In 18 years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed senators and CEOs, even got a statement from the president. But I’m as nervous as Chris Farley’s star-struck teenage talk show host from “Saturday Night Live” at the prospect of interviewing one of my favorite musicians.
(“You’re Michael Franti? Wow. That’s so cool.”)
When his call comes, I tell him this and he laughs. He thanks me and is gracious, kind, touched. His voice is as rich and resonant as it is on his records, but a bit sleepy. He says he’s jet-lagged because he flew in from Sumatra the day before, where he was working on a fair-trade coffee project.
In 26 years as a musician, Franti, 46, is well-known for his social and political activism. He’s used his music to protest wars, fight for human rights and plead for social justice. He went to Iraq in 2004 to explore the human cost of war. The trip resulted in a film “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and inspired music on his 2006 record “Yell Fire.”
But when he and his band, Spearhead, hit The Knitting Factory on Wednesday night, it will be the final leg of a tour for “The Sound of Sunshine,” a record that grew out of something more personal. In 2009, Franti’s appendix ruptured so badly it almost killed him. He wrote many of the songs from his hospital room out of deep gratitude just to be alive. He thought of his friends, his family, particularly his two sons, Adé, 13, and Cappy, 25.
He was healthy, a vegetarian and runner who practiced yoga every day. He was stunned at how quickly his life could have been snatched away.
“I felt like I had cheated death,” he said.
The songs on “Sound of Sunshine” are upbeat and catchy, but the lyrics build on universal themes and also are designed to reach out and provide comfort to a struggling country. They’re about being happy with yourself, helping friends in tough times or just seizing the moment.
Franti said he wanted the songs to be “music that helps people face whatever it is in their life that they’re facing, whether it’s a difficult economic time, whether it’s a health issue, whether it’s loneliness, whether it’s feeling misunderstood.”
That rings true to me and may explain why I felt so nervous talking to him. For the past couple of years in particular, his music has felt like a good friend. Heading out on numerous runs, I’ve scrolled through his records on my iPod until I found the perfect song for my mood. Between the upbeat rhythms and the positive or soulful messages, his music had the power to exhilarate, to lift me when I was down or to say just what I needed to hear.
That could be because Franti feels he’s really found his own voice musically in recent years. His music has spanned so many genres, from punk, with his first band, The Beatnigs, in 1986, to hip-hop with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, formed in 1991.
Franti formed Spearhead in 1994 and the music has drawn from funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, world beat and other influences over seven studio albums. He said he thinks the band he’s with now will be together for a long time.
“With time, you get a better sense of who you are and how to put together all your musical passions into your own sound,” he said.
Franti is well-known for his spirituality, from his yoga practice to his annual Power to the Peaceful concert in his hometown of San Francisco to his endless promotion of positive thinking. When I ask him about the roots of that path, he mentions going to church three times a week growing up in a Lutheran family. But numerous other incidents shifted his perspective, he said, most notably when his adoptive father had a stroke. Franti said his father previously drank too much and treated him badly during childhood. But the stroke transformed him. He died four years later, in 2003.
“He blossomed into this really beautiful man and he made amends to everyone who he’d ever hurt, especially to me,” Franti said. “And I saw that it’s possible that people can change. You think, your dad is set in his ways and he’s never gonna change – he changed, like, miraculously. It really gave me the view about the world, you know, if my dad can change, then anybody can change.”
Franti’s local fan base has solidified following shows at the Festival at Sandpoint in 2010 and 2011, where he reached out to the community, perhaps in a way few visiting musicians do. Before both shows, he led all comers in yoga in a field on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. He and his band also went tubing on the lake with Steve and Julie Meyer, the owners of Pend d’Oreille Winery.
“We love it up there,” he said. “The summer is absolutely gorgeous up there. Fans in the Northwest have always been really supportive of our music … so we just keep coming back.”
Franti said he also loved looking out into the audience in Sandpoint and seeing so many families. At the end of the last Sandpoint show, he invited everyone 60 and older on stage for the last song. At the end of his first Sandpoint show, he invited all the children up on stage to sing “Say Hey (I Love You)” from his 2008 release “All Rebel Rockers.”
Megan Murray of Sagle, Idaho, then 12, sang the final lyrics with Franti folding his 6-foot-6-inch frame down beside her. A framed picture of the moment hangs in Megan’s bedroom. When she came down off the stage, she burst into tears.
“I was so happy and I was crying because of that,” said Megan, now 14. “It’ll be one of those moments I’ll never forget.”
At Wednesday’s show, Franti said he also will play songs from a new record scheduled to be released this fall. As is his practice today, all the music was written with the acoustic guitar as a base, which he said “keeps you honest.” The record contains both up-tempo rhythms and hip-hop inspired tracks, going back to his earlier roots.
But it also marks a new experience for Franti – collaborating on songwriting with numerous other artists, including Ethan Tucker, who joins Franti in the show. Franti said collaborating can be “magical” but also difficult because a true human connection is necessary for success.
“A lot of the time before we start writing, we talk or we say let’s go out to lunch, let’s go take a walk, let’s go hang out and do something,” Franti said. “Until you get to know somebody, it’s really hard to be vulnerable with them. In order to write a really great song, you have to be defenseless.”