Beginning in the mid 1960’s, Marty Balin was the lead singer and founder of Jefferson Airplane—a pioneer of the psychedelic rock movement from the San Francisco music scene. I met Marty a few years ago backstage at an outdoor summer concert when he was performing with the spin-off group, Jefferson Starship.
Since then, we’ve spent time together on a few different occasions and I came to realize that this guy loves what he does. And I’ve been drawn to his voice since I was a kid (yes, some of my favorites are from my preschool days!). When I posted on Facebook that I was doing an interview with Marty, one of my FB friends commented: “Marty’s got one of the best voices in rock and roll!” Agreed.
Need a quick refresher? First check out this post to read the cool story of when Marty and I first met, and you can also catch a glimpse there of one of my favorite songs of all-time, “Miracles” (which hit # 3 on the Billboard charts in 1975).
Doing this interview with Marty was a joy…and a breeze. He’s laser-focused, living a life of intention and simplicity, and following the things in life that bring him joy—to a “t.” He’s living a lifestyle that is the essence of following your joy. During our interview, I realized that he couldn’t be a more perfect candidate for the blog’s Joy-Follower series.
Without further ado, I’m very proud to introduce the legendary Marty Balin!
Michelle: Tell me about how joy shows up in your life.
Marty: Joy. Well, isn’t that the whole purpose of life, anyway? People are so inundated with technology these days and walking along like zombies, lost in the world of technology. You can read all the self-help books you want, find a guru, read the Bible—they’re all going to tell you the same thing: Find your inner self, your peace, your joy. Who knows, maybe they’ll come up with a chip of “joy” and implant it in people!
Michelle: That might not be so far-fetched!
Marty: But you have to find things for yourself. You can hear something, you can be taught, you can read about joy…but unless you actually absorb it and feel it yourself, it doesn’t really matter. Everybody can be touched by something that’s real to them, something that’s universal—whether it’s music, books, movies—no matter how many cell phones you’ve got!
Michelle: When did you first know that music brought you so much joy?
Marty: I’ve always loved music and it’s always been a part of my life. Even as a boy, I would sing on street corners and in the church choir. We lived in a poor neighborhood, and on Christmas Eve I would go into the rich neighborhoods and sing Christmas carols on the streets. People would invite me into their homes and give me something to eat or give me a dollar or five dollars.
Still to this day, I love to just sing. It’s healthy for you. Everybody should sing! Now you’ll find me in the grocery store whistling or humming, and people ask, “Why are you such a happy person?” There’s always some kind of tune going through my head. I do it unconsciously, and my mom said I whistled before I even talked! It’s funny, sometimes I will hear my song come over the sound system in the grocery store and the check-out person will make small talk and say, “So, what do you do?” and I’ll say, “Oh nothing”; I don’t want to tell them: “That’s me up there!”
My parents were very encouraging. If I wanted to do something, they helped me do it. If I wanted to paint, my father brought me paints and paper, if I wanted to try out for a dancing thing, they’d get me to the audition. My father was really into music, so I had the influences of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald. There was always music going on.
Michelle: What is it, specifically, about music that brings you joy?
Marty: The “connection” that happens. Music is the soul of people. I can’t imagine a world without sound or music. We all have sound within us, where we can be awakened or touched. Music is a universal vibration that goes through the world and something we can all tap into.
And of course I love hearing the applause! It’s a wonderful thing to see people enjoying your song. People tell me this song meant so much to them, or they gave birth to that song, or their father died to this song.
Michelle: And I’ve told you how much “Miracles” means to me.
Marty: Yeah. And I love to watch people dancing with me or singing along or swaying to the music; you can see them enjoying hearing the song live. It’s just a thrill to bring all these people together on one song.
I don’t think of me doing it, I think of it flowing through me. When I write songs, I don’t really ‘write’ them; I just reach up there in the ether and find out what it’s saying to me. I try to get out of my own way and don’t try to cram words into something. I take down translation. And if I get it right, it works.
Michelle: What else brings you joy?
Marty: I love to paint. Sometimes something’s not a song, sometimes it’s a picture. It gets me away from strumming my guitar all the time. I’ll be playing the guitar and then walk by my canvas and say, “That should be red!” and then bam—I’ll work on that for a while. Talk about “following” your joy!
I love to read and watch old-time movies. I’ve studied the great actors, writers, and directors. I love the theater and how when you see it live, the chills go through your body.
I still enjoy the old-fashioned stuff. I like to touch and feel a book. There’s something intrinsic in the touch, like having a guitar and the feel of the neck.
I’m not interested in technology. I don’t have the time or the inclination to bother with it. I’m staying away from a lot of it. I’m on a landline with you now!
Michelle: Me, too.
Marty: I like things that I can touch and feel. I like to write with a paper and pen. It’s there, I can see it, I can touch it. Someone else can transcribe it and send it on to a publisher. The joy is in the real intrinsic thing of how you move the pen, the way you write. I’m not in that much of a hurry!
I think I’m going to become Amish. Give me a buckboard—you know, those four-wheeled wagons—and a horse. I’m going to go backwards. I’ll bring my guitar. I’ll be touring the U.S. in a covered wagon. “It’s Marty on tour with his buckboard!”
Michelle: It will take you a long time to get to the next venue!
Marty: But that’s okay, ‘cause he ain’t in no hurry!
Michelle: So how is your life impacted when you take the time for what brings you joy?
Marty: What I do is no different than what I’ve ever done; it’s my life. I find joy in all the things I do and take time to enjoy. I love to take time to stop in a bookstore, have a cup of coffee, and see what the new magazines are. I like what they used to call ‘newspapers.’ You used to have to learn how to fold a newspaper on a subway; that took a talent. I’m an old-fashioned guy.
Michelle: Actually, it sounds like it’s more about “simplicity,” than being old-fashioned.
Marty: Well okay, then.
Michelle: Who are the people that have inspired you most?
Marty: My father—he’s 93 and the smartest guy I know. We’ve always been friends, and I’ve traveled around the world with him on concert tours. He recently saw me play with Jefferson Starship in New York.
When it comes to musicians, there are many that inspire me. When I was younger, I used to hang out with Muddy Waters and Otis Redding. In the 60’s, I was good friends with Jim Morrison. We were wild childs in those days! We used to enjoy writing and literature together; we spent time with poets, writers, filmmakers. I also hung out with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia. And promoter, Bill Graham, was a major influence on all of us.
I have an Avatar from India, Sathya Sai Baba—he helped me change my life. I study the Vendanta philosophy and practice yoga. It’s all about the inner god we all look for and being true to yourself.
Michelle: What’s next for you?
Marty: I’m staying back while Jefferson Starship is on tour now. I had so many songs piled up that I’ve got three new albums! The first one, Blue Highway, will be available this fall. It’s kinetic and ‘real’; we all played together in the studio.
Michelle: Great! Where can we get this new album when it’s available?
Marty: Well I have actually dipped my toe into the electronic waters and I have a website now where you can order my music: www.martybalin.net.
Michelle: You have your own website? I didn’t think you’d ever make that leap!
Marty: Well I did! By the way, there are other websites out there that I have nothing to do with, but this one’s mine.
Michelle: I’m excited to check out the new album! So, as we wrap-up all this talk about joy, what tips or suggestions do you have for readers who want to do a better job of following their joy?
Marty: There’s that little voice inside of you that tells you: “Yes, this is good” or “No, this is not good.” And that little voice is your conscience. That conscience is your soul, and it knows what’s right and wrong for you. It knows how to bring you joy. And if you don’t follow that little voice, you’re crazy. It will never lead you wrong.
Michelle: But when we get lost in the busyness and in the “noise”, it can be hard to hear that voice.
Marty: Yeah, I can hear people saying now: “I can’t find it on my BlackBerry!”
You can read every self-help book in the world and they all say the same thing, whether it’s the Bible or whatever. It all gets down to that little inner voice inside you; it’s your guide. If you follow it, it will tell you. Even if you’re eating too many donuts and the voice says, “Buddy you’re full!”—you should listen to it. Whether it’s about personal relationships, driving too fast, swimming out too far, whatever; something’s always talking to you. There are angels all around us, and you have one inside yourself.
Too many of us look externally or to other people. We want someone to tell us what to do. You don’t need that.
Michelle’s final thoughts: Wow. Marty was the initial inspiration for me to get these blog interviews going. If you haven’t seen how it came about, be sure to see the previous post here. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to interview Marty for four years…and here it is! What a treat. Thank you, Marty—I knew I felt a deep connection with you, and now I understand why.
Feel free to leave your comments for me–or for Marty–below. I’ll be sending him a hard copy of this post via snail mail. Only he and my grandparents get special treatment like that. :)