HEAD, HEART & SOULROCKER: MICHAEL FRANTI MAKES MUSIC FOR THE MASSES
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
I feel like a much better human being after every time I speak with Michael Franti. Why? Because he is a much better human being than most. His talent is undeniable. His compassion is unmatched. His positivity is infectious. His spirit of giving and living life to the fullest is contagious. The truth is Michael Franti is a “people person” in the purest sense of that well-worn phrase.
Michael Franti & Spearhead’s ninth audio gift to the world, SOULROCKER, arrives June 3. Meanwhile, Franti and his musical family depart on a long North American trek starting May 27 at the Bottlerock Music Festival in Napa, CA. Michael’s musical manifest is as precise as it is powerful: “My intention with this album was to make music that could bring people together.” Mission accomplished!
Michael, good morning. How are you?
Hey, Jim, I’m good. How are you?
I’m doing great. It’s great to talk to you again. The last time you and I spoke we were sitting backstage at the then-brand new Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles…
…and I began that conversation by celebrating, and asking you about, the then-brand new President Barack Obama. Let’s zipped forward and start the conversation with this question: how did he do?
Well, you know, he’s had an uphill battle every step of the way. Everything he brought to the Congress and the Senate was shot down by the Republican party. So, his actual scorecard is probably not that great, but considering his handicap I think that he’s done the best that he could. There were a lot of things during his time that I would’ve liked to have seen. For example, withdrawal from Afghanistan and withdrawal from Iraq, the closing of Guantanamo, passing healthcare that really works. But there’s been a lot of positives. At the time when he came into office we were in our worst economic disaster that we’d seen since the Great Depression, and we’ve rebounded from that. A lot of social issues – the rights of gays and lesbians and LGBT people – that’s really advanced. Also women in the military, gays in the military. There’s been a lot of things in terms of social issues that I feel have come a long way. And the thing I’m most excited about that he’s working on that has actually had a lot of bipartisan support is the ending of mandatory minimum sentencing and revamping our prison system so we’re not just warehousing millions of people for small offenses, and destroying lives and spending many, many billions of dollars along the way in a failed war on drugs. So, I wish it could have been better for him – a better climate in the Senate and the Congress – but I still think things have progressed in many ways.
I absolutely agree. I think the key thing you said was the handicap that he’s had for all these years. No question about it. Let’s jump into this new record, SOULROCKER, which kicks off with the very old school soul horns in the song “Crazy for You.” It features lyric lines like “This world’s going out of control again,” “I hear a story about a person the government’s messin’ with,” and “Corporations who are buying up the politicians.” How do we avoid going crazy in this crazy world?
Well that’s what this whole album SOULROCKER is all about. SOULROCKER to me is a person who lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who has a tenacious enthusiasm for music, life and the planet. And if you’re somebody like that, it’s hard to wake up every day like I do, and I pick up my phone and I read the news of the last (laughs) 28 hours or whatever [Note: we spoke Tuesday, May 3, the morning of Donald Trump practically locking up the GOP nomination] when I was asleep and I think, man the whole world has gone F-ing crazy while I was asleep (laughs). This record is one that tries to speak to that; speak to that dilemma that all of us face. In the song “Crazy for You” I talk about having this one person in my life, that if the whole world is gonna go crazy, then there’s one person that I wanna go crazy with, and that’s the person who I wake up and go to sleep with every night, my wife, and my kids, my friends. All of us have those people who help to get us through these crazy times. And that’s what I really feel right now is that, I believe that music can be fuel for those of us who care about people and the planet. That’s why I make music.
I was gonna follow up that question with this one: could the answer to my question have been found in track two, “My Lord.”
Tell me about that one.
Well “My Lord” is a song that’s semiautobiographical. I was given up for adoption at birth and throughout my life I’ve had to sort of retrace my family history and find out who I am and what my roots are and who my ancestors were and the experiences leading up to today. In that song there’s the line over and over again that says “Take me to the place I need to go, show me all the things I need to know.” All of us have at some point in our life – and each of our days – this connection to some sort of higher power or something which is greater than ourselves that we feel. And some us find it in a religious practice, some of us find it in yoga, some of us find it taking walks in the park, and a lot of us find it through music. The song is really just a song that says whatever way you find that peace and that understanding of where you need to go in your life, and that’s okay. All of us have a different way to get there.
Yeah. Sonically, I think this song and several others on the album are vastly different from the old school soul vibe that I mentioned on “Crazy for You.” Specifically, I’m referring to the electronic music beats found on songs like “Get Myself to Saturday” and so forth. Why did you want to use more beats per minute on this record?
(Laughs) That’s a good question! You know, that kind of just comes from my experience of what I enjoy listening to. I’ve always made music, you know from when I started with using drum machines and samplers, and then somewhere along the way I found an acoustic guitar and I fell in love with just making the songs with the guitar and the voice. On all the songs that we do have that sort of electronic and uptempo, dance tempo tracks, there’s guitar riffs in there, too. All the songs started in an acoustic way, but when we perform live we found that that’s what people love to dance to and be inspired by. You know, it’s the kind of music I grew up listening to as well, and still listen to. So it just has entered its way into my musical vocabulary in the same way that reggae, punk rock and folk music have in other parts of my life.
Well thank you for the perfect segue to my next question, because I was gonna point out that a song like “We Are All Earthlings” is the perfect example of what you were just talking about, Michael…
…the mixing of acoustic and electronic instrumentation with your patented uplifting lyrics. So you may have already answered this, but I’ll fling it: what’s in the Spearhead secret sauce that allows you to conjure up some sonic spirits of some great artists all the way from Bob Marley to Bruno Mars?
Well thank you. I take those two as a compliment…
As well you should.
…you know; I fell in love with songwriting when I first started getting into music and having evolved as a songwriter I went from just writing lyrics on top of beats to then working with live instrumentation and then stripping it all the way back down to just the acoustic guitar. In the essence of any great song you have a chord progression, you have lyrics, you have a chorus, you have a bridge, but before all that you have to have great ideas. An extension of your heart has to go into your song for it to be authentic to a listener. So that’s what I always try to do is first start from whatever it is that’s in my heart, find that seed, and then find a musical voice for it. You know, the palette of colors may change; it might go from reggae to punk rock, or acoustic or electronic or, you know, I worked with the Macedonia National Orchestra on the song “Good To Be Alive.” But always I try to find that way to take something that is really challenging or scary or causing me pain in my life and transform it into something beautiful. I think that that’s what the artists that I’m really inspired by – Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Run DMC, Rage Against the Machine – they all had that ability to take the most painful parts of life and turn it into some beautiful expressions.
Yes, indeed. So the track that I’ve been – fair to say – obsessed with is “Once a Day. It has all the ingredients we’re talking about that makes a great Michael Franti & Spearhead song, with the added bonus, I might add, of a little Sugar ray’s “Fly” tossed in there, right?
Did I get that right?
That’s (Dwayne) “Supa Dup” (Chin Quee) (Bruno Mars, John Legend) who was the producer of the track; he jumped on it. But I know what you’re talking about: Super Cat on that Sugar Way track “Fly.” Yeah, it’s definitely reminiscent of that. That song, “Once a Day,” was the first song I wrote for this record. It came from an experience with my son, who’s now 17. Two years ago he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease – a chronic kidney disease – called FSGS and in six months he had lost 50 percent of his kidney function. As a parent you never imagine you’re gonna outlive your children and there we were as a family faced with a child whose kidneys are failing and we don’t know what to do. At first we thought it would rip our family apart, but what happened was every day we’d start to get these little moments of light, I guess, in our house where there’d be an extra kiss on the cheek, there’d be an extra hug, there’d be an extra “I love you” right at the moment when we thought we couldn’t imagine what we were gonna do, we would get these moments of positivity and we’d say, you know we’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna find a way to do everything we can to make his health the best it can be. What ended up happening is, what we first thought was gonna rip us apart ended up bringing us closer together. That’s what this song is: just a reminder that in this life, when things are so challenging for us as individuals and as families and as a nation and as a planet, that when we move closer together, that’s when we find that energy, that love, that spark that elevates us and helps us to rise up.
Well that’s why we all buy your records, man.
Aw, thank you, man.
For all of those reasons. So another track that I’ve got mad love for is “I’ve Got Love for Ya.”
That’s a song that I wrote for my other son. When he graduated high school he decided he was gonna hop on a Greyhound bus and travel across the country from our home in San Francisco all the way to New York City. I was caught off-guard the day that he was gonna leave. I was really sad and emotional and I picked up the guitar and I called up J (Bowman), whose the other guitarist in my band, and I said, “come down to the studio quick; we need to write a song for Cappy that he can take on this bus journey that he’s gonna go across the country on.” So that’s where that song came from, and it’s just a song that expresses to him that even though he’s gonna be away from me and really seeking out his own journey in life now, that I’ll always be there loving him and be available for him for whatever he needs.
I have just a couple more for you, Michael. Are we okay on time?
Sure. Yeah, we’re good.
Okay, cool. SOULROCKER comes out June 3 and you’re going out on tour starting May 27, kicking off a long run. As I mentioned to you before we got started, I’m in Sacramento. As someone who grew up in nearby Davis, the tour will include a couple of fairly nearby neighborhood. You’re doing the Bottlerock Music Festival in Napa Valley on May 27 and you’re gonna do the Thunder Vibes Reggae Fest II at Thunder Valley Casino Resort, just outside of Sacramento and literally seven minutes from my front door. I’ve timed it (laughs). Do you have a little extra special love for Northern California?
Definitely! I was born in Oakland, I grew up in Davis and I’ve lived in San Francisco now for most of my adult life. I really feel like Northern California is part of who I am and the message that I take out into the world. We live in a very diverse part of the country, where diversity has been challenged and challenged over the years and people have grown to not only be tolerant of other ethnic groups and other ways of living, but to really celebrate it, and that’s what I think makes Northern California a really special place. It’s the people, and the way that people connect with one another. It’s different than other places in the world and I carry that vibe with me and that message with me everywhere I go. You know any chance we have to play in Northern California is always great, and the other reason it’s great is that my mom gets to come to the shows (laughs). She’s gonna be at both those shows, so I’m excited about that.
Cool! Well, I hope to be as well. As I said, the Thunder Valley gig is literally right down the road from me, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to say hi face-to-face again. Finally, Michael, you said in your bio: “My intention with this album was to make music that could bring people together.” I think that’s been the basis of our conversation here, and certainly the previous one that we had when we were celebrating the election of a new president. My question is a simple one: why does music matter?
Well, music opens windows to our soul. Sometimes you can have emotions that are locked up inside you and you hear a song and suddenly, bam, you’re in tears or your laughing or you’re in celebration with other people around you that you’ve never met. You’re dancing, you’re singing and you’re imagining a way of being that you never thought could be. The reason why I make music is I believe in people on the planet and I wanna make music that inspires people to get up every day and feel like they could be a difference maker in the lives of somebody else. And also that makes you dance and enjoy life and celebrate all that we have.
Very cool. Michael, let me sneak one more quick question in here for you, if I could…
I wanna take you all the way back to the spark of music and what got you into it. Do you have a proverbial “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment story for me?
Yeah, you know, when I was a kid growing up I used to listen to KDVS radio station that came out of UC Davis. There was a super diverse, eclectic array of music on that station. They had a punk rock show, a hip hop show, a reggae show, world music, world news, local community news, electronic music; everything. Sometimes we would go to the radio station and we would hang outside and talk to the deejays when they were getting off their shifts, and there’d be a stack of – back then it was actual 45 RPM records – that they would give away. You know, records that they weren’t playing anymore or whatever. So we would rifle through that bin and one of the first record I ever got was a 7” of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” I remember playing it, both the A side and B side, over and over again on my little home record player, when I was a little kid. I fell in love with music during that time, growing up hearing so many different sounds. In my house, I had a sister who was super into old soul, you know, Al Green, and another sister who was into Carole King, and I had a brother who was into funk and George Clinton and also into The Clash. My dad loved Stevie Wonder. So I grew up listening to all these different styles of music all the time. And from that station, one time I won tickets to go see this artist named Linton Kwesi Johnson who is a great reggae, dub poet. I went to the show when I was 15-years old at this place called The Coffee House in Davis. and when Kwesi Johnson comes out on stage and reads this poem a capella called “Sonny’s Lettah,” which is about this young man who, accidently defending his brother, kills a police officer, he’s writing a letter to his mom from jail saying he’s sorry, he didn’t mean to do this, but he was trying to defend his brother’s life. And then the band came onstage, and he kicked into with the band and played the same song, and I was so moved. It was an ah ha moment for me, I was like wow! The words and the music and the power of those two things together just moved my soul and shook me. And I said, “Someday that’s what I wanna do. I wanna bring words and music together in a way that helps heal the planet, and helps to change people’s lives and makes people feel better about the world and themselves. So ever since that time I’ve been inspired and dedicated to doing that.
Well, mission accomplished, my friend. Mission accomplished.
Thank you! Congratulations on another great record, and thank you for it. As I said earlier, hopefully we’ll get a chance to say hello face-to-face here soon.
Until then, safe travels and thanks for your time this morning.
Thank you, brother.