Michael Franti is a musician who doesn't need much of an introduction. By phone, he discussed absorbing music as a child, a touching experience with a fan, and what he would be doing if he weren't making music.
Your music covers a lot of ground. If you own a record store, where do you file your music?
For sales purposes, I'd put my record in every category. My favorite band of all time is The Clash. The thing I love about The Clash is they started out as guys who could barely play three chords. They dabbled in reggae, punk, rap, jazz. they came to a sound that could only be defined as The Clash. It was impossible to say what it was. I admire them for that.
My music is part of the quest I have to find new ways of telling stories, and also I want to inspire people. I also have a vast record collection. I think it comes from growing up in a unique family environment. I was adopted into the Franti family. The Frantis are second-generation Finnish-Americans. They spoke Finnish in the house. They had three kids of their own and adopted me and another African-American kid. My mom played organ in the church. My two sisters played violin an an orchestra. My brother played piano and trumpet, guitar, and harmonica. My younger brother played saxophone. My parents loved classical and jazz. My sisters loved singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Al Green. My brother was really into Parliament and P-Funk, Earth Wind and Fire, and punk rock. My younger brother and I absorbed everything that was coming into the house. That's still how I listen to music today. I've always had all those different influences in my life.
When did you realize you have this ability to tell stories?
When I was in junior high or high school, I wasn't a super-strong reader. I was somebody who absorbed things through the class. If it was just me in class listening, I could get an A every time. I really struggled if I had to go home, read a book, and then say what happened in the book. I'd read the same paragraph over and over again before I realized I just read the same paragraphs three times in a row. I struggled that way and storytelling became my way of communicating with friends. In my house we had a lot of people at the dinner table and you had to fight for story time of what happened during the day. I found that writing poetry and songs was a way I didn't have to fight to tell stories. I could write it down on my own time. I could sit down in the middle of the night and create things. Putting them into song was really an evolution for me. I didn't play an instrument as a kid. I played basketball. I was the only one in my house that didn't play an instrument. Part of my evolution as a songwriter has been to learn about chords, melody, and rhythm. I learned the power of melody to evoke emotions - to make your words and their meanings even more powerful.
You mentioned evoking emotion. What do you hope someone takes away from one of your shows?
All my songs are different, but from the overall experience, I want people to sense that they can overcome and move through difficult times, and find strength in my music. Maybe it's a song that makes them cry and move through something else. Maybe it's a song that makes them dance and feel like they can get the kids off to school, and they go off to work - that whole cycle - and that the music motivates them through the day. Sometimes it's a viewpoint I have of the world. That's the politics of the way the world moves. As I've grown and traveled the world and seen how music works in my life and people's lives. It's important to do all those things - express the full spectrum of emotion.
You heard some public school kids sing one of your songs and it moved you to tears. Do you have another singular experience that was that moving for you?
We formed at a new foundation eight weeks ago called Do It for the Love. The love of my life Sara is an emergency-room nurse. For years we've been trying to figure out how to combine what she does with healthcare and what I do with music. We formed this foundation that brings people in advanced stages of life-threatening illness, kids with severe challenges, and veterans to live concerts. A woman was planning on coming to our show in Portland, Maine. She became ill and moved into a hospice. When we got there, we decided to bring the music to her. We went to the hospice, I sat with her and visited with her. She requested my songs, and then she'd sing along with me. She's so amazing. She told me, "I had two things on my bucket list. One was to swim with dolphins. I did that. The other was to meet you and share your music." She died last Tuesday. The day I found out, I had this memory of holding her hand, and listening to her tell me what my music meant as she went through her varying stages of cancer. It was the music she turned to all the time. I'm blessed to have had that opportunity.
I've also had the experience where a couple says, "We met at one of your shows five years ago" and now they're bringing their kids. You never know where your music is going to reach. I think about the artists that have really reached me. I would love to have the opportunity to tell John Lennon how much his songs meant to me. Or Johnny Cash. Or how much Grandmaster Flash meant to my childhood. You put songs in the world and you never know where they're going to go. These days with the internet, we see it and hear it a lot more. I'm just grateful to be making music.
As far as never knowing where your music is going to connect, I have a four-year-old son who has been a giant AC/DC fan ever since he was about one and a half.
Wow! That's awesome! That's so cool. My kids are the same way. The absorb the music that's in my house, but they gravitate to their own things. I have a son who's 14. We reached this apex where we came to the same music we like independent of each other. One day we were sitting around and he asked, "Have you heard this new Joey Badass single?" I said, "Yeah, I was going to tell you about it. It's awesome!" He said, "Joey Badass is coming to San Francisco next week. Do you want to go?" We went together to the concert and we were there with all these hip-hop kids. It was cool to have that experience where your musical worlds collide on their own.
I'll have to lay your music on my son. That's the true test because kids connect to music in such a primal way.
It's totally visceral. It's not about the medium the music came through. As you get older, it becomes more and more about that. Did it come through the bluegrass world? Did I hear it on the Top 40 station. Was it on the underground station? The way the music comes to you starts to affect how you listen to music. When you're a kid, it's "Does it rock? Does it make me feel good? Does it make me tap my feet? Does it make me go to sleep?" That's great when you're playing music in the house - and both my kids have had music playing in the house constantly - but also being around music instruments all the time. It becomes a part of their DNA.
What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
Probably sitting somewhere crying. As a second career - I love yoga, I've been practicing for 12 years - I opened a yoga hotel in Bali five years ago. We bring people there to practice yoga for a week. I'd probably be doing the same sort of things I do now - practicing yoga, helping out. Probably if I weren't playing professionally, I'd be doing what I do now - pick up the guitar every night when I get home and play songs for friends and family.
Michael Franti and Spearhead play the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday 12 October.