Michael Franti (centre) and Spearhead Photo by Chelsea Klette
San Francisco roots-reggae activist Michael Franti brings his band, Spearhead, back to Ottawa this weekend, part of the tour to celebrate their ninth studio album, Soulrocker. Lynn Saxberg spoke to Franti about the uplifting new music, hitting the mainstream and the philanthropic initiative he launched with his Canadian wife, Sara Agah Franti.
Q: What was your mission with Soulrocker?
A: Well, I make music for one reason, and that is that I care about people and the planet, and right now is a time of incredible challenge for both. In America we have an election coming up, but we also have things that are taking place unexpectedly like the shooting in Orlando. There’s so much that weighs heavy on the hearts and minds of the people in the world, and I wanted this record to be something that called out some of those things that are taking place, but with a voice of optimism that there’s no better time to be a difference maker in the world. All of us have a role, whether big or small, to play in making those differences.
Q: A lot of your songs are born out of frustration with things in the world, but you always seem to manage to find something positive to say. How do you do that?
A: I’m dedicated to challenge vs optimism, and I really believe that the great battle that we see in the world today is not between rich or poor, left or right, Muslim or Christianity. It’s a battle between cynicism and fear, and optimism and intelligence really. How are we going to look at the problems that we have and face them if you can’t even dream that there is a better way? If people couldn’t dream that there was a possibility that LGBTQ people could be married then it never would have happened. But people dreamed it first and were able to envision it and then work toward it. Step by step, we’re getting closer to having that equality for all people in our nation.
Q: Musically, I like the balance between electronic dance beats and organic instruments. Where’s that come from?
A: I’ve always loved electronic music, and ever since I was a kid, I’ve listened to it. In one of my previous incarnations, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, I did a lot of stuff with samplers and drum machines, but somewhere along the way I fell in love with acoustic guitar, mainly because it’s portable. You can pick it up and go sit in the park and write a song, play it on a street corner in the afternoon, then play it in an arena at night.
So I liked that immediacy and intimacy of the guitar, but in making music that is both storyteller music and danceable, you want to have the strongest beats you possibly can. And so with every song, it started on acoustic guitar and then we worked it into some kind of arrangement that brought in different elements of dance music and reggae.
Q: The new album debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes alternative chart. Does it surprise you to be doing well in the mainstream?
A: As I say, it’s 25 years of overnight success. We are actually super grateful to have that kind of acknowledgement that people are out there listening and appreciating what you’re doing. I guess more than anything else, it inspires us to keep our values at the centre of what we do, the centre of our music.
Q: You have recorded a love song written for your wife. Have you not written her a love song before?
A: I’ve written her many. She always says those are my ‘get out of jail free’ cards. On this record, I wrote the song Crazy for You. It’s another song that says if the whole world is going to go crazy, at least I have this one person in my life that I don’t mind going crazy with, who will be there for me through the craziest moments. We’ve been married now for almost a year. She’s Canadian. She was raised in Calgary, but spent the last 10 years working as an emergency room nurse in Saskatoon. I met her at the Regina folk fest eight years ago. We were good friends for four years, then she took a nursing position in California, moved there and we became boyfriend-girlfriend. Then last year we got married.
Q: Tell me about the Do It For Love Foundation you two started.
A: My wife is really inspirational to me. She’s with people when they’re at their most vulnerable, and I’m with people when they’re ready to celebrate and let go. For a while we’ve been trying to think of a way that we could combine our worlds, so two years ago we started the foundation, which is kind of like a Make-a-Wish foundation for music. We bring people in advanced stages of a life-threatening illness, children with special needs and wounded veterans to see any live concert they want in North America. If anybody wants to see Beyonce or Metallica or Clint Black or whatever, they can write to us at doitforthelove.org and we’ll get their family out to see music.
Q: So with a Canadian wife, you can probably go to Canada fairly easily if Trump wins the election. Will you consider that?
A: (Laughs.) That would definitely be my first impulse, but I also believe that now, more than ever, it’s important to stay in the game. And giving up just because we could … is something that goes against almost every one of my core values. It would not be my makeup. I would stay and keep encouraging the many of us who are moving away from hatred and towards building bridges and towards compassion and towards love, towards opportunity for all people. You need as many people as you can to be encouraged.
Michael Franti and Spearhead TD Ottawa Jazz Festival When: Saturday, July 2, 8:30 p.m. Where: Confederation Park