Taken from Relix (July 21, 2016)
The Core: Michael Franti
by Mike Greenhaus
Spearhead team up with a pair of hit-making producers for another set of electro-charged, conscious bangers.
We were on tour while we were working on Soulrocker, so we’d be in the studio for a week and then we’d be out for a month— then in for two weeks and out for three months. Along the way, I met two producers who helped shape the record. We were on the road with SOJA, and their producer, Supa Dups, showed up and said, “I love your show and your music. My wife and kids love your stuff. It’d be great to make some songs.” I sent him some basic tracks for “Once a Day” and was blown away by what he sent back. So we set up at Circle House Studios in Miami and I reached out to Di Genius, who is the son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor. When I first heard the name Di Genius, my first thought was: “Who has the balls to call themself that?” But, holy shit, he is a prodigy— he was producing albums when he was 13. For a while, I was working with Di Genius in one studio and with Supa Dups in another room on another day.
Eventually, we all just moved into the same studio and started working together. Jay Bowman, my guitar player, was there and added some guitar parts. Carl Young, Spearhead’s bass player, is always hovering around, working on tracks back in my studio in San Francisco. But it was basically the four of us making the record in Miami, and all of us said it was the most fun we’ve ever had recording.
THE ELECTROACOUSTIC BRAVEHEART
These songs all started from the foundation of an acoustic guitar. I’d work up some chords and those guys would start playing around them. I’ve used electronic sounds and instrumentation on records going back to Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Along the way, I fell in love with the acoustic guitar. We wanted to merge those two things this time around. When I’m at home, I listen to every kind of music. It all enters its way into my writing vocabulary. These guys work 90 percent in the electronic realm, so that side of things really came out. I’ve produced my own records before, and it’s so much to get your head around. I’m always amazed when somebody writes, stars and directs a movie—like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. This time, I had somebody else making a beat while I was sitting in a corner working on melodies, chords and lyrics, and then, we bounced those ideas off each other.
There’s this nervousness built up when you play a song live for the first time—like making a speech in front of people that you haven’t memorized yet. There’s also this excitement—I have to do this now. It helps you find out more about the song. Is it too fast? Are there too many instruments? For example, we did a version of the Soulrocker song “I Got Love for You” on All Rebel Rockers, but we never played that version live. I wrote it for my son when he was leaving home after high school, going cross-country by Greyhound. When I got out on tour, I found out that the song was much more intimate and emotional for me. I was playing around with it and Supa Dups was like, “What’s that guitar riff? Let me put a beat to it.” My first thought was, “That’s a song I already did,” but he said, “I don’t care. We’ve got to record that shit right now.” So we came up with a more definitive version of the emotion that I wrote the song from. That’s something I only found after playing the song live for many years.
POPULIST POP MUSIC
I didn’t get into music because I wanted to get rich and retire. I got into it because I hoped, one day, I’d be like John Lee Hooker—playing a show when I’m 80 years old and still loving it as much as I did when I was 20. Every song I write, I always think, “How can I reach the most people possible with the message that I have?” “Say Hey (I Love You),” “Sound of Sunshine” and “I’m Alive” [off 2008’s All Rebel Rockers, 2010’s The Sound of Sunshine and 2013’s All People, respectively] all sold well and reached a lot of people. But when I wrote them, my thought was, “Is this the most effective means of communicating the message that I have?” Not, “Will this song get played on the radio?” Putting your beliefs out there and letting other people hear those beliefs and share them— that’s the key to longevity.
It’s an election year and it seems like there’s more riding on the presidential election than ever. But, that’s what I said in the previous five elections, too. Maybe, as the world goes on, the issues become more universal. We have all these long primaries, and I’m waiting for somebody to just drop a Beyoncé—a week before, one of the candidates goes: “I’m in. Vote for me.” I want to make music that inspires people to make a difference—the things that we see happening today with climate change, the increasing divide between rich and poor, the misunderstanding and hatred that is playing out between religious and racial groups, police and community violence. I want to make music that helps people to get through challenging times so that they can help the world be a better place. It’s as simple as that.
THOUGHTS ON 50
I turned 50 in April. Rock-and-roll keeps you young, but age happens. You feel like you’re 20, then you wake up and you’re 40. My wife and I have a family motto: “Be your best, serve the greater good and rock out wherever you are.” What that means to me is: Always find some way to grow, take the talent you have and give it back to other people on this planet and never lose that enthusiasm that you had when you went to your first rock concert. That’s the thing that keeps you young. I did this solar-energy benefit in San Francisco with Sammy Hagar and Bob Weir. The way we were all hanging out backstage, you’d think we were all 25-year-old kids. Music helps me keep that enthusiasm, and I cherish it for that reason.