was Little Richard.” He was electric! So I was so proud of The Beatles because they educated the white kids of America about these great icons – Mary Wells and Little Richard.
Amen! I was two weeks shy of my sixth birthday when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, and that changed my life, for sure.
Okay! Well you was a youngin’, man!
I was! Well let’s dive into the record. We have been sort of dancing around this – pun intended – but my first question about the record is this: for me, the sonic foundation is built on the very retro sound. Many producers would have opted to use all the latest technology and studio bells and whistles. I don’t hear that on the album. Why did you resist the temptation to do so?
Oh, thank you. Okay, bro, well because I want the sound I can make live. I wanted to create on my record what I could easily go out and play live, and have a sound, huge, fat and big, live. After touring with Jeff Beck for like two and a half years around the world, I know a lot of artists are out there that really want to feel it live. That’s why I made a record that I know, when I mic myself up properly, when I mic the drums up properly, and my vocal and my hot band around me, I can pull off my album live, and that’s what I want to be able to do.
Yeah, exactly. If you get too studioized – which is cool – you get too much gimmickry for the live show.
The first single “Billionaire on Soul Street” has a Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions kind of vibe to it…
Yes, sir! Yes, sir! That’s how I feel, now that I have these babies in my life, I feel like a billionaire on soul street. So they inspired me to write this song, and I said to myself, “Now how would I take this title and make it a smash?” And so I said, “What would Curtis Mayfield do?” So you’re right. I just kind of jumped into Curtisland (laughs).
(Laughs) My question was actually gonna be, was it fair to say that (it has a Mayfield vibe). But I got my answer. I heard what you were puttin’ down (laughs).
Yeah, man! I’m very much a fan of Curtis Mayfield’s music, and that kind of soul vibe which I think is very much the current sound of today, too.
You mentioned him early, but Bruno Mars is right at the top of that list…
Yeah, man, all them cats are trying to emulate what came down [before]. We bring our current sound to it, but basically, as a song, you can’t top that stuff that came down with Curtis and Marvin and all that; you can’t top it.
I always say “They don’t call it classic for nothing.”
Speaking of classic, you put your unique sonic fingerprints on two classic cuts: the Richie Havens track “Freedom” and The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.” Tell me what it was about those two tracks that you love, and why you wanted to put your spin on them.
“The Long and Winding Road,” I’ve always loved that melody and love the message and the loneliness of it. Many of us in the world are lonely-hearts, be it that we’ve lost someone in our family, or we feel lost sometimes, or whatever the reason is. I was on the road with Jeff (Beck) and Jeff was also very much diggin’ that record. We’d be on the road and the message of that song would often be very heart touching. So at one point I was thinking I would cut it for Jeff and maybe Rod Stewart to sing. That never really came to fruition, so I just thought I’ll cut it for myself. I just so enjoyed doing it; I enjoyed the feeling. Also, my brother, Ron, who was very close to me, passed away, and I think that a lot of my emotion and the sorry I have in losing him kinda comes through in that arrangement. So, it’s kinda like that, man.
Yeah, it’s very beautiful. You’ve mentioned Jeff Beck a couple of times, you just now mentioned Rod Stewart and we’ve been talking about Curtis Mayfield. Of course Jeff and Rod got together years back to do (Mayfield & the Impressions’) “People Get Ready.”
That’s right! See, you can’t top it, man. Those beautiful songs, those melodies – those are our teachers, so we always want to do homage and keep that spirit alive.
Now the album also rekindles – thank you for the word spirit – the spirit of revolution with the aptly titled “It’s the Sixties.” In it you certainly cite several of the decade’s major icons: Dr. King, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, that man Curtis Mayfield again, Marvin Gaye and so forth. What’s the main message in this song?
I’m a Flower Power kid in that I was in Kalamazoo, MI, way out in the country, but we knew and heard about the revolution happening in San Francisco so powerfully in ’68 and ’69, that we all knew that something was going on. It came across us like a tsunami. We knew something was happening out at Haight and Ashbury even from way out in Michigan, and I caught that bug, I caught that fire, like, wow man, people are really gonna open their hearts and embrace each other. We’re gonna really do it! We’re not just gonna talk it, we’re gonna do it! Blacks, whites, Chinese, different cultures, different ways of thinking; we’re gonna embrace each other. We’re gonna come together and make a better world. And I believed in that, and I believe in that! And that’s what my song is about; that we keep that spirit alive because it’s the 60s all over again because we’re all trying our best to keep that fire rekindled, so it doesn’t go out.
We definitely need that vibe again. We won’t even go down the road of the current political situation, but we definitely can use that song today.
Thank you. You know I skipped over when you asked about “Freedom.” Can I say something about that for a moment?
Sure, of course.
Well I just wanna say that I’m a fan of Richie Havens. I met him a couple of times here in Northern California. He was beautiful and I just thought that I wanted to do a dedication to him, and I just thought, gosh, this “Freedom” message is so beautiful, and then I realized – that was his sixth encore at Woodstock! You know he had to kind of use up time at Woodstock because the bands were not organized and so he did six encores! And the sixth one, “Freedom,” he just made it up. So I just took what he put down and redid it my way. So I’m just very pleased to do something for Richie Havens and keep that same spirit alive that he did on his sixth encore at Woodstock.
Well thank you for bringing that song back to the forefront. The last song I wanted to ask you about is “Tear the House Down,” which vocally and musically reminded me a bit of Lamont Dozier’s great 1977 album Peddlin’ Music on the Side. I got that vibe from this song, perhaps because both you guys are multitalented musicians, producers and songwriters. Tell me about “Tear the House Down.”
“Tear the House Down” is a song I actually co-wrote with Lionel Richie about 20 years ago. It was in my vaults here and I thought, “You know, I’m gonna take that song and just redo it all over again; rearrange it for now.” So you’re hearing some influence of Lionel Richie in there. Lamont Dozier; we’re all fans of all the countless hits he’s had. It’s really me just recreating that idea with Lionel to hit a current sound for now, a dance market for now. So that’s what I put my mind to. And Sting heard it and he was like, “Yeah man, push the furniture back, put this on, play it real loud and just dance and party!” (Laughs) Tear the house down!
Yeah, and we have to emphasize that this is a dance record! It’s a dancefloor filler! So much good stuff on here.
Thank you. The first award I was ever given was in 1978, from Billboard magazine, as the Most Promising Male Disco Artist (laughs)! So, way back then, I was doing dance music, and in fact it saved my career. After jazz-rock fusion [with] the Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Weather Report, Tommy Bolin and all that music we put down, it came to a day back in 1978 where Atlantic Records said, “If you don’t have a hit on this new album, your third album, you’re gonna be dropped.” And I couldn’t imagine being dropped. So they said the hottest thing right now is disco. I jumped both feet into it, man, and saved my career with a song called “I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To dance with You),” then “I Shoulda Loved Ya,” then “Tonight I’m Alright,” and just a bunch of dance music, and it saved my career. You know, people are dancing more now than ever before, so I just wanted to give them an album that they can kind of dance and feel soul classic vibration.
I love the vibe of this whole record. Let me wrap up here, and again, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, too.
It has been a true pleasure. So, 57 number one hits, three Grammy Awards, on and on and on. The list of superstars you’ve worked with throughout your career includes everyone from Whitney Houston to Wynonna Judd, Sister Sledge to Santana, Aretha Franklin to Mariah Carey, and again, on and on and on. Why do you think all these greats gravitated towards you to get the sound they were looking for?
Well, when you boil it down, if you get hot on the charts, then your phone starts ringing, because you discover some alchemy, you discover some science that is doing well, I’d say. When it got out that I’m a musician and that I could actually try to love the artist enough to get their sound be hot for the top 10, then I kind of really exploded. My thing is to get into the heart and soul of whoever I’m working with, and get them on the tape so it’s really what they can live with for their life. And also do it where you make the chorus jump so strong that it really is a bonafide hit. So that’s what I’m trying to marry; I’m trying to marry the artist – in his highest or her highest – with that hit chorus that can ring the bells around the world. Adding all those things together, it’s a conscience decision on my part to pray, to meditate, to be a kind person so that a person can let their hair down, take their shoes off and then do their best work. So I think all those things come together.
Conversely, is there a common thread in all of these artists that you are drawn to, or that you look for?
Yes. Everyone I’ve worked with; they are all trying to do their best. And I love that. And then now I just become a coach, to push them, to see how far they can jump. Whatever it is that they wanna do, we just do it enough times where something magic happens, because music is above all of us. So we’re all trying to do our best for the music. For example, when you meet Aretha Franklin, you’re meeting the Queen of Soul! And that’s intimidating to you, to me, to anybody! You look in her eyes – and I’m just gonna tell you, man, you’re looking into the eyes of fire! But when that song comes on that you’ve come to produce, or work on, then you’re both on the same team to try to make that music do what it needs to do. You’re both fighting together. Then you can kind of relax your insecurity that you’re with this genius. And then it all comes together. And that’s what I’ve realized time and time again. I might be intimidated by meeting somebody, but when the music comes on, we’re working hard together, now we can become friends because we’re both pulling from that same side to make the music be what it needs to be. And that’s how it happens.
Finally, you’ll be performing live May 26-28 at The Iridium in New York City. Are there, or will there be, additional U.S. dates coming up?
We’re just starting to get it going again, after the birth of my second daughter, who has just turned one-year-old, so we’re kind of slowly rebuilding again.
Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about, that we haven’t discussed?
Well, there’s a brand new artist that has a single out called “Rise Up Time.” Her name is Jennifer Saran. She’s a hot new lady out of Hong Kong I really like. And there’s another one I’ve just produced named Ashley J; a song called “Trapped.” It won’t be out for a while, but she’s hot. I just always enjoy developing new artists, and keeping the legends alive – both! We’re starting Tarpan Records. I’m very happy to have my Tarpan Studios. I’m very grateful. Carlos Santana comes here to record. We mic the walls for Carlos! Carlos doesn’t just want the amp mic’d, he wants the sound of how it sounds bouncing off the walls! That’s what makes him breathe! So, I just love being able to help my people achieve their dreams. That’s what makes me happy.
Well thank you for this record. I’m blessed to be able to help spread the word.
God bless you for that, man, and please come visit me, okay? Tarpan Studios.
I would love to do that. Thank you very much.
Thank you very, very much, man. Okay, cool. Bye bye.