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Sci-Fi to Hi-Fi: A Conversation on the Future of Music & Technology
- Michael Franti, Celia Hirschman
Michael Franti & Spearhead
The Sound Of Sunshine — the inspired and inspiring new album byMichael Franti & Spearhead — is a kind of musical sun shower, a bright, beautiful and often buoyant song cycle created to bring all kinds of listeners a sense of hope during rough and rainy times for so many in our world.
“Music is sunshine,” says Michael Franti, one of the most positive and conscious artists in music today. “Like sunshine, music is a powerful force that can instantly and almost chemically change your entire mood. Music gives us new energy and a stronger sense of purpose.”
“Music is something you can’t hold in your hands, smell it, taste it or even see it, yet somehow just coming together and feeling these little vibrations that tickle our eardrums can somehow lift us all up out of our most difficult moments in life to unimaginable heights.”
Ironically, often joyous and uplifting The Sound Of Sunshine actually came out of a darker and tougher personal experience for Franti. “Last August, my appendix ruptured suddenly in the middle of a tour and I ended up in the hospital for eight days while they figured out what was wrong with me,” recalls Franti. “I almost died and I wrote many of these songs coming out of that experience while I was in the hospital for￼another week or so after that. During that time, I really took a moment to prioritize what’s truly important in my life — and in the end, that’s really about the people who I love. Even in that hospital, I could laugh with the people I love, cry with them, and start to find the sun again.”
Well aware that countless others face far worse problems than he did, Franti wants The Sound Of Sunshine to communicate a sense of hope and possibility for anybody who needs it. Franti’s singularly open spirit reflects his own eclectic and intriguing background. Michael was born to an Irish-German-French mother and an African American and American Indian father in Oakland, then adopted by a Finnish American couple who raised him along with their three biological children and another African American son. While studying at the University of San Francisco, Franti formed the punk band The Beatnigs, and later the far more hip hop- inflected The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Through it all, Franti has crossed all sorts of musical and physical boundaries in order to make music for everybody.
In the mid-Nineties, Franti first formed Spearhead, and increasingly in recent years, he’s found his own voice musically and his own organic brand of popular success. Franti and Spearhead’s last album, 2008’s All Rebel Rockers — recorded in Jamaica with legendary producers and players Sly & Robbie – became the biggest hit of Franti’s career, hitting the Top 40 on the Billboard 200, and yielded his biggest hit, the Top 20 “Say Hey (I Love You).”
“I had a nice, long time to get ready for that first hit, and so I really appreciated it when it happened,” says Franti. “So when we were just mastering the new album, I was saying to my manager, “Boy, wouldn’t it be fun to have a sophomore hit?” He was like, “Sophomore hit? You’ve already been through grad school, man” So yes, I’ve paid some dues, and that’s made getting this far — and still being here — mean even more to me. The funny thing is that `Say Hey’ went into the Top Twenty right as I was being wheeled into surgery. I got the text, and I thought, `Wow, I’ve finally got a hit record, and I’m not even going to live to enjoy it.’ That put everything in perspective too.”
Michael Franti is not a man to openly chase success – in fact; he’s not a man who even wears shoes(for the last ten years). Still, Franti has absolutely no problem hearing his music on the radio now. “When I was a kid, I used to listen to AM radio on family vacations in the car, and at family barbeques and my dad would leave the radio on. So songs that were the silly pop hits became a really meaningful part of my childhood – and of my adult life now. So when I think of the fact that there’s some family out there on the beach in the summer together listening to `Say Hey,’ it makes me feel really good. The truth is a good pop song that makes you feel good can be something of value and meaning to people.”
Arguably the most cohesive, romantic and life-affirming album that Franti and Spearhead have ever made, The Sound Of Sunshine reflects the fact that, as Franti puts it, “With time, you get a better sense who you￼are and how to put together all your musical passions into your own sound. I feel like for a long time, I dabbled in other sounds. Like `Let’s do something with a reggae vibe here.’ Or `Let’s really rock here.’ But now, I write everything from the acoustic guitar up — which keeps you honest. Then Jay Bowman, my songwriting partner and I, take a lot of time figuring out what’s the best way to present this song and make every word of it come across and ring true.”
Even the recording process for The Sound Of Sunshine reflects Franti’s desire to communicate directly with his audience. “We started in Jamaica actually recording a bunch of tracks with Sly and Robbie who are, of course, great, and we used some of those tracks. Then we got home and started mixing the record. Then I went to Bali and wrote some more songs, but we still didn’t have it finished. So we said let’s bring a portable studio on the road with us. We’d literally recorded the drums in the locker room of the Toronto Raptors or in the shower of some NHL team. Then we’d go right onstage and play the song and see how other people would react to it. We’d see what worked and go back and record it again the next day. So these songs have really been road tested in front of live bodies.”
For Franti, “To play for people and share your songs with them is to make a real connection. That’s why we play outside our shows for those who can’t afford to come inside. They need the songs too – maybe more. That’s the reality. And as a musician I was on tour with put it recently, “Our fans didn’t come to us from a reality show. They came to us from reality.” And so, we mean something in their lives. We’re the music they put on when they drive their little kids to school, or hang out with the person they love at night. There’s no higher honor. So they have an investment in the music. And that means so much because this music is very personal to me too.”