Michael Franti & Spearhead: Right down to the point
Whether fighting for human rights, campaigning for veterans’ rights, ridding poverty or producing his 50,000-capacity Power To The Peaceful festival each year, Oakland, California-born singer/poet/songwriter Michael Franti has occupied a unique position in American music over his 25-year recording career as an outspoken champion of social justice.
Thus the Stateside Top 20 success of Franti’s latest album ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ is arguably long-overdue for the man whose quarter-century of trailblazing, socially-conscious music began way back in 1986. When - while attending The University of San Francisco - he put together his first band, the avant-garde industrial punk outfit The Beatnigs. With said band gaining local infamy on the Bay Area’s hardcore scene, Michael’s next move meanwhile was to form the bitingly-political hip hop duo The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. Whose 1992 critically-acclaimed debut LP ‘Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury’ prestigiously led to them opening in concert for fellow conscious acts U2 and Public Enemy.
Meanwhile, in 1994 - having disbanded The Disposable Heroes – Franti’s next step was to hook up with several studio-musician friends and start the rootsy, funk-oriented group Spearhead. Whose ingenious fusing of hip hop, folk and funk has ever since (via statement-making albums like 1997’s ‘Chocolate Supa Highway’; 2001’s ‘Stay Human’; 2006’s ‘Yell Fire!’; and 2008’s US Top 40 breakthrough ‘All Rebel Rockers’) gradually incorporated a more prominent reggae influence along the way.
All of which has now led to today’s aforementioned ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ being recorded in Jamaica (with legendary reggae/funk producers Sly & Robbie) as well as in Franti’s home in Bali and hometown of San Francisco. Following which, with the record still not complete, Michael decided to bring a mobile studio on the road with him while he toured with John Mayer… Resulting in the album being finished in dressing rooms and hotel rooms along the way, with Franti playing songs he’d recorded earlier in the day to the audience that evening.
Indeed, with the vibrantly uplifting ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ having already been acclaimed as “full of festival-friendly reggae/pop grooves and radiant, hope-filled songs”, its life-affirming musical moods range from the irrepressibly skipping singalong vibe of its title-track single and robust bounce of the sexy ‘Shake It’ (featuring Jamaican dancehall Queen Lady Saw); to the socially-conscious, breezy ‘Hey Hey’ and soulfully yearning love ballad ‘Headphones’… All of which musical eclecticism Michael (originally born in April 1966 to an Irish/German/French mother and an African-American/Amerindian father, before being adopted by a Finnish-American couple) interestingly attributes to his early upbringing in California’s culturally-diverse Bay Area.
…. Cue an ever-personable and calm-sounding Mr. Franti reacquainting himself with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss - during a promo visit to London which also saw him spending a day busking on the streets of Covent Garden, The South Bank and Soho - his latest album (his seventh with Spearhead) plus his views on today’s musically-diverse I-pod generation.
The story behind Michael titling his latest album ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’
“A couple of years ago I was on tour when my appendix ruptured. But, because the doctors weren’t sure what was wrong with me, seven days actually passed before they were able to DIAGNOSE it was my appendix - by which time I’d just completely fallen over and was DYING. So after they eventually did the surgery on me, while I did feel a huge amount of gratitude to be alive, at the same time every moment of the day I was CRYING! Like someone would walk in the room who I hadn’t seen for a while, and I’d just look at them and CRY! And when they’d go ‘What are you crying about?’, I’d be like ‘I don’t KNOW! I’m just really glad to be here, to be alive and to SEE you!’… It was like I was seeing everything with new EYES. Every day I’d go to the window to see if the sun was shining - and if it WAS, I’d have this feeling of OPTIMISM! Like ‘WOW! I’m gonna beat this infection and I’m gonna get BETTER!’… And so for this album I wanted to put that feeling into words and into MUSIC.”
The musical background to ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ - which has been described as both “festival-friendly pop grooves” and “vibrant, uplifting music”
“Well, I wrote every song from the guitar up because I have this belief that, if you can sing the song on a street corner with just the acoustic guitar and it sounds great, then you could go ANYWHERE with it and it’s ALWAYS gonna live! Like you can record it with the London Philharmonic or do an electronic version, and the song will always be STRONG! And so what happened was, once we’d written all the songs on guitar, as we started approaching treatments for them with other musical rhythms and sound textures we’d basically just listen to what served each song the BEST. Like the title-track ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ we felt sounded best with really just the acoustic guitar strumming all the way through. Then others became dance tunes… While the song ‘I’ll Be Waiting’, for example, basically ended up becoming my homage to U2! In that, though I’d never done anything in that style of rock before, the words and melody of the chorus just seemed to work best in that vein.”
How a large part of the album was actually recorded while Michael & Spearhead were on tour
“Once we’d done our first recordings of the songs, when we were on tour we’d perform them live to the audiences and see how they RESPONDED. And, depending on the response, we’d then go in and maybe re-record them while we were actually on the ROAD - which is why we ended up recording 90% of the record on our LAPTOP!... And that’s basically how this record all came TOGETHER!”
With ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ having been acclaimed as “filled with radiant, hope-filed songs... arguably the most cohesive, romantic and life-affirming album Franti has ever made”, what inspired him lyrically this time around
“Well, an interesting thing happened to me in 2004. I took a trip to Iraq, where I played music on the streets of Baghdad for people. And, with me obviously being opposed to the war there, I thought I’d end up writing 12 songs that were the most fiery protest songs I’d ever WRITTEN!... But then, when I was playing for this Iraqi family and singing them this song called ‘Bomb The World’ - the lyrics say ‘We can bomb the world to pieces; But we can’t bomb the world into peace’ - at the end of it they were just sort of FROWNING at me. So, when I asked if I’d done something wrong, they were like ‘We LIVE in this war! We don’t need to hear SONGS about it! So why don’t you play us something that makes us laugh, dance, sing and clap our HANDS?’!”
“So, when I got back to The States and started working on the album before this one called ‘All Rebel Rockers’, at the end of making the record I suddenly realised I didn’t have anything joyous and remembered what those people had SAID to me. Which is when I wrote the song ‘Say Hey (I Love You)’ - which in turn became a huge American hit and our first Top 20 record EVER!... And so from that point on, I started thinking about music in a different WAY - to where I said to myself ‘It’s great to write political songs, but I want my songs to become commercials for LIFE!’… You know, you see commercials on TV every day convincing people to buy a new phone, or go somewhere on vacation, buy a dishwashing detergent, a new car... So I was like ‘I want my songs to be commercials for reasons for people to stay in this struggle of life, to fight for love, for our planet, for peace, for economic justice for everybody - and sometimes the best way to do that is through an intimate STORY!’... So lyrically that’s really what this record is ABOUT!”
Michael’s views on the musically-diverse climate of today’s I-pod generation - something an eclectic artist like himself is unquestionably benefitting from
“I think it’s totally healthy for the entire music world AND music business. Because I remember when I was a kid, people all just purely identified with the music they listened to and nothing ELSE. So if you listened to, say, punk rock you couldn’t hang out with kids who listened to hip hop, you couldn’t hang out with kids who listened to classic rock… You know, lines were drawn MUSICALLY. Whereas these days those lines are completely BLURRED! Like my 12-year-old son consumes music from ALL periods, as if it’s all happening NOW! He’ll download a song by The Beatles and then he’ll download a song by Bruno Mars - and he listens to it as if it’s all from TODAY! He just doesn’t see the DIFFERENCE!”
“And it’s exactly the same in terms of GENRES! Like he’s got dance music, he’s got hip hop, he’s got mellow songs, classic rock, reggae - every kinda style on his I-pod, and he can carry it all in his POCKET! You know, whereas before 20 or 30 albums was a big collection, and then 150 CDs became a big collection - now you can have 5,000 albums in your POCKET! Which in America has made a huge impact on the way RADIO is programmed as well - to where the Top 40 these days has all genres of music from everywhere across-the-BOARD!... So yeah, while music did kinda get pigeonholed for a while, now it is back to being a really eclectic mix. Which to me is how it SHOULD be!”
Michael Franti & Spearhead perform at Wireless Festival, London on July 2 and Bush Hall, London on July 3
The album ‘The Sound Of Sunshine’ is out now. The single ‘Say Hey (I Love You)’ follows on July 18, both through Capitol/(((Boo Boo Wax)))
Words PETE LEWIS