10 Questions with ... Michael Franti
June 6, 2016
1. What would you say your mission was for your ninth album, Soulrocker?
My intention with this album was to make music that could bring people together. 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 28 hours or so and I think, 'Man the whole world has gone F-ing crazy while I was asleep. This record tries to speak to that; speak to that dilemma that all of us face.
2. Tell us about the first single.
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 who 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.
3. That leads to this to follow-up question: Could the answer be found in track like "My Lord"?
Well "My Lord" is a song that's semi-autobiographical. 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 of 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.
4. Sonically, many of the songs on Soulrocker are a bit different for you.
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.
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.
5. 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?
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.
6. What artist have you been most 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.
7. 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 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), who's 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." 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.
8. Soulrocker is coming out June 3rd and you're on tour starting May 27th, kicking off a long run. I noticed several Northern California dates. 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 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!
9. To you, 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 you're 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.
10. I want to take you all the way back to the spark of music and what got you into it.
Yeah, you know, when I was a kid growing up I used to listen to, which 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 records 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.
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. 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. So 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 it 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.
Interview by Jim Villanueva