Update: Sadly, Marty Balin passed away in September 2018. Here’s the interview we did with him in March 2018.
Singer/songwriter Marty Balin has had a historic career as one of the lead singers & songwriters for the legendary rock bands, Jefferson Airplane & Jefferson Starship. He has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for being a member of Jefferson Airplane. In addition, he’s had a successful solo career with hit singles and albums, and he’s continuing to record new albums.
Balin’s tenor lead vocals can be heard on several classic songs, such as “Miracles,” “Count On Me,” “With Your Love,” “Runaway,” “Volunteers,” and his solo hits “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady” (Something About Your Love).” Notably, Balin wrote or co-wrote the hits “Miracles,” “With Your Love” and “Volunteers,” and he wrote or co-wrote five songs on Jefferson Airplane’s acclaimed album, Surrealistic Pillow. This album has been named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Balin was a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, which formed in 1965 in San Francisco. The band’s other key members were Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar), Grace Slick (lead vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar), Jack Casady (bass) and Spencer Dryden (drums). Two of Jefferson Airplane’s biggest hits were “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” featuring lead vocals by Slick.
In the late 1960s, Balin recorded five albums with Jefferson Airplane, before he decided to leave the band in 1971. Then in 1975, after Jefferson Airplane had evolved into Jefferson Starship (with some new members), Balin rejoined the band and contributed lead vocals & songwriting to their platinum albums: Red Octopus (1975), Spitfire (1976) and Earth (1978).
It was in 1978 that Balin left Jefferson Starship (although he reunited in 1989 with the original Jefferson Airplane members for an album & tour). Balin went on to launch his solo career, releasing a dozen solo albums. His most recent solo albums are Good Memories (2015) and The Greatest Love (2016).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Marty Balin. He recalls his early days with Jefferson Airplane, his years with Jefferson Starship, and his solo work.
DK: Back in the early days, how did you start Jefferson Airplane with the other band members?
Marty Balin: Well, I had been in folk groups before that, and I wanted go electric, so I looked for an electric guitarist and a drummer especially. And I found a guitarist, Paul Kantner, who played a 12-string that I wanted to have in the band. I saw him play at this Hootenanny at a club called the Drinking Gourd. He got up to play, but then he took out his guitar and tuned it up and looked at the crowd and said, “I can’t do this” (laughs). And then he walked off the stage, and that made me laugh so much. I said, “That’s the guy I want to work with, right there.” So I went backstage and told him, “Hey man, let’s get together and try a few ideas out.” He was the first guy I picked up, and when we got together, down the stairs comes this guy with a guitar case in his hand and a chick on his arm. It was Jorma Kaukonen. I said, “Wow man, who’s that?” And Paul said, “Oh that’s Jorma Kaukonen; he teaches guitar upstairs. He’s a great guitar player.” I said, “We should have him join our band.” And Paul said, “Oh no. He’s really good.” Then I said, “Paul, that’s what we want (laughs). We want people who are really good.”
Here’s the video of Marty Balin’s 2015 song “Good Memories,” where he
recalls his days with Jefferson Airplane.
So we got together with Jorma a couple times—he was our primo guitar player and a great one. Then Jorma knew a guy that he had played with in Washington D.C., who had changed from guitar to bass. I was looking for a good bass player, so we called up this guy, Jack (Casady). We woke him up, and talked him into coming out. I said, “Oh, we’re making so much money.” We weren’t making a penny (laughs). He agreed to fly out.
Jack came in from the airport and went to our rehearsal. I asked him, “Do you want us to write the chords out?” He said, “Oh no, I’ll just follow.” So we started rehearsing, and BAM! He was a fantastic bass player. So we got him to stay in our band and be our bass player. Jack and Jorma were friends, so that made it easier on them. And now we had another level to the band, because each guy could stand on his own. Each guy could perform on his own, which is what I was looking for when I put it together.
DK: When did Grace Slick join the band?
Balin: We had a girl singer but she didn’t want to tour, so we needed to let her go. We tried to think of someone who could sing in her place. There was Janis Joplin, but she had a blues thing and was already pretty famous. And there was Lydia Pense and she was good and had a blues thing, and was pretty popular. Grace (Slick) also had her own kind of thing and she was popular. So I couldn’t imagine any of them wanting to sing with me. But Jack said, “Hey, I’ll go ask Grace.” And he asked her that afternoon, and by that evening, Grace was onstage with us at our concert at the Fillmore. She was great.
DK: On Jefferson Airplane’s classic album Surrealistic Pillow, you wrote or co-wrote five of the songs. Can you talk about your songwriting with the band?
Balin: You know, I would tell the bass player, [and we would work out] a bass line, and I’d get the drummer to kick in. I’d tell the guys…this is what I want to sing. And I’d tell the keyboard player [what I had in mind]. I would help arrange the song and pull it together. And we’d write lyrics—whatever comes to mind, no big deal…you know, not anything deep about them. I would sing, and the music has to fit the words. Our main thing was that we wanted to be original. We didn’t play a blues…we didn’t try to do anything that wasn’t our own music. I liked that we were original.
DK: What were some of your favorite songs that you wrote for Jefferson Airplane?
Balin: “Volunteers” was a kick. “Runnin’ Around This World”—that was always fun. “Comin’ Back To Me” was a cool one. And “Fat Angel,” “Blues From An Airplane”…stuff like that. It was very cool and just us, you know. We were creating on the spot and at the moment. We didn’t really analyze it. We didn’t analyze much of the lyrics, as long as it sang well.
Here’s the audio of Jefferson Starship’s hit “Miracles,” which was
written by Marty Balin.
DK: In the late ‘60s, Jefferson Airplane played at two of the biggest rock festivals of all time: Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Do you have a good story or specific memory of these festivals?
Balin: Well, I remember Monterey quite well, because Jimi Hendrix did his fire routine, and Janis did her set, and we got along great with the crowd. Otis Redding followed us, so we wanted to warm up the crowd for him. In fact, when I walked off, Otis came up to me and said, “Great being on the same stage with you, Marty.” I thought it was great and we shook hands. And then of course, Otis slays the place. You know, all of these great moments, I was right there watching all of it. For me, being backstage or on the side, or maybe sitting in the second row right in front, it was cool.
DK: You eventually left Jefferson Airplane, and then a few years later you joined Jefferson Starship. So why did you originally leave, and then come back?
Balin: I left the Airplane because I thought everybody [had become] kind of an asshole. It was a period of cocaine then…everybody took cocaine. And people I would work with, they would yell at you and it got intense. The Airplane was on that kind of trip. You know, I personally just drank alcohol. But some of the chemicals made people crazy and very selfish, and it just wasn’t any fun to be around for me. So I bailed.
Then years later, Paul (Kantner, now with Jefferson Starship) asked me to write a song to a piece of music he had. And I wrote “Caroline,” and it got some airplay. Then they came back and said, “You’ve gotta come back and sing this,” because I sang it on the record. And I said, “Okay, but I’ve got to do a couple things that I want to do,” which was to record “Miracles” and a couple love songs. So I went back and we had a couple hits.
DK: “Miracles” became a great hit for the band. What’s the story behind this song?
Balin: I had heard this Indian chanting and singing, and I found out it was this avatar called Sathya Sai Baba from India. So I got involved in reading about him, listening to his tapes of his singing. I was playing guitar one day, and I thought of him. And then I was reading Persian poetry and the way they talked about God, but they [were also talking] about a woman. They were talking about God when you caress a woman…they were caressing God’s holiness or something. And I just loved that idea. So I kind of wrote that song, having the avatar in mind, and the idea of speaking to a woman, but speaking to a God actually.
DK: About a year later, you co-wrote another hit for Jefferson Starship called “With Your Love.” How did you write this song?
Here’s a video of Marty Balin & Jefferson Airplane performing their song
“Volunteers” at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Balin: Well, my guitar friend Vic Smith, the guy who taught me how to play, gave me those chord changes. I loved his changes, so I just played them on guitar and came up with that melody and the words and had another song. And I played it for him and he said, “Yeah man, cool.”
DK: While you were with Jefferson Starship, you sang on two other hits, “Count On Me” and “Runaway,” that were written by other songwriters. Can you tell me about those two songs?
Balin: I have a friend named Jesse Barish—he’s the most prolific songwriter I’ve ever seen. He writes lots of great songs, and I did some of his songs. He wrote “Count On Me” and [my solo hits] “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady.” And sometimes when I would play with my own band, when Starship wasn’t on tour, I would go out and play with local bands and local guys, and I’d sing some of those songs.
For “Runaway,” the harmonica player I worked with in the band, Bodacious, gave me this song (written by Nicholas Q. Dewey) and I dug it.
DK: After you left Jefferson Starship, you’ve recorded many solo albums. Can you talk about your latest albums, Good Memories (2015) and The Greatest Love (2016)?
Balin: Yeah, Good Memories was me doing a bunch of Airplane songs with a trio. I was on tour, and we played some of the Airplane songs live along with our new stuff, and it was fun. People liked it, so I put the Airplane songs on an album called Good Memories.
The Greatest Love album was also recorded with a trio. It was my trio, and we went around and played clubs. So this album has some of the songs we did from my set. It was cool to play with just three guys.
DK: Are you currently recording a new album?
Balin: I’ve just finished an album of my new songs, which I wrote with a guitar player. It will come out later this year. I will also be recording a whole album of Jesse Barish’s songs this summer. I’ve collected all these songs by Jesse which he never did anything with, but I always loved. These are just beautiful songs (from his catalog).