While he might not be a household name to many, Marin’s Narada Michael Walden is someone you’ve certainly heard. The singer, songwriter, drummer and producer, who has operated Tarpan Studios in San Rafael since 1985, is responsible for a staggering 57 number one hits, and has won three Grammys and an Emmy. Fluent in everything from jazz and pop to fusion and soul, Walden has produced hits for a diverse array of artists, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, George Michael, Starship, the Temptations and many more. Beyond his solo albums and collaborations, he also played an integral part in introducing Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to the world. While Walden gives back through his own foundation and has done so for the last 17 years, just last month he collaborated with John McLaughlin, Cindy Blackmon Santana, Carlos Santana and Ralphe Armstrong to release the video “The Quarantine Blues” to raise money for the Musicares Coronavirus Relief Fund, which benefits musicians struggling due to Covid-19 closures. “We Can Live Forever,” the new single from his upcoming album Immortality, was also released last month. We talk to Walden about his career and his new role as the drummer for Journey.
How did you get your start and how did you get into music?
For Christmastime, when I was 4 or 5, I got a little toy drum set and that ignited me. The heads were made of paper, the papers would only last about 20 minutes before they would break and that would be orgasmic for me. I love that feeling and I still get that feeling today. That’s where it comes from.
Was it always all about drums for you?
I eventually graduated to playing piano; my grandfather had a piano. I was always around music so I would write my songs and play. I kind of studied a lot of people around me.
How did you get the name Narada?
When I was about 24 years old, I was a disciple of guru Sri Chinmoy. He was the guru for guitarists John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana and a few Mahavishnu’s I really admired. After I joined the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I received my name, Narada, and it means “supreme musician.” Through music, my mission is to take away sadness and bring happiness.
What was it like joining the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the young age of 21?
It was the most fantastic thing. They had reached a pinnacle of combining different styles of music together in a rarified form we had never heard before — taking Indian music and mixing it with blues, jazz and hard rock. And I’m telling you they flew, like the fastest jet plane in the world. To play with John McLaughlin at that time was like jumping into the fastest cockpit in the world, flying, fast, hard, intense and doing your best to listen and check everything out as you’re going.
What was your first hit?
On my third album I crossed over to dance music because the label was threatening to drop me if I didn’t have a hit. “I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To Dance with You),” became my first dance hit. Jazz-rock fusion, which I had come up in, wasn’t as hot anymore and dancing was the big craze now.
How did you come to work and tour with renowned guitarist Jeff Beck?
I went to London in 1975 to make Jeff’s Wired record and when I got there, they only had one song, “Led Boots.” We learned that song and cut it hard and strong in the studio with George Martin producing and Geoff Emerick engineering (the producer and engineer for the Beatles) and it was just hot. Jeff needed more material so I went down to the piano and wrote “Come Dancing,” “Sophie,” “Play with Me” and “Love Is Green,” and we cut those.
Then in the ’80s you really started working with vocalists — like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey. How did you make that shift?
I got to work with Aretha Franklin and we had success with “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and “Freeway of Love.” Then I was asked to do Whitney Houston and after that broke open, the whole floodgate came in. When people see you on the charts doing well, then everyone starts looking at you. I got all kinds of phone calls.
How did you come to join Journey?
Neal [Schon, guitar/backing vocals] I’ve known for a long time from being in the Bay Area. Over time we’ve played together at different events and then, most recently, we did an album for him together called The Universe that hasn’t come out yet. In the making of that album, we became really close. And then, not long ago, he asked me if I’d like to join Journey. And I said, “Yes, of course.”
You didn’t hesitate?
No, I’m raising babies, and I’m in a situation where I like having things that are consistent in my life — where I know what I’m doing. It’s very good to have things you know you can focus on; if I know I can focus I can do really well.
What is Journey doing during Covid-19?
Right now, we are at my studio, just Neal, my engineer and me, writing songs. Johnathan Cain [keyboards/backing vocals] is in Miami; he’s writing ideas. Randy Jackson [bass] is back on board; he’s coming up with ideas and playing on stuff. We’re just kind of moving things along with Arnel [Pineda, lead vocals] in the Philippines singing on stuff. We make something and send it around and everyone adds their parts to it.
There is a new album in the works?
Yes, and definitely a single coming. We did “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” for UNICEF; that kind of sparked everything to come together. We were sitting at home and we came together, played that and got excited to keep it moving. I love Journey’s positive music that reaches millions round the world. I’m looking forward to bringing new zest, bang and heat to the music.
Is it weird to join a band and do your first performance without all the musicians being in the same room?
No, not for me at all. I had memorized the song — I knew it really well. It’s actually kind of a complicated song, it grows through four different patterns as it gets more and more intense. You have to learn all those different patterns, but having Neal in the room, we just smoked it down. Then Jonathan played, then Randy, then Arnel added his parts so the editor could put it all together.
What’s it like playing such a classic song like “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”?
Great! I do a thing for Sting, the Rainforest Fund benefit shows, and two of those shows have ended with the big grand finale being the song “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” because it’s a powerful message and everyone knows it, loves it, dances and just goes crazy. I knew the power of that song.
So, you and Randy Jackson, of American Idol fame, are now the Journey rhythm section?
Randy is my bass player from way, way back. He’s really a great, great musician, he’s a wonderful TV personality too, but he’s really a great bass player. We toured together, we opened up for the Brothers Johnson, and Randy put on a hell of a show — a hell of a show. He’s a great bass player and a great showman. For us to play together now is just a very natural thing.
All these great things happening and you still like to call Marin home?
It’s fantastic, Marin County is a wonderful place to live. So beautiful and the people are very kind and can be very cool. I’m very happy to be in Marin County and happy that so much has come out of the Bay Area — Sly and the Family Stone came out of Oakland, Carlos (Santana) came out of here, Journey with Neal, Huey Lewis, Tower of Power. So much great music out of the Bay Area.
Marin is one of the best places to call home but there has been a lot of turbulence over the last couple of months. Do you have any closing thoughts on that?
I believe that Black Lives Matter, and I think that at this time it’s important that we take a hard look and purify our spirits and our hearts and bring real love for each other back to the forefront. That we look after each other and take better care of each other.