Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Michael Franti & Spearhead: Right down to the point

Michael Franti
Michael Franti Michael Franti Michael Franti Michael Franti

Whether fighting for human rights, campaigning for veteransâ 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 Frantiâs latest album âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ 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 Areaâs hardcore scene, Michaelâs next move meanwhile was to form the bitingly-political hip hop duo The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. Whose 1992 critically-acclaimed debut LP âHypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxuryâ prestigiously led to them opening in concert for fellow conscious acts U2 and Public Enemy.

Meanwhile, in 1994 - having disbanded The Disposable Heroes â Frantiâs 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 1997âs âChocolate Supa Highwayâ; 2001âs âStay Humanâ; 2006âs âYell Fire!â; and 2008âs US Top 40 breakthrough âAll Rebel Rockersâ) gradually incorporated a more prominent reggae influence along the way.

All of which has now led to todayâs aforementioned âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ being recorded in Jamaica (with legendary reggae/funk producers Sly & Robbie) as well as in Frantiâs 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 heâd recorded earlier in the day to the audience that evening.

Indeed, with the vibrantly uplifting âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ having already been acclaimed as âfull of festival-friendly reggae/pop grooves and radiant, hope-filled songsâ, its life-affirming musical moods range from the irrepressibly skipping singalong vibe of its title-track single and robust bounce of the sexy âShake Itâ (featuring Jamaican dancehall Queen Lady Saw); to the socially-conscious, breezy âHey Heyâ and soulfully yearning love ballad âHeadphonesâ⦠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 Californiaâs culturally-diverse Bay Area.

â¦. Cue an ever-personable and calm-sounding Mr. Franti reacquainting himself with âBlues & Soulâ 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 todayâs musically-diverse I-pod generation.

The story behind Michael titling his latest album âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ

âA couple of years ago I was on tour when my appendix ruptured. But, because the doctors werenât sure what was wrong with me, seven days actually passed before they were able to DIAGNOSE it was my appendix - by which time Iâd 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 hadnât seen for a while, and Iâd just look at them and CRY! And when theyâd go âWhat are you crying about?â, Iâd be like âI donât KNOW! Iâm just really glad to be here, to be alive and to SEE you!â⦠It was like I was seeing everything with new EYES. Every day Iâd go to the window to see if the sun was shining - and if it WAS, Iâd have this feeling of OPTIMISM! Like âWOW! Iâm gonna beat this infection and Iâm gonna get BETTER!â⦠And so for this album I wanted to put that feeling into words and into MUSIC.â

The musical background to âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ - which has been described as both âfestival-friendly pop groovesâ and âvibrant, uplifting musicâ

âWell, 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 itâs 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 weâd written all the songs on guitar, as we started approaching treatments for them with other musical rhythms and sound textures weâd basically just listen to what served each song the BEST. Like the title-track âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ we felt sounded best with really just the acoustic guitar strumming all the way through. Then others became dance tunes⦠While the song âIâll Be Waitingâ, for example, basically ended up becoming my homage to U2! In that, though Iâd never done anything in that style of rock before, the words and melody of the chorus just seemed to work best in that vein.â

How a large part of the album was actually recorded while Michael & Spearhead were on tour

âOnce weâd done our first recordings of the songs, when we were on tour weâd perform them live to the audiences and see how they RESPONDED. And, depending on the response, weâd 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 thatâs basically how this record all came TOGETHER!â

With âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ having been acclaimed as âfilled with radiant, hope-filed songs... arguably the most cohesive, romantic and life-affirming album Franti has ever madeâ, what inspired him lyrically this time around

âWell, 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 Iâd end up writing 12 songs that were the most fiery protest songs Iâd ever WRITTEN!... But then, when I was playing for this Iraqi family and singing them this song called âBomb The Worldâ - the lyrics say âWe can bomb the world to pieces; But we canât bomb the world into peaceâ - at the end of it they were just sort of FROWNING at me. So, when I asked if Iâd done something wrong, they were like âWe LIVE in this war! We donât need to hear SONGS about it! So why donât you play us something that makes us laugh, dance, sing and clap our HANDS?â!â

âSo, when I got back to The States and started working on the album before this one called âAll Rebel Rockersâ, at the end of making the record I suddenly realised I didnât have anything joyous and remembered what those people had SAID to me. Which is when I wrote the song âSay Hey (I Love You)â - 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 âItâs great to write political songs, but I want my songs to become commercials for LIFE!â⦠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 âI 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!â... So lyrically thatâs really what this record is ABOUT!â

Michaelâs views on the musically-diverse climate of todayâs I-pod generation - something an eclectic artist like himself is unquestionably benefitting from

âI think itâs 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 couldnât hang out with kids who listened to hip hop, you couldnât 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 itâs all happening NOW! Heâll download a song by The Beatles and then heâll download a song by Bruno Mars - and he listens to it as if itâs all from TODAY! He just doesnât see the DIFFERENCE!â

âAnd itâs exactly the same in terms of GENRES! Like heâs got dance music, heâs got hip hop, heâs 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!â

Michael Franti & Spearhead perform at Wireless Festival, London on July 2 and Bush Hall, London on July 3

The album âThe Sound Of Sunshineâ is out now. The single âSay Hey (I Love You)â follows on July 18, both through Capitol/(((Boo Boo Wax)))

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