“The song ‘Say Hey (I Love You)’ was written in Woody Harrelson’s bathroom,” Franti recalls, speaking by phone from Nashville, Tenn. “I was staying at Woody’s house in L.A. and I would put guitar chords on my iPod and listen to them while I was in the shower. I wrote that song in the steam on the window of the shower. Woody called me and said ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘I just wrote this really great song. I’m sitting on your toilet, trying to memorize the lyrics — I think it’s a hit.’ He said, ‘Is it a number one or a number two?”
Everything about Franti — his stories, imposing build, dreadlocks, bare feet and of course, his music — leaves a lasting impression. A resident of California’s Bay Area, Franti’s musical style and personal interests tap into the far corners of the world. Offering upbeat music set to uplifting and socially—conscious lyrics, Franti’s music is celebratory, intelligent and diverse at the same time.
“In my music collection, there’s not any one genre or any specific artist — I love songs. It’s like the way people pick up music today on their iPod — they’ll buy one single from an artist they like. I’ve consumed music that way my whole life. It didn’t matter if it was Metallica, Johnny Cash, Run—DMC, Bob Marley or John Lennon — it only mattered that it was a great song. When I write a song, I think like a painter — should I use oil, watercolor or the charcoal sketch that I drew on acoustic guitar? That’s why the songs come out with different flavors of music behind it. When I put together a live show, it’s like a DJ putting together a set. I’m not going to play music of one style or one tempo,” Franti says.
On Thursday, August 13, Michael Franti & Spearhead will perform in the Workplay Soundstage. The all-ages show begins at 8 p.m. Currently, Franti is touring in support of his latest release, All Rebel Rockers. Produced by the famed tandem Sly and Robbie, All Rebel Rockers was recorded in reggae’s hallowed ground of Jamaica.
“Everywhere I’ve been in America and Europe to record, the studios have really heavy doors that are shut to the rest of the world, like you don’t want anybody to hear what you’re doing. Jamaica is different — the studio door is wide open to the street. People will come in that you’ve never seen before. You might have five guys in the corner of the studio and someone will say, ‘Hey mon, you need a new keyboard part in the second verse.’ At first you’re like ‘Who are you? Are you producing my record now? I’ve never even see you before.’ And then you listen and you say ‘Damn, he’s right.’ The music is so much a part of everyday life and that’s why they let people come in the studio — they want to immediately see their reaction. It’s a democratic way of doing it,” Franti says.
Not only did Franti encounter new surroundings for the recording of the disc, he watched his songs turn in some unforeseen directions.
“Working with Sly and Robbie in Jamaica was a whole different way of recording music,” Franti recalls. “They always do the rhythm track first, but I came in with songs that were written on the guitar first. For example, the song ‘All I Want Is You’ — which turned into this deep, heavy dub-style track — I wrote on guitar and it had six or eight different chords. When I got to Jamaica, they made this rhythm to it with two chords for the whole song. Robbie said, ‘The rhythm is really sexy — you need a love song for this.’ I started singing ‘All I Want Is You,’ and it fit perfectly right away. Those are the songs you remember from the recording process, when something completely unexpected happens.”
In the live setting, Franti & Spearhead turn any concert hall into a spiritual celebration. No one remains still, least of all Franti as he bounces tirelessly across the stage. As cliched as it sounds, Franti’s live show has to be witnessed to be fully understood.
“We have really energetic crowds. We’ve helped foster this community of people who keep in touch online and come to the shows. They’re young, old, black, white, gay, straight and everything in between. Now — thanks to the hit song ‘Say Hey’ — we have a whole new group of people that are coming to see our show for the first time. When people come, they feel like they’re at an event. It’s a real exciting time for us on the road right now,” he says.
While articles abound about the troubled state of the music industry, Franti takes the opposite viewpoint of today’s musical climate:
“I’ve been making music for 23 years. When I first started, I said I was not doing this to get rich and retire — I’m doing this because I want to make music and play until I’m 90 years old. We allow fans to tape our shows, so the songs can be online the day after the show — it’s a different way of interacting with the audience. There are challenges — CDs used to be the thing. The goal was to sell this piece of plastic and you would tour to support it. But now, it’s the opposite — you put out a CD to support the tour. This is the best time ever to be making music. Today, people have greater access to music. The more music people can hear, the greater the world is.”
Michael Franti returns to Birmingham on Thursday, Aug. 13, for a show on the WorkPlay Soundstage. For tickets or more information, call (205) 380-4082 or go to www.workplay.com.