Michael Franti

An interview

Michael Franti and his band Spearhead are well known for their upbeat songs with a positive message. He tours the world in his dreadlocks and bare feet, spreading the messages of love, compassion, and understanding. His concerts are a big dance party, with Franti himself frequently joining the crowd and jumping around with his fans.

He recently released a new single called “Once a Day”. It is accompanied by a really fun music video filled with all kinds of amazing artists, dancers and athletes. I had the pleasure of talking to Michael recently about his new music, touring with SOJA, meeting the Dalai Lama, and staying positive in a difficult world.

Tom Matthew:  You’ve recently released a new single entitled, “Once a Day”. It follows your tradition of a catchy hook, danceable rhythm, and a positive message for people to “rise up”. Tell us about “Once a Day”.

Michael Franti:  Last year my son was diagnosed with kidney disease, and by the time we had discovered it, he had already lost 50% of his function. When we found out, we thought it would rip our family apart. As we came together to find ways to fight this disease, it actually ended up bringing our family closer together. There was a lot of hugging, a lot of kissing, and a lot of telling each other how much we meant to each other. From that I wrote the song: “Everybody ought to hug somebody once a day”.

In the first verse I say, “Got your friends, got your money, got your family, got your honey” – you got a million things. Then life comes along and knocks you down to the ground. That’s why I say everybody ought to hug somebody once a day.

I remember I was doing everything I could to end my life at 16. I was taking too many risks. I thought I had a million questions. My son at 16, he’s wondering how many days he has left. That’s a hard thing, and the truth is that none of us ever know at all. Our monitor man Jeff, his father unexpectedly passed away a few days ago, and it was a big shock to all of us. So the song is a gentle reminder to love those who are closest to you.

TM: The video features a number of really talented people, including Rik Daniels who does some amazing dancing without the use of his legs, and skateboarder Bob Burnquist pulling tricks on the half-pipe. How did you form the concept to have this big diverse crowd in your music video?

MF: Our fan base is very diverse. In the last few years, me and my fiancée Sara, we started a foundation called the Do It for the Love Foundation. We’re kind of like Make a Wish Foundation. We bring people in advanced stages of terminal illnesses, taking adults with special needs and wounded veterans to live concerts. People can just write to us and say, “My sister is dying, and she wants to see Garth Brooks”, and we send her to the show.

Meeting so many families over the last couple of years, I have met such inspiring people. People who have had every reason to give up, every reason to quit. Not only do they not quit, they thrive. They became the most beautiful people and the most talented people. So I wanted to invite people who embodied that, who have fallen down and gotten back up.

Rik Daniels, the dancer you described, he was born without the use of his legs. He was four pounds when he was born. The doctor told his mother he was never going to walk, you should probably institutionalize him, because he’s going to be a tough challenge for you. And she was like, in Rik’s words, “F*** you doctor, that’s my child and I’m taking him home! And he’s going to do everything my other two kids do!”

As a single mom she raised him. They expected him to do chores around the house, do his homework, and everything else she expected of the other kids. They just had to find ways to adapt. Along the way he became a seven time All-American gymnast.

I met him at one of our concerts, and the way he danced was so inspiring. I said “Someday I want to connect with you and do something.” I just thought that in my mind, but I didn’t get a chance to get his email or anything. So a few years later I was making a movie and he came to mind. I put a message out on Facebook and said, “Does anybody know this guy?” One of his friends wrote me back.

And Bob is another person, I think Bob is 37 or 38 right now, and he’s been in the X-Games since he was literally 14 or 15 years old in the big air competitions. He’s always in the top three, year after year. He’s someone that if you see him train – I was out there shooting the video, and he would land probably 1 out of every 20 tricks. So here’s somebody that falls down something like 95% of the time, and he gets up every time, so I wanted to show his ability to do that.

TM: “Once a Day” was co-produced by the popular Jamaican producer Supa Dups. What did Supa Dups bring to the song?

MF: Supa Dups is an amazing cat. He started off being a DJ, and from being a DJ he got really into rhythm. He’s Chinese-Jamaican and his family is all from Jamaica for many generations. He has a group called Black Chiney that was his company. From that he just started doing little remixes on his own, and then he had some success in that realm. He’s gone on to do tons of records for Eminem, Rhianna, Drake, and every dancehall artist you could imagine, from Shaggy to Beenie Man.

Recently he’s been getting into producing records on the American reggae scene. He’s worked with artists like SOJA, J Boog, and a lot of these American reggae artists. When that vibe came through, we connected with it. We worked out of Circle House, which is the studio owned by Inner Circle. It’s a legendary studio. Every big artist from the Miami area has worked out of there. Recently Pharrell had booked out one of the rooms for two years while he was making the whole last record. So it’s a real super-creative place where there’s a lot of good energy. It’s all sort of copied around Inner Circle and their love of positivity. They love making records in a more traditional way than people do today.

TM: Last year you were touring with SOJA in support of the hit single, “I Believe”.  They are another band with a consistent positive message. What was it like spending time with those guys?

MF: It’s awesome. They’re a very big band. There’s a lot of personalities there, and sometimes that’s a challenge. But Jacob, who’s the leader of the band, has a very passionate voice for positivity and change. He has surrounded himself, like my situation, with people who share that. It’s a really big band and all those cats get along really well.

The tour we did was a full-time tour, and every day there was a yoga camp before the main show. All the guys in the band got into yoga, and a bunch of them never practiced yoga before, so it was a really cool time. All of us were saying at the end of the tour that it was our favorite tour we’ve ever been on. It was a great experience.

TM: You jump right in with the audience at your performances. What’s the energy like out there at one of these big shows when you’re dancing your way through the crowd?

MF:  I love getting in the crowd, and every show I do some songs from the audience. I bring the guitar out there, bring the microphone out there. When I was a kid – I go back to music when you didn’t click a button online to get a ticket. You waited in line for hours and hours and hours just to get a ticket, and then three months later, you waited in line to get into the show. You’d go to the concert and run to the front of the stage. We would take turns holding our spot there if anybody had to go to the bathroom, get food or drink or whatever. And when the band came on, we would take very careful notice of what four pedals the guitarist would have, what shoes were the bass player wearing, or whatever.

Then I went on to become a doorman at a club, where I saw hundreds of bands coming in. And there were always these bands that would say hello to you, and say thank you at the end of the night to all the staff who worked there. Those were the bands that I noticed were coming back year after year, the ones who connected with the fans, the ones who connected with promoters, and the people who were appreciative of everyone who worked at the club.

I’ve carried that ethos throughout my career. When I perform a show, I want those people who came in last, who are at the back of the venue, or who maybe bought a cheaper ticket at the back of the venue – I want them to have the same feeling that the people at the front feel. That’s why I go into the audience. There’s nothing more fun for me in my life than when I’m in the mosh pit at a show, moving up and down with a bunch of people who believe in what you believe in.

Somehow through the music you find that identification with the core beliefs. In our band we have a motto, “Love Life”, two words. Every day we are thinking, “What we can do to love our friends, love our families, and to love the planet?” We go snowboarding or bike riding, or yoga or running, whatever we do to take care of our bodies. What are we doing to show compassion for other people, doing acts of compassion for other people in the world who need help? We love life, and I feel like people identify with that at our shows. So to be in the crowd celebrating that is cool. Nothing is more fun.

TM: Recently you had the honor of spending some time with the Dalai Lama. What did you take from that experience?

MF: It was really amazing. I was invited to come play a song at his birthday celebration in Irvine, California. The first performance was in this huge basketball arena. There were a few thousand people there. I played my guitar, and a little wooden drum. I told the story of how I wrote the song, and I started playing and singing it. I look behind me and the Dalai Lama is clapping and singing. I was really moved by that.

I asked him on the stage – because we all got to take turns asking questions – and I asked him, “In the world, it’s easy to become frustrated. You read the news every day, and we’ve got all these difficult challenges we have to face. We’re constantly being divided and exploited by politicians. How do you keep going? How do you stay focused on being positive?”

He said, “You have to look inside yourself, find those dark moments, and examine them.” He said, “Wisdom does not come just by experience alone. It comes as a combination of experience and human intellect. So you have to look into your heart and the ways you’ve interpreted those things to learn from them, and when you do that, it’s like creating a vision. From that vision you take it to other people and do acts of compassion.”

It doesn’t mean anything to be a compassionate person who doesn’t do anything in the world. That’s just a nice person. You have to go out in the world and do acts of compassion. Do things to relieve the suffering of other people. It was really amazing sitting next to him and hearing that.

Afterwards, he said of my performance, “When I first saw you, I kind of scratched my arm and said what’s up with these tattoos, and what’s up with these dreadlocks, and you looked really hard. And then I heard your music and it was very light. I heard what you had to say in the song, and the song was really exciting. But excitement doesn’t last forever.” We all laughed. Then he said, “What is important is the words, the meaning when you play it. You want to encourage everyone to listen to the words and take the lyrics on, that’s what lasts forever.” That’s what he goes for, not for the excitement.

And I said, “When I first saw you, I thought that was a cool robe. Where can I get one?” He laughed and said “In order to wear this robe, you must become a monk. And the first thing you’ll have to do, Michael, is shave your head, shave your dreadlocks. And the second thing you’ll have to do is take a vow of celibacy.” Then he goes, “I met your fiancée, so I don’t think you want to do that.”

He said, “I’m a monk with a lot of restrictions, but you have a really good heart and a really good message so I’m going to make you a monk with no restrictions.” So I told my band afterwards, “That’s my Wu-Tang Clan rapper name, ‘Unrestricted Monk’”.

TM: Every time I’ve seen you, whether live or on video, you’ve been in your bare feet. What does being barefoot mean to you?

MF: Well, it means that every step is going to feel different. You might be walking on what looks like smooth concrete, but there are cracks, there are bits of grit and things poking up, and every step is different.

I started going barefoot when I was on tour in other countries where kids couldn’t afford to wear shoes. So I took off my shoes, and I couldn’t even go three steps without going “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!”

So I went back to San Francisco and after three days it really didn’t toughen up my feet, so I went another day, a month, a year, and now barefoot for 15 years apart from planes and restaurants where I wear my flip flops.

TM: If you could give one piece of advice to a young person on finding success in music, what piece of advice could you give?

MF:  I think the main thing is to be yourself, and do not be afraid of being that unique person that is you. Because that is your greatest gift to the world, for you to be your authentic self.

Like I said, we have a motto in our band which is “Love Life”. In our house, we add on to that and say “Love life, serve the greater good, and rock out wherever you are”.

What that means is love life. Keep finding ways to challenge yourself, finding ways to grow, to be your best every day. And appreciate – love your family, love your friends, love the experiences that you have, and approach them with all your passion.

To serve the greater good means to give back, to find compassion and globalize that compassion, to act with compassion every day.

And the final part is rock out. Don’t ever lose your enthusiasm for being your unique and authentic self. Find whatever that is for your unique self, and live it, be it. We all need that passion.

TM: That’s great advice. I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.MF:  Right on, thanks a lot brother