Twenty years into his music career, Michael Franti enjoys some mainstream success
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Michael Franti has always taken a worldly approach to music, mixing elements of reggae, ska and African tribal rhythms to craft hits like “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “The Sound of Sunshine.”
For his next record, which he hopes to have out by September, he’s getting even farther out there.
“For this record, I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing photos of Earth from outer space, seeing Earth as this single-celled organism flying through the universe,” Franti told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “It’s such an amazing thing. We’re not even ants on this little marble, and yet we have so much impact on the planet environmentally. These lines we draw as nations and countries — these divisions of religion and language and skin color and gender — they don’t really mean anything in space, but when you come down to Earth, they have such an impact.”
If that sounds like a peacenik point of view, then welcome to Franti’s world. He’s been subscribing to Bob Marley’s one love philosophy since young adulthood. Born to an Irish-German-French mother and an African-American/Native American father, he was adopted by a Finnish-American couple who raised him as their own. It’s little wonder that by the time he attended the University of San Francisco, he already had a diverse worldview.
In college, he formed the punk band The Beatnigs; later on, he threw himself into the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. He formed his band, Spearhead, in the mid-1990s, releasing albums and cultivating a loyal but small following until the release of 2008’s “All Rebel Rockers.” That album contained the hit “Say Hey,” and suddenly Franti had a breakthrough hit. It made it into the Top 20 on the Billboard singles chart, and the album cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard 200.
No one was as surprised as Franti.
“I thought it was a good song, and my friends all liked it, but I had a lot of songs I’ve thought were really good and that my friends all liked,” he said with a chuckle. “I never expected it would be downloaded by 2 million people or be in so many movie soundtracks and film trailers. I’ve given songs life over and over again, and I never would have imagined that, 20 years into my career, I would be an overnight success.
“It’s funny to me. I joke that we’ve never even had a song in the Top 20,000 before, and suddenly we had one in the Top 20. We’ve just been a band that’s gone out on the road, and our fanbase grew a little bit by a little bit, and we’re still going to cities around the country and the world where we’re starting from scratch. We try to earn the appreciation and respect of everybody we play for, so I clearly appreciate everything that came from that song.”
When “The Sound of Sunshine” was released in 2010, it did even better, reaching No. 17 on the Hot 200. With greater exposure, he continues to tour relentlessly, sprinkling laid-back grooves, tropical rhythms and feel-good rockers to crowds who are also open to the ideas in which he believes so fervently: Tolerance. Compassion. Civility. Love.
(One of those tours brought him to Knoxville a couple of years back, a show he remembers well: “I always cook beans and rice when I’m on tour, and I cooked a big meal backstage, just had all of these hot plates going up there,” he said with a chuckle. “I like to jump down into the crowd and talk to people, and I remember someone said, ‘It smells so good in here! I keep going back to the bar, wondering if they’re cooking food!’ So we ended up feeding some of the crowd.”)
“There are definitely days I get down or frustrated or tired or whatever, but I practice yoga; that’s one of the things that keeps me going,” he said. “And laughing — being able to make light of situations even when they seem overwhelming. I just try to keep my eyes on the prize. I’ve got the greatest job in the world — making people have fun and laugh and dance and cry with their friends at a concert.”