Michael Franti walks into the backstage area of London’s Heaven venue with a broad smile on his face and gives me a huge hug. I’m not sure he even realises I’m here to do the interview yet, he just seems genuinely happy to meet everyone. It’s gratifying when, as now, an artist’s on-stage persona and message so exactly match how they are when you sit down and chat to them.
Michael’s life-affirming music has long been drenched in political and social comment, but with an increasingly positive and unifying theme over the years. His ninth and latest album, SoulRocker, is possibly his most uplifting yet. He’s been on the road since February promoting it and tonight, ahead of his London show, he tells me about the impact of music on his life, his theory on the divisions among people today and who he’ll be voting for in the upcoming US presidential election.
Soulrocker is your ninth album – with so much material, how did you select songs for this tour?
With this particular tour I’m doing a lot of my more political songs. It’s just two of us – two guitars and I play drum with my foot. I really feel right now, with everything that’s happening in the world, that it’s important to be putting these messages out there. But, as always, we want to make our shows something that’s for your mind and for your soul and for your body, so we also do songs with tracks, just to get the room shaking and to get people to let go through their body the tensions that we’re feeling right now in the world. Also I’m really explaining the origins of each song – a little more of a storyteller set up than I would do when we are performing with the full band.
What impact do you think that has on the show?
I think that when you strip it back there’s more space for each individual word and phrase to be heard and so it becomes a closer listening experience. I make music for one reason, which is that I believe everybody on the planet should be happy, healthy and equal. I put a lot of that in the words, so it’s nice to be able to have the words really come across.
You’ve said you make music because you believe it changes people lives. Can you give some examples?
First of all, in my own life, I’ve seen music has affected me and changed me. Everything from the first person I fell in love with when I was a little kid. I couldn’t talk to my mum and dad about it and I couldn’t talk to my teacher about it at school, but there were records that helped me to feel like it was OK. Then all the way up through to today.
My father passed away a few years ago and it was music that got me through grieving and opening up at times when I just felt stuck. I’d have moments alone or just moments driving a car or moments with a close friend and be able to hear songs that just got me through it. And I see it every night at our shows – people come up to me and say, ‘my sister has stage four breast cancer and you’re the music she listens to when she goes to chemotherapy’. Or ‘I met my wife at your show and we now have a baby together’.
Yesterday I met a guy here in London, he’s Muslim and he said that when he and his wife come to my concerts it’s like a spiritual experience for them, it brings them closer to their spiritual place. When I hear things like that it makes me feel like what I’m doing has purpose. That’s what I set out to do in music and so I feel complete.
I saw you perform with Disposable Heroes of Hiphopirsy in the early 90s and a few times with Spearhead, most recently when you did a little show at Rough Trade West and there were just the two of you stood on the shop counter. I was looking back to think about how the shows have progressed over the years and I was amazed when I saw the date of that last one in 2011, as it was just a few weeks after my mother had passed away and a very difficult time. Yet I clearly remember coming away from that gig feeling uplifted and very positive. I remember at the end of the show you hugged everybody. So I was wondering, was there a moment in your musical journey where you made the decision to have a really positive, uplifting message and feeling to the music, because, for instance, Disposable Heroes were talking about very important subjects, but quite critical, and rightly so?
I guess throughout my life I’ve learned that it’s important to express the full rainbow of human emotion. The full prism of life. Sometimes we’re sad but we’re also part relieved, sometimes we’re joyful but we’re also worried about the future. There are all kinds of mixes of emotions and that’s what music does so well. It helps us to have ease of heart, so that those things can pass through us. I really believe that there’s a great battle that’s taking place in the world right now – perhaps it always has been – but it’s not between rich and poor or Democrat and Republican or black and white or different nations. It’s a war between optimism and despair.
I believe that the very worst thing that you can have in any society is people who have lost any reason to live. That’s when someone will strap a bomb onto their body and walk into a supermarket, or commit suicide or take another person’s life. I think it’s important that music doesn’t just express anger all the time, that it has to express joy and it has to express reasons for living, express life and that’s really why I do it.
Do you sit down and treat song-writing like a craft that you’ve built up over the years or do you wait for inspiration?
Sometimes inspiration just comes, just out of thin air, but most of the time I have to consciously say ‘let’s sit down and write something’. Over the years it becomes easier, you have the skills. I know my way around a studio, for example, I know how to play instruments, I know how to record and make beats. But you still have to find that seed of what is the most important thing that is happening in your life at that moment.
So I always start with the hook of the song first, because the hook is the statement and all the verses are just paragraphs that are supporting that statement. If I start the other way around sometimes I’ll write these great verses and then I’ll get to the chorus and I’ll be like ‘err?’ I don’t have anything that anybody can remember or sing along to. I always write songs now from the guitar, so that I could play it on a street corner or I could put a big beat to it and play it at festival. If the song stands up by itself, just the voice and guitar then you know it’s really a good song.
With the election just around the corner, who do you think should be president of the United States?
I was hoping that Bernie Sanders would be elected because of all the candidates he’s the closest to my values. But I always look at the president not as like the answer to all my problems but just pushing the needle a little bit one way or pushing it a little bit the other way.
Barack Obama, for example, he’s way more conservative than I am. We spend 51 cents of every dollar in the United States on the military. I would make it more like 10 cents. I would spend the other 41 cents on everything else that we don’t have, like healthcare for everybody and college education for free for every student that wanted to go and for enabling refugees to have a safe haven in our country when they need it.
So when a president gets elected, I don’t look at it like it’s going to answer my problems, I just look at it like it’s going to maybe shift a little bit. With Obama, LGBTQ rights really blossomed during these eight years and that’s a fantastic thing. But we still haven’t shut down the prison in Guantanamo, we still haven’t withdrawn from Afghanistan, we’re still dropping drones in places all over the world.
So those are the parts of America that go on no matter what president is in office. So, in this case, I’m going to be voting for Hilary and I really hope she wins, because I think that Trump is an extreme of danger. He’s a bully who constantly criticizes anybody who has anything to say against him and he puts them down. That’s his way of pumping himself up and that’s what a dictator does. We need an elected leader who can compromise, who can sit in a room with other people and take criticism and still be able to stay at the table and have a conversation.
Have you ever thought about going into politics?
I’m not suited for it, to be honest. [Laughs] I would hate every four years or every two years to have to try to get people to like me. I’d rather be my authentic self, so that’s one thing. But honestly, I believe that I can better be of service through music than I could through being a deal-maker in Washington.
At the end of your shows, what would you like people to be leaving with?
I want people to walk out of the room feeling a little bit taller. Whatever they have next that’s coming in their life, that they feel like they can face it. Whether it’s something personal or their perspective on the world, if someone is feeling scared or frustrated by the stresses and tensions of the world, I want them to go away feeling like you’re not alone. That we’re in this together and there’s so much to be grateful for and so much to look forward to, at the same time as we keep our eyes open for what needs to be addressed. And also to be sweaty and rock out and have a good time!
With that, Michael heads off to get ready for the show, bringing ease of heart yet again to another crowd, in another town, in another country. I bet they all walked home a bit taller and a bit more hopeful. I know I did.
Michael Franti was interviewed and photographed by Imelda Michalczyk on 21 October 2017.