Michael Franti Talks Charity, Music and ‘The Sound of Sunshine’

As a successful musician, poet, human rights activist, and filmmaker, Michael Franti proves time and time again that he is far from one dimensional. With Spearhead, and his previous bands the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, he has continued to serve an inspiring advocate for peace, justice, human rights and respect for the natural world to a generation. As with any epic journey, there are hurdles along the way, not the least of which was a serious health issue which sidelined him out of the blue during the summer of 2009. Emerging victorious and armed with a new outlook on life, Franti would go on to create his most powerful work to date, ‘The Sound Of Sunshine.’ Steve Johnson of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Michael Franti to discuss his influences, making of ‘The Sound of Sunshine, his charity work and much more!
How did music first come into your life?

I started singing music in church when I was a kid. My mother played organ in church. I got into college and bought a bass with money I saved working over summer vacation. My dorm room was over the campus radio station and I could hear the bass lines through the floor. I started trying to copy them. That’s when I caught the music bug.

Who were some of your musical influences?

I’m influenced by every great song that I hear. Not just one style or one artist. I like everything from Johnny Cash to John Lennon to Jack Johnson to Jay-Z. My two all time favorites are Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley.

Tell us a little about the genesis of Spearhead and the other talented musicians in the band.

Well, Spearhead started as a studio project. I was recording songs, but when I finished I didn’t want to go out and tour as just a rapper and a DJ. I wanted to have a full band. At the time there were no full bands doing rap music, so I put together a group of musicians that I worked with in the studio. I called it Spearhead so people would think it’s a band and not just a solo show. We’ve gone through many lineup changes but during the last 10 years the core of the band has remained the same: Carl Young on bass, Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums, Raleigh Neal on piano, and most recently we’ve added another guitarist, Jay Boogie, and backup singer Jolene Rust.

‘The Sound of Sunshine’ is your latest album. How does it differ from your previous work?

This album was written after I almost died from a ruptured appendix. As I was coming back I felt a renewed sense of optimism and appreciation for everything in life. I wanted to put that into song. That’s what these songs are about. There’s more guitar on this record than any previous record.

What can you tell us about the writing process for the album?

Well, right when we started making the album, the song “Say Hey I Love You” from the previous album started to blow up on the radio. We thought we would be finished touring with that record, but when the song started to hit we had to stay on the road. We decided to take our studio with us and began recording in hotel rooms and dressing rooms while on tour.

What was the biggest challenge in making the album?

The biggest challenge was finding time to do it. We would start recording and get all our portable studio stuff set up and the janitor at the venue would kick us out of the dressing room or we would have to check out of the hotel we were in.

Speaking of tracks from the album, you recently released a music video for the third single entitled “Hey Hey Hey.” Tell our readers a little about the concept of the video and who came up with the idea.

The song “Hey Hey Hey” is about appreciating life, even when things are exceptionally difficult. The song centers around my voice and the acoustic guitar so I just took my guitar out on the street, walked around Austin and Dallas and Little Rock, Arkansas, and we shot me performing the song on the street. We just did it with one camera, no lights, and if you look carefully you can see I’m listening to my iPod to hear the playback of the song. All the extras in the video were fans from our shows. We just asked people to be in the video after our show.

You have been performing around the country for the past few months in support of the album. For you, what is the best part of spending time on the road?

Traveling to places and seeing different things and meeting new people every day. I practice yoga so I go to different yoga studios everywhere I am on tour. We play music on the street. It’s fun to go to new places but I also enjoy going back and seeing people that I’ve met in the past.

What do you hope people will come away with after listening to your music or seeing your live show?

A smile and hopefully a renewed sense of optimism.

How do you think you have evolved as a musician since starting out?

When I first started I didn’t really play instruments that well. I would program drum machines and use samplers, but in the last seven years I’ve concentrated on learning to play the guitar. It’s made my music much more melodic, and melody really is the international language.

While you are a fantastic musician, you are also owner of your own clothing line. What can you tell us about Stay Human Clothing Line.

Stay Human Clothing is an organic line of yoga and beachwear that we produce out of Bali. We’ve also recently opened a small hotel in Bali called SOULSHINE. It’s a place to get away, swim, eat fresh fruit, enjoy the sun, and we put on a lot of yoga retreats and other group events there.

We also noticed you are heavily involved with charities. What charities are you involved with and what does your participation mean to you personally?

I’m an ambassador for CARE (www.care.org) which does relief work in developing countries. We also support the Bumi Sehat birthing clinic in Bali. In San Francisco every year we put on our Power To The Peaceful festival which is a free concert for 80,000 people and we bring together over 100 social justice organizations to educate people on how to give back to the community. I’ve been barefoot now for almost 11 years and in the last year we started working with an organization called soles4souls (www.soles4souls.org) that provides critically needed footwear for people around the world.

What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?

The defining moment is that I’m still here and still doing it. I feel blessed that after going on my first tour in 1986 I’m able to still make music and give people enjoyment through my work.

What is the best piece of advice you have for anyone who would like to get involved in the music industry?

Follow your heart and write songs that other people will enjoy as much as you enjoy them and make sure that every person you meet along the way leaves the experience with you with a smile on their face. Could be the doorman at a hotel or the person at the check-in counter at the airport or the local crew who works the stage you’re performing on, or any of the people who come to see you play.

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Get all the latest news and information on Michael Franti and Spearhead at the official website located at www.michaelfranti.com.

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