San Francisco’s sapphirine sage
It’s the stone of destiny, mental clarity and perception, and though they say the finest sapphires reflect a strong blue, Michael Franti and his hip-hop jamband, Spearhead, shimmer with every hue.
When he’s not on the musical stage, Franti might be found swaggering about a city street surrounded by a passionate congregation of pacifists, professing his worries for the apathetic consequences of the passivism contracted at corporately chained shopping malls.
Franti’s baritone voice and giant stature command attention like a lion’s roar, as he sings “Power to the peaceful” with a stage presence fearsome and comforting as C.S. Lewis’s Aslan and lyrics soulful like Zion’s dreaded lion, Bob Marley. And Michael Franti and Spearhead’s current tour with Marley’s first-born son, Ziggy, cannot be coincidence.
Like Bob Marley, Franti has established himself a global patriot, a poet and prophet with a spare guitar and sharpened lyrics. And with a compassionate tongue, volatile rock chords and dance-till-you-drop drum and bass, he challenges those who seek to build their power on foundations of militarism.
The man has evolved from his roots with the youthful, hip-hop and punk-rock inspired rage of the Beatnigs and the swelling social consciousness of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, from collaborations with jazz great, Charlie Hunter, and William S. Burroughs and most recently from a major record label and the single-word title, Spearhead, to his own independent label, and a progression not unlike the Wailers (to Bob Marley & the Wailers) to a full-sounding “Michael Franti and Spearhead.”
What are the new things you’ve been working on lately?
“The main thing I’ve been working on is guitar playing because I’ve never been much of a guitar player. In the last several months, I decided I was going to get pretty serious about it, so I practice every day, and it’s helping me write songs. And, another thing I do seriously is practice yoga, so I’ve been doing that every day after sound check.”
So you’ve only been playing the guitar for two years?
“Yeah, I started playing two years ago. And what happened was, I went to Cuba with a bunch of musicians from America and we were collaborating with Cuban musicians. And while I was there, every night we would sit around and we would pass the guitar around the table and everyone would sing these wonderful boleros into the moonlight. And they’d pass the guitar to me, and I’d kind of like tap on the back of it and try to rhyme over it – that beat I was playing on it. And I really fell in love with just the magic of the guitar and the voice. There were great people there like Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls, Peter Frampton was there and all these super-talented Cuban musicians, and Woody Harrelson was there, too, and that’s when Woody and I became good buddies. And when I got back, I said, ‘Man, I never want to be caught in that situation again, so I’m gonna learn at least one song on the guitar.’ And I taught myself a few chords and how to play one song, and I grew from that.”
And I heard that you wrote your last album from the guitar up? Was that just for “Everyone Deserves Music,” or was there anything like that on “Stay Human”?
“Yeah, just ‘Everyone Deserves Music.’ ‘Stay Human’ we wrote it from the Fender Rhodes up, and you can hear a lot of that warm piano, electric piano sound on that record, but for this one, we wrote songs on tour, you know, so you’re sitting on the bus, and the songs come out of the guitar.”
How is it touring with Ziggy?
“It’s great. Ziggy’s somebody who has lived such a unique life, man. I can’t imagine having to be the one who is the crowned prince to the king of … the king of music. So it’s a tough road he’s had to hoe, and it’s something that he’s done with a lot of grace, he’s done it with a smile on his face, he’s done it with an incredible amount of patience. Everyone wants to come up to him and tell him how much his dad meant to them, and they all wanna smoke a joint with the son of Bob Marley. It’s something that, if I were in his position, I’d probably go lock myself away on an island somewhere and live off the land. But he’s somebody who’s put himself in the public eye for a long time and it’s great, at this point in his career, to see him establishing himself as his own artist making his own music. He’s got a great song on his new album called ‘Got to be True to Myself.’ I love that song, and it’s just really cool hanging with him. As much as I can, I try to keep his spirits up and he tries to keep my spirits up.”
How did that tour come about?
“We’ve known each other for a long time – for seven or eight years. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do – is do a tour with just the two of us. We did the Smokin’ Grooves Tour in ’97, which has a whole bunch of people on it. But I really, at this time, with all of the things that are happening in the world, wanted to be on the road with somebody who I felt shared my convictions. I didn’t wanna be out with a band where I felt like if I went on stage every night, I was at odds with them, their statements or something. So it’s been really great, everybody in the whole touring family gets along, and that’s unusual. From all the techs and roadies and management people, all the bus drivers, we all chill out together. It’s a great tour. And it’s really a great night of music from the beginning to the end. It’s a case of one and one makes three.”
It has been really exciting to witness your evolution as a musician. Are there any milestones within your musical career that people, who aren’t necessarily as familiar with your work, might not know about? For example, for me, when you released “Stay Human,” that’s when you and Spearhead became one of my favorite bands. It seemed like the content, the mindset were more mature, compassionate. Do you disagree with that?
“No, I totally agree. That album was really a major milestone for us in two ways. One is musically, we really decided … or I decided before making that record, I said ‘If I could make one record my whole life, what would I want to say and how would I want it to sound.’ So I went back through all my influences of my life, musically, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Bob Marley, The Clash, Run DMC. So I drew from my heroes’ spirits. And also lyrically, I tried to think of what I really wanted to say, and that message of compassion was the one thing I really wanted to say. And then, the second part is that was the first record we put out on Boo-Boo Wax, so we had really made a big decision. I left a lot of money on the table and a lot of people who really wanted me to stay at Capitol Records – there were a lot of really cool people there – to go it alone and start out own thing because we just felt it was the right time and the right thing to do. So those were to big things that influenced that record.”
Do you have any advice to aspiring musicians who have been offered contracts, specifically with major labels?
“I would say, you know any time you do anything with whatever career you embark on, you have to think of what are your intentions behind what it is you’re doing. So, if your intention is to get rich and retire at a young age, then maybe you just wanna do everything you can to sell your soul to become the most marketable product that you can be and sell it and then try and exploit that to the fullest. You can make as much money as possible and then know that your time in the spotlight is going to be … short. And you just exploit it, and then you leave. If you feel like you wanna write songs because it’s what’s in your heart, and you want to express your heart to others in hopes that it connects with their heart, then you have to think, ‘That’s very pure intention, but how am I going to afford to live my life, you know, pay my rent, be on tour and do all that and still remain true to what I believe in.’ And that’s where the balancing act comes in. And all of us are some degree of that, and some are leaning more toward one direction than the other. So it’s wise to make a five-year plan and you say, ‘Where do I want to be five years from now?’ And once you set up that plan you say, ‘Okay what are the steps other people have taken to get there.’ And so then you go and you look through your musical heroes or your business heroes or your ethical heroes and you say, ‘What did they do? What were the steps that they took along the way to get them there.’ Cause we can all learn from experience, and experience is a wonderful teacher, but the problem is experience that it takes time for you to experience it. If you learn from other people’s experiences then you can learn in five minutes what it took somebody 20 years to learn. So looking at other people’s careers and following their good habits is a great way to do it, but you gotta know what you’re trying to get out of it before you start.”
Would you be willing to talk about some of your fears?
“One of my biggest fears is that everything that I do doesn’t matter. I think it’s something that we all share. We put our heart and soul into something and you hope that it sticks to the wall. And, that’s one of my biggest fears, is that at the end of the day everything I’ve done will not mean anything to anybody. Another fear I have is one for the world. I didn’t grow up in a family that I felt really comfortable in. I was adopted and didn’t really always feel connected to my family, so because of that, my sense of family has been much broader. My family is not just the individuals that I’m related to by blood, but those who are around me who are my circle of friends and companions, as well as my community in San Francisco and Northern California and then also the planet. I really have a vision of family as being this planet of our’s that’s linked together by these concentric circles of communities and families. And that’s what I want to do through my music is to link and to connect personally, as well as helping other circles connect to each other. And sometimes I fear for the planet. Right now, when I watch CNN, for example, on the road, and I hear all this talk about gay marriage and the film ‘The Passion’ and all the military actions that are taking place with us overthrowing Aristide and Haiti and Iraq and Afghanistan, so many things. And I’ve talked to soldiers who have had their legs blown off in Iraq, and talked to mothers whose kids are over there right now. And it seems like we’re doing everything that we can possible to divide people, rather than to embrace people. I’ve found that in this country there’s as many different political perspectives as there are individuals, and as many different spiritual perspectives as there are individuals. And I think that it’s right that we all listen to each other, but I don’t think that it’s right that we hate each other for our viewpoints.”
And how about your burden, personally, as someone who is a leader musically, in political fields and who is such a strong presence and a prophet and a hero to people: how do you deal with that day to day?
“Well, first of, I’m humbled by people who come up to me and say, ‘Your music has meant something to me.’ It’s really a humbling thing to hear that, and there’s times where I feel pressure, like if I walk into 7-11 and buy a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips (chuckles), maybe someone around the corner going to point a finger at me, but I still do from time to time. And the way I try and counteract that is to keep my sense of humor, and I’m surrounded by great people. Last night, you know I’m on tour with Ziggy, and so we were in this parking lot of the hotel. We got all our buses and we circled them up like a little compound and we lit a fire in the middle of the parking lot. I cooked some portabello mushrooms and Papa Pretty cooked some fish and shrimp for the meat eaters and we sat out there and played guitar until the wee hours of the night in the freezing cold in front of our little campfire on the parking lot. And it’s those things that really keep me going and keep me connected and keep me happy. And then my practice of yoga, which is my daily ritual, it’s my daily way of connecting to spirit.”
Franti is currently putting together a book of lyrics. Michael Franti and Spearhead split stage time down the middle on Thursday in Colorado Springs, Friday and Saturday in Telluride and on Sunday in Aspen.
Andrew Harley can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext.610, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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