Soul-searchin’ and soul-rockin’ with Michael Franti
Talking new music, unity and the power of optimism
It’s the little things.
In this great big world it’s the little things.
We have a column on Artist Waves called “10 Stunning Lyrics” where we illuminate the greatest sets of lyrics within a given record. When I first heard of Michael Franti & Spearhead’s new record Stay Human, Vol. 2, I was exhilarated thinking this would be a perfect fit for an upcoming edition of the column.
February 2019: a few weeks after the release of the record – I simply could not do it. You see, from the opening song where Franti speaks “It’s the little things” to the album closing thoughts of “I will love out loud, live without permission, walk in the light, I will stand beside you, stand on the corner, all through the night… take me alive”, Stay Human, Vol. 2 contains 14 tracks of inspiration in the purest of forms. I had eight different renditions of 10 stunning lyrics before I realized, it would be an injustice to the songs not showcased and the collective piece of art as whole to omit some of this powerful message.
Stay Human, Vol. 2, is another dimension to the Michael Franti & Spearhead mission where the little things are pulled out of one basic theme of optimism. When that sphere is dissected and arranged in a song form, you understand the only way to reach the light is to walk right through the darkness – because, “Sometimes ya know to show your love you have to fight.”
The unique thing is, when unifying and approaching this world under such a One Love mantra, nobody cries alone. Together, we can be the flower in the gun.
About two hours before Franti’s enthralling set at last weekend’s Levitate Music and Arts festival, I had the chance to sit with him to discuss how the captain of Stay Human, actually stays human himself. During our conversation we acknowledged the importance of mental exercise as a vital component to truly being able to enjoy every second, because “Every moment of this life that we’re livin’ is a life that’s worth living for. It’s extra-ordinary.”
And during his set we witnessed that we can make a better day wrapped inside the music, rejoicing in all the colors that would be appropriately rocked on the Style stage. You felt that when the thousands of voices were singing such heartfelt words with Franti sometimes literally standing amongst the masses – that’s when the sun begins to shine.
So, without further ado, this is an interview for the times y’all. Show me your peace sign.
photo by: Kristen Drum
Stay Human, Vol. 2 has been out about six months now, in addition to the film, and you just started up the summer tour again, how are you feeling?
I’m doing great. As a band, Carl (Young) on bass, has been with me for 25 years, our drummer Manas (Itiene) has been with us for 19 years, our guitarist Jay (Bowman) for 14 years and keyboardist Mike (Blakenship) has been with us for five. So, collectively, we’ve been together for a long time and we are having more fun today than we ever have. Part of the satisfaction comes from the fact that right now is a very challenging time in our world and in our country. I believe music plays an important role in helping people get through whatever it is that is challenging them. It feels like every day I wake up, read the news and say, “Oh man, this world is in tough shape.” Lately it’s been really wearing me down. As a parent of three kids, to think that had my family come here at a different time, we would be separated is an awful feeling. I can’t imagine anything worse for a child. This is something on our news and it’s being rationalized. There is no rationalization for that. If someone walked up to you at this festival and said, “We are going to take all the children here, lock them up in a cage and you are not going to know when you get them back,” that is torture.
I am constantly thinking how I can promote the message of kindness, humanity and being nice to people, while at the same time make it fun for people without blaming a certain group for the problems, because when you do that, you alienate and what we need to do is unite. Music is my way of doing it and every single person here with me is dedicated to getting that sense of optimism out there in the world.
It’s fascinating how you can focus on one subject matter, whether it’s optimism or positivity, crack it open and pull out all the little elements and write 14 different songs. Having said that, I deeply appreciate how you address hard times. You acknowledge they are there as opposed to just acting like everything is always fine. How do you find the balance?
The main thing as a storyteller as that you want to state the problem and then you want to solve the problem. Whether it’s in a single song, the film I just put out, or the entire length of an album, I want people to leave with that sense of, “Yeah things are messed up, but they can be better.” That’s the difference between Rock n’ Roll and Pop art. Pop focuses on everything is OK, let’s party and just move on. Rock says things are fucked up but let’s fix it. I’ve been so inspired by musicians who do that – who can write a song about how much they love their girlfriend and put it right next to how concerned they are about the planet. Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, U2 and John Lennon for example – they are storytellers who can make you dance.
I know you have various escapes outside of music, like yoga, but what do you do to get yourself out of a negative mindset and overcome challenges?
There are a bunch of things you can do to give yourself a better shot at beating being down – like getting sleep, eating properly, getting exercise, doing some form of mediation or yoga and thinking positive thoughts. If you do those things, your playing surface to win is going to be a lot better than if you are not doing those things. Eating well is not going to solve your depression, but if you are not eating well, not exercising and not taking time out of your day to be mindful, then it’s going to be really hard to have a platform to beat your depression. It’s essential to take self-care time. Another thing I find to be true is – if you can change your thoughts, you can change your feelings. You have to practice when things are going well, you have to recognize the glass being half full as opposed to half empty. Depression and anxiety are a real thing and there are a lot of people who struggle to get out of it. Finding a way to express what is inside of you is key. I can’t always express it perfectly for myself, but I hear it and I feel it in a song. Then something in me cracks open, tears start to flow, and I feel restored. I feel I can start it all again.
You released Stay Human in 2001 and you’ve had the movement that comes with that phrase ever since. How did you arrive at “Stay Human” and when did you identify that there was a powerful wave coming with it?
In 1999 we were playing in Santa Barbara and before the show I was talking to some fans about how computers were taking over so much of our lives. I said, “It’s hard to get by and just stay human.” I blurted it out, but I remembered it and wrote it down. I then started writing the first Stay Human record thinking about how we hold onto our humanity when the world seems to be sucking it out of us. The reason I brought it back to do this record and the film is because social media and where we are in the world today – I don’t point the finger at Trump directly because he is just a symbol of everything that is happening in our world, he is a result of it. But the fact that people can just sit behind a keyboard and be mean to each other in a way we would never do face-to-face is not the way that we should be living.
It’s not human and takes us a way from having a sense of socialization. We all go through these waves of going up and down, people are not going to always say something to you that you like, but you have to be able to experience the lows and highs while hanging on to the things that make you your authentic self.
What’s an example of the Stay Human movement that has meant a lot to you? Maybe it’s a particular fan story or community coming together?
The thing that is the most special to me is when I see it go beyond our music or our shows. For example, there’s a big fan of ours named Betty Cleveland. When I first met her, she was 290 pounds, in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk because of back problems. I saw her a year later and she told me because of our music she lost 130 pounds. She was able to walk and live comfortably. Now she has cancer and is in hospice. What moves me is seeing how other people in the community have become her friends and are providing support as she’s going through the next phase of her life. It may have started by people meeting at a show because they were fans, and now they have their own life together and they care for each other. That’s when I feel the heart of the music is working.
There are ton of profound lines in Stay Human Vol. 2 and the film, but one of the things I love the most is in the midst of all that there’s a subtle nod to Bob Marley in “Summertime Won’t Last Long”, you can’t help but smile.
When I was writing that song, I was thinking about what my greatest summer memories are. And they are – getting in a VW van with some friends, putting on Bob Marley and cruising down the road going to a concert together. We’d stop somewhere, jump in a creek and swim, eat a bag of sunflower seeds and blast music. They were some of the greatest moments for me as a young adult. That soundtrack, whatever it is for each of us, is so important and becomes part of our collective memory. When I sing that line, people immediately know what it feels like.
photo by: Matt Lambert
If you think about this chapter of your journey, what does this current moment meant to you and Spearhead?
Right now, I feel this sense of newness. I have a son who is 10 months old and two older sons. My 10-month-old has taught me so much about appreciating every second. As a band, we are writing right now – we should have a new record out next spring. It will be the shortest gap between records. Also, it’s a time in the world where we need everybody. We need to redefine the way we are looking at the problems of the world. Climate change for example. Climate change isn’t something you believe in or not, it’s not the Easter bunny. It’s more about – either you understand the science behind it or you don’t. So, we need to rebrand those things from ending climate change to “Let’s make the earth cooler”. It puts a positive take on it. We need the best that business and science has to offer, we need the wisdom of indigenous people, the common sense of everyday consumers, the creativity of entrepreneurs and the courage of activists. When we have everybody, that’s when things will change.