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Michael Franti: Looking for the Sound of Sunshine

by Ryan Snyder

Michael Franti & Spearhead headline the return of SmileFest amidst several N.C. dates.

(photo by Mike Schreiber)

After coming off of the tour opening for unquestionably the most discussed and debated artist of 2010 in John Mayer, you get the sense that Michael Franti is at least a little bit happy to be able to stretch his legs out as a headliner once again. When the lithe six-foot-six Franti stretches out, however, he can certainly cover a lot of ground. Just before the first show of their new tour, the first full run for Franti and his long-time band Spearhead since the Mayer extravaganza, Franti recalled the night before when it really struck he and his bandmates that they were back to the luxury of two-hour sets.

“We were like, God, how are we going to fill th’­at extra hour now?’” Franti said with a laugh. “We all had a fun time on that tour, but it’s definitely exciting to be able to stretch out more musically.”

Franti has earned his stripes as a world-class artist and performer by simultaneously being one of the most engaging figures in music while also being one of the most adaptable. His adjustments to the constrictions of being an opening act for a massive arena tour were the blueprint to which artists of any stratum should pay heed. He stretched out alright — so much that he grabbed the walls of every coliseum he visited and dragged them inwards to create a performance so intimate that he was as much a part of the crowd as he was a musician on stage. His sprints from one side of the Greensboro Coliseum to the other on March 15 showed a man invested in the good time of each and every person, even if many were there to see someone else.

But that’s just Michael Franti. His blend of Native American, Irish, French, African and German heritage lends a perspective that transcends racism, classism and politicism. He wants to connect with each and every person he meets, a trait that he has harnessed to create music that runs the spectrum of the raw, issue-driven industrial hip hop of his early acts the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to the enlightened fusion of Jamaican dancehall and funk that has made Spearhead a festival staple. Even Spearhead has been a constantly evolving project, with themes rooted deeply in environmentalism and personal responsibility to mass media monopolization and the prisonindustrial complex. The title track to his anthemic 2006 release Yell Fire! was written in Iraq while filming his anti-war film I Know I’m Not Alone and might go down as one of the greatest protest tracks of the decade.

“I would write songs about social issues before I started to get involved in them directly. I wrote some songs on the Disposable Heroes album about the prison system in California. Then I started playing inside the prisons, which changed my outlet,” Franti said. “I needed to write a song about what people in there can identify with: how much they miss their girlfriend, how much they want to change their lives, how much they’re looking for hopefulness for the future.”

It was a slow progression, but Franti exudes a decidedly different ambiance in his music these days. The socially-provocative tone of his previous albums is still lurks well below the surface of his extremely well received 2008 album All Rebel Rockers, but instead of moving feet to protest marches, it moved them to dance floors. He garnered the first Billboard Top 20 single of his career in “Say Hey (I Love You),” a song that ironically hit when Franti was headed into surgery to repair a burst appendix that had endangered his life.

“We’ve never had a song go into the Top 20,000 before so I’m thinking, ‘Great, I have a song on the radio and I’m not going to live to hear it,’” Franti said. “So it was definitely a humbling experience to have our first real mainstream success.”

He looks to stick with the enlightened, positive themes for his forthcoming album Sound of Sunshine, an album Franti says was inspired by the experience of searching for hopefulness in unexpected places, or in his own words, “finding the brightness in adverse circumstances.” It’s an unfortunate coincidence, though reflective of the album’s nature, that he played it in Gulf Coast cities before heading to North Carolina for a week of shows. The oil disaster has compelled Franti into service while in the area, where he’s volunteered to work with local fishermen in the short time he has there.

“I really watch this carefully, but I still feel like I’m being fed a big spoonful of poop,” Franti said. “210,000 gallons of oil coming out of that every day and they’re just going to be able to clean it all up. Like they say it’s going to be so surgical. It’s going to take a lot longer than anyone expected and the effects are going to last for decades if not centuries.”

With mainstream success finally realized after more than two decades and Sound of Sunshine almost guaranteed to carry it forward, Franti is a man unfazed. He’s survived the grind of relative obscurity and benefitted from the ancillary gaze of the celebrity microscope. Through it all, he’s just stayed human.

“You either hide away from everyone and people just try to peel the onion layers off of you and expose you,” Franti said. “Or you open up to people on the street and do normal things like normal people. I’ve chosen the latter in my life and it works well for me.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead will headline SmileFest on Friday and perform a benefit for bandtogethernc.org the next night at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre.

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