If the name Narada Michael Walden doesn’t sound familiar, it should be. Not only is he a legendary drummer, producer, and writer, he’s also worked with some of the biggest names in music. Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Elton John, Lionel Ritchie, Al Green, Barbra Streisand, Sting, and Carlos Santana are only a handful of artists he’s collaborated with. Now, Narada is gearing up to release his 13th studio album “Evolution” along with a performance in New York to support the disc. Before he hits the road, Narada talks about his impressive history, the magic of recording, and balancing different roles.
You’ve worked with an impressive amount of musicians over the years including Whitney Houston, Jeff Beck, and Aretha Franklin. Is there someone you still haven’t worked with that you would love too?
Narada Michael Walden: Yeah, sure there are lots. I’ve been in the studio with Prince and he’s a friend, but I’ve never actually worked with him, so I’d love to do something with him. I love Sade, I’d love to work with Beyonce, she’s great. I met her a few years ago, but we’ve never got to produce anything together. Gaga is another one and The Weeknd is great. There are a lot of people I admire, but haven’t produced yet, so it would be great to work with them.
How do you get to work with so many talented people? Do they come to you or do you reach out to them?
NMW: It works in many different ways. Normally managers reach out, agents reach out, and when you get hot on something they come to check out the charts. And if word gets around that you’re good to work with it helps a lot too. There’s no formula for how it works; you just gotta catch the fire. And I’m known for being a good listener. Most people need a lot of love and encouragement and I’m more than willing to give a person all the encouragement and time they need. It’s hard being behind that microphone, so you want to be extra loving. I pray on it too. I ask God to come into session, burn a candle, a flower, do some meditation, get a person a gift. Just do a lot to make them feel good.
So you want to make them feel at ease and relaxed?
NMW: Yes, that’s very important because the spirit of music wants to come through and you have to welcome it. We want the spirit to come into our lives, come into the machines, touch our song, and be with us. It’s a very conscious effort I make and a lot of the artists I work with make to bless the music. I think that’s what it’s all about. You can feel it; something’s always coming through.
You wear many hats from drummer to producer. Is there one you enjoy doing more?
NMW: No, one hat helps the other hat. I was raised as a drummer to play my music, sing songs, and have a good time. But then I learned to produce records, so I became a student of that with George Martin to help me, Quincy Jones helped me. All those great mentors I had to help me, but as a musician that side feeds the producer and then the producer gets wise to what’s going on and can help the musician side. They kind of go together. If I go on a tour, like go to Chicago, when I come back home from that show I’ll be revitalized for the studio. I’ll bring to the studio the energy I got from the audience at that show. So that’s how it helps me. And a lot of artists are like that. Lionel Richie’s like that.
Can you tell me a bit about your record label Tarpan Records and how that got started?
NMW: I felt like it was very difficult to get signed to the major labels; the AR staff weren’t there anymore, the press weren’t there anymore to help new artists. So a lot of new artists were coming to me looking for a smarter way to get new music out to the world. And I found a label called I found a distribution house called IDC, Independent Distribution Collective, run by Steffen Franz. I made Steffen Franz the President of Tarpan Records. So we are all incorporated together to make the music out of Tarpan Records and distribute it through IDC and we are into other venues around the world. So God bless us on our ventures of discovering new talent and keeping the legends alive that want to come our way for their futures. In the same spirit as Motown had, the family feeling of Great Music and learning from and loving working with each other and touring together and doing nice things as we grow.
Tell me a bit about your upcoming album “Evolution.” What can fans expect to find here?
NMW: “Evolution” is about my family. I have a new family situation with children: my oldest girl, Kelly, is two and my baby girl, Kayla, is seven months. So, it inspired me to talk about the future and kids and how important they are and kind of return to the sound of my dance era. So, there’s a lot of dance on this record. In my live shows I always mix up jazz rock fusion and a lot of my earlier stuff, but I always liked celebration and party music – it has a good message. The new album is pretty much about that. The first single is called “Billionaire on Soul Street,” which is a new way of saying to me “I feel so good in my life. I feel like a billionaire on soul street.”
In 2012 you got the opportunity to perform at the White House for President Obama. What was that like? Did you ever think you’d be playing for the president one day?
NMW: No. I did play for President Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency at the White House, which was wonderful. I never thought that would happen and performing for President Obama was just mind blowing. I was able to take my mother to the White House. She actually sat right next to the President’s family in the front row and he hugged her and was so kind to her. And as I was playing all my music, he was mouthing the words and was a fan of the music. I dig that guy – he’s got the heart and soul of a champion.
Along with writing music, you’re author. You wrote a book on Whitney Houston in 2012. Do you have anymore books in you?
NMW: Oh yes, I do. I want to do a book on my life and about the experiences that helped me and pass it on to others and be an inspiration. I want to talk about working with Aretha Franklin, talk about working with Gladys Knight, talk about all the artists I’ve worked with and stories from my life. I want to pass that on. So at some point I want to do that. Then I also want to do a book or story that could be a Broadway play, maybe use the song I did with Aretha [Franklin] called “Freeway of Love.” I have a lot of stories in me and I very much feel like a 19 year old at heart. Inspired to write music, just sweat and play and have a good time.
Do you have any upcoming music projects that you can talk about?
NMW: I’m producing an album right now for a new artist I found. You won’t know her right now, but you’ll know her next her. I love Christmastime, so I’ve written five new Christmas songs and they’re coming out November of this year. I’m extremely happy to be touring with my old band. We’ll be playing New York, Chicago, DC. After that my foundation has a big Christmas show on December 19 in California. We raise money for kids and their music lessons, their music studies. I just like being active and doing good things for the world.
You’ll be playing in New York next month. What are you looking forward to most about playing live?
NMW: I just want to play for the people, give my new sound to them, and encourage them and be encouraged by people. I think it’s artist’s role to give and to receive and the people to give it, hear it, vibe on it, and give it back around again. There’s nothing more exciting than playing live for the people. Just play it, just do it.
And since you’ll be in Chicago next year I have to ask, do you have a favorite Chicago moment or memory?
NMW: I played in Chicago with my first band way back in ’77 – I forget what the venue was. I was the opening band for Tom Scott, Billy Cobham, Alphonso Johnson, and John Scofield and the audience was really into it, they hear everything. Chicago audiences know so much good music that it’s a joy to play for them. I dunno what else to say about that; I’m just looking forward to play for them. I also have a lot of good family in Chicago, a lot of aunts and uncles in the city. I’m like a country mouse, I’m from Kalamazoo and when I come to Chicago it’s like I’m hanging out with city mice. The coolest thing to wear, the coolest way to walk and talk, the hottest music, it’s always cutting edge in Chicago. I can’t wait to come back to the city and play for you all, probably next year. We were scheduled to play Reggie’s Joint this year but that has been postponed till next year.
Narada Michael Walden was due to play Chicago next month, but the show has since been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances. He has plans to come back to the city next year. He’ll be playing The Iridium in New York on November 13. “Evolution” will be out October 30. Pre-orders are available now. Check out the lead single “Billionaire on Soul Street” here.