Narada Michael Walden has one of the most prolific, accomplished and star-studded resume in modern music history. As a producer and writer, he has helped Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and a pantheon of other legendary artists rise to fame, and he has the hardware to prove it: three Grammy Awards and an Emmy.
The successes have not led to any sense of complacency for Walden, however. He continues to develop new artists through his record label, Tarpan Records, and he leads the Narada Michael Walden Foundation, which helps young musicians through grants, scholarships, mentorship and other assistance. And today he releases a brand new song, "Billionaire On Soul Street," which has a lyric video that makes its exclusive debut below with Headlines & Global News. The song can be purchased via iTunes here.
Walden, who has also performed alongside luminaries like Michael Jackson and BB King, got his start as a drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the influential and iconoclastic jazz-fusion group.
In conjunction with the premiere of the lyric video, we spoke exclusively with Walden about his storied career and dream collaborations, his "older brother" Carlos Santana, the changing state of the music industry, his foundation and the brand new song.
Tell us about your new song "Billionaire On Soul Street," specifically the writing and recording process?
The inspiration came from my assistant here at the studio, Kimrea. Something she said to me, "Billionaire on Soul Street," she was expressing something about her life and that hit me, "that would make a wonderful song," so I do as I do, I just zoomed to my keyboards and I made up a song using that title.
Primarily it hit me because I am going through a transformation with now two new children in my life. I have a 19-month-old baby named Kelly and a 6-month-old named Kaylah. It's really transformed me to open up my heart all over again to realize how precious life is, and I do feel like a Billionaire on Soul Street in the fact that my life is so enriched with these children and an abundance of sheer satisfaction and delight.
Most composers seem to come from a guitar or piano background. How does your background as a drummer impact how you write and maybe make your composing style unique? What instrument or instruments do you primarily use when starting to write a new song?
Drumming is my heart and rhythm is my heart, my soul and my heart. I early on had a passion for songwriting and the songwriters like Nina Simone... all the great songwriters. I would go to my piano and bang out songs and then learned composition and learn chord structure. Drumming and piano, out of those two things comes everything for me. My Uncle Travis helped to open me to the piano. I watched him a lot.
How have the massive changes in the music industry (the decline of the record labels and album sales as streaming has come to the forefront) affected your career and people like you?
Music is a gift from God, yes. And to God goes the glory. We who are the artist and songwriters and producers solely rely upon the music business for our support and sustenance. It's very important to realize this. It is not a joke. It is our livelihood. Without it we would be forced to take other jobs. So I strongly support paying musicians and buying our music. This is what will enable us to continue to give you are best! We consciously give of our hearts and souls to our music and when the public, our fans, support us, we are grateful and are able to feed our families. What more is needed to say?
There has been a lot of talk and speculation about what needs to happen for the music industry to be able to survive. What changes do you feel need to occur? What direction do you sense things are going in as far as the business side of the music world?
What I feel is the independent record companies are becoming more empowered. They are becoming the A&R wings for the labels like it used to be in the old days. Like myself, I can discover someone I love, like a 20-year-old from the UK or whoever I might dig, you know, Shae up in Oregon and whoever it is, and record them and develop them and put them out on our own independent record label Tarpan Records. I think this is the wave of the future all over again because we can actually take the time to develop these artists, which the majors don't do anymore. They want someone already pre-cooked, pre-fab, already hot on the Twitters, hot on the Facebooks, where I can just take something that I just know is great and help it develop along, whatever we need to do. Everything I've ever done in my life has needed that kind of nurturing. Yeah, you may find a Whitney Houston, but a Whitney needs great songs and needs to them to be produced in the studio, you know, trial and error, try things. You cut that hard ingredient out, you're cutting out a big part of baking a pie, baking a cake. So I want to say one last thing, by virtue of our President Steffen Franz and Tarpan Records we are able now to re-craft this whole business thinking in this new day and age of how to maintain wonderful music, the heart and soul of music, keeping it alive.
How did you become friends with Carlos Santana? How would you describe your relationship?
I became friends of Carlos Santana through Mahavishnu Orchestra's John McLaughlin. They were both disciples of guru Sri Chinmoy. And when I became a disciple I became very close friends with John McLaughlin. Once I went to his home, Carlos was there with his wife Irmala. His spiritual name is Devadip, which means the eye of God, as he is extremely soulful, extremely spiritual and very forthcoming with his insight on life. At that time we were all just soaking in the light that Guru was giving us and the peace of mind that Guru was giving us, guiding us along the way toward God Realization and Spirituality.
I would describe my relationship with Carlos as brothers. He's my older brother, in a way, I guess I would be his younger brother. I mean we are very close in age, but really he's my older brother in that he's done things that I would only dream to do and he is very free to express these things with me. Like when he met Jimi Hendrix in the studio and how turned out he was to see Jimi cry in the studio. Of course he was at Woodstock and the experience of all that. He's just been a real champion on the guitar and a champion band leader. I look to him for inspiration and I look to him for guidance. He has been all these things for me since I've known him. I met him in 1973.
Regarding Whitney Houston, how did you know she was a special talent? How would you describe your relationship with her? And how do you remember her now that she's gone?
Whitney I met... I think she was about 9 or 10 years old, while I was recording my first album "Garden of Love Light." Her mother Cissy Houston was asked to sing on the "Garden of Love Light" background vocals, and she brought with her, the daughter. I saw this beautiful girl sitting in the corner, and that was young Whitney, just absolutely an angel. Fast forward to when she was 18, 19 years old, I'm asked to record her first hit "How Will I Know," and I'm blown out by how much control she has, yes, and how beautiful she is... absolutely impeccable control. Her mother really raised her to be the greatest singer on the planet. And then you got to keep in mind, Dionne Warwick is her aunt, Aretha Franklin she looked to... and all the backing sessions with her mom. She had all these influences there... and Dee Warwick, so much history in that family of three champion singers. So there she is, all that embodiment and carrying the torch forward.
I would describe our relationship as very, very close... that of the family, spirit family feeling. I felt very protective about her, and I know she felt protective of me and we really came together in a oneness spirit to make beautiful music. Clive Davis would give us beautiful song ideas that he would have, and we would take them and make them Whitney's. Really, really carve them to be Whitney's jewels. And Whitney trusted me and I trusted her. We would go to the piano and play Burt Bacharach music like "Walk on By" or "Alfie" and just get in our heart zone and spread that same feeling in that song we were working on that day. We worked very quickly together, that's how we were able to make 18, 19 songs together.
I remember her as a sparkle of light and electricity. She was always full of laughter, happiness and electricity and very, very confident. Like when I asked her on the second album, "are you nervous about making the second album and having a sophomore jinx?" And she said, "No, if they loved me the first time, they will love me now." That's how she really was, so she inspired my confidence.
And from that point on I've always felt her extreme confidence, it's always like that, never any worry that I'm not good enough, this is not gonna make it. She was always 100 percent confident.
What other collaborations stand out to you as particularly memorable, special or career high points for you?
Working with Aretha Franklin, "Freeway of Love," "Who's Zooming Who," that album, working with Aretha Franklin and George Michael on "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me," her first million seller, her first platinum, my first million seller, my first platinums, of course touring with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, traveling the world with that band, working with Sir George Martin, Tommy Dowd, my albums, and Ken Scott ... and Dennis McKay, Jimmy Douglass, all these great veterans from Atlantic Studios, Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin, just so much history of people that carved the way that helped to teach me, like working with great Ray Charles, that's like the Himalayan Mountains, my friend Sting is always inspiring, Stevie Wonder is definitely challenging, James Taylor, Elton John, Carlos!
You've worked with so many major artists from various genres, but who else is on your wish list?
I would like to do something still on Madonna; I was going to back in the old days, but even now it would be nice to work with her. Prince, it would be nice to work with him, I like Pharrell Williams, it would be nice to do something with him in the future, I like Beyonce, it would be nice to do something with her. I like all the people that are really, really super-gifted and even if I don't know who they are or they are unknown, God finds a way to have them tap on my door and it always works out. I learned to never block a blessing.
Why did you start your foundation, and what strides has it made? The cuts being made to music education has been a highly publicized issue. Are we close to losing music education?
I started the foundation help to love and serve humanity and the children of the Marin County area, over in Sausalito, the Performing Stars of Marin, they needed help with singing lessons and dance and musical instruments, at Christmastime I would always help them, and then I always wanted to feel like we could do things throughout the year to help kids with music. Since music is no longer being taught in schools I wanted to be a foundation that could help children with music. I know how much music has meant in my life so I wanted to be able to impart that to kids.
School budgets are so hacked and slashed in our America. Only the private schools are able to keep alive that musical program, but most schools not. Even the private schools, I will go to those schools and speak there because they need a dose of inspiration. Music is a gift from God and I see it as such, so that's my life purpose.
What types of music do you listen to for your own enjoyment? Has anything new caught your ear lately?
Everything, from Alice Coltrane to Donovan, a lot of the music of the '60s meets now, like Jason Derulo, I like his stuff. I just listen to everything, because that's what keeps it current, that's what keep it fresh. I often have my engineers A/B our music to other current music so that we are on the cutting edge. You have to know what's happening. Jidenna's "Classic Man," I like that record a lot. The Weeknd, he's hot. I think he's probably one of the hottest cats now. Everything he's putting out has the edge. Jidenna, I like his album a lot, done with Janelle Monae. Meghan Trainor's got heat; I like her. I listen to some of Kendrick Lamar's stuff as well and I have to give a big nod to Bruno Mars, everything he touches is consistent.