Taken from The Register-Guard (Oct 4, 2013)
Michael Franti, new pop star
The socially conscious musician is broadening his appeal on this album
by Alan Sculley
Photo by Lauren Dukoff
Michael Franti’s new album, “All People,” is likely to surprise at least some fans — especially those who have followed him over the long haul and associate his music primarily with hip-hop, reggae and funk, punctuated by issue-oriented lyrics.
“All People” finds Franti moving toward more of a dance-pop sound, mixed with a few folk-flavored tunes and more of a positive lyrical stance that emphasizes love and good times over serious, issue-oriented content.
The album puts Franti, who plays the McDonald Theatre on Tuesday, more in step with today’s top 40 and pop radio trends. Considering he has gained considerable popularity with his previous two albums — 2008’s “All Rebel Rockers” included the top 40 hit “Say Hey (I Love You),” while the title track of 2010’s “The Sound of Sunshine” topped the AAA radio chart — some might see “All People” as his attempt to break through on radio and grab at least a measure of pop stardom.
Franti is aware of the shift in his music, but in a phone interview he said it’s just another step in a career-long attempt to evolve and grow musically, not a calculated attempt to expand his audience.
“When I was a kid, my favorite group was the Clash,” said Franti, 47, offering a case study to illustrate his point. “They made all of these records when they were young, and they only knew how to play three chords. And they sounded a certain way. They sounded like a band that only knew three chords.
“Then they started to experiment with reggae, jazz, funk, hip-hop, rap and then they started making these records that could only be called the Clash. And then some of their songs started to get played on mainstream radio. And people said the same thing, ‘Oh God, now the radio is playing their music.’
“But I listen back to all of their records today and I just hear this evolution of oh, they’re adding this to it, they’re adding this to it. ... Now, it’s like the radio has come around to where they are. And that’s how I feel.
“Like this single we have, ‘I’m Alive.’ It’s like, when I first made that song, it just was a drum beat, a straightforward drum beat and acoustic guitar, and I started whistling on top of it and singing this song. I didn’t think it was going to be a single at all. I thought it sounded like a bunch of people on top of a hill like playing tambourines and singing and playing acoustic guitar and chanting this ‘oh-woah-oh.’
“But the label (Capitol Records) heard it and they’re like, ‘That’s the single.’ I was like, ‘Wow, really? Go for it.’ And it became that.
“But I do love dance music, and we want our people to come to the shows and listen to the songs and be able to dance. I think maybe that’s the biggest change — really making beats that we think people can dance to.”
Progressing to pop
No matter how one views “All People,” one thing is obvious.
The album is different from anything Franti has done in a career that dates back to stints in the mid-1980s. That’s when he was in the industrial/punk/spoken word group the Beatnigs, followed by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a critically acclaimed, politically charged band that released two albums and opened for U2 on its Zoo TV tour.
After that group dissolved in 1994, Franti went solo, forming his backing band, Spearhead. His sound expanded from hip-hop to embrace funk, soul and, as time went on, reggae, folk, pop and world beat.
The eclectic “The Sound of Sunshine” hinted at the poppier direction of “All People,” but still had its share of reggae tunes and organic instrumentation.
“All People” goes further in a breezy dance-pop direction, employing more synthetic beats and instrumentation. Uptempo songs such as “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” “Closer to You” and the title tune blend sunny melodies, big dance beats and techno instrumental touches. Even the ballads (such as the U2-ish “Long Ride Home” and “Say Goodbye”) have a rhythmic presence.
The three latter albums also have seen a shift in Franti’s lyrics away from the more serious — even angry — topical tone of his earlier albums to messages that are more positive, encouraging and inclusive.
On “All People,” even the topical tunes (“11:59” and “Say Goodbye,” the latter inspired by the Trayvon Martin shooting) have uplifting messages.
The shift has been intentional, Franti said, and came, first of all, from what he saw on trips to places such as Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Africa. As he played songs for people he encountered, he found they weren’t interested in commentary about the world’s problems so much as they wanted to hear upbeat, danceable music they could enjoy as an escape.
Franti’s outlook was further shaped in 2009 when he almost died after his appendix burst. It made him re-examine his priorities and recognize the importance of his family and friends.
“I think the way my music has changed the most over the years is it’s gone from being about thoughts to being about emotions and things,” Franti said. “So it’s not so important to me to think about what’s happening in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s more important what I’m feeling 24 hours a day in my life.
“And the artists I’ve really loved and admire — John Lennon, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash — they were all able to put songs about how much they love the people in their lives against a song about how much they care about the world. And I feel like when you do that, both things take on greater significance.
“For example, when John Lennon sings ‘Imagine,’ it’s this really passionate song about wanting to see the world be a better place,” he said.
“But then when he sings ‘Beautiful Boy’ right next to it, you feel like, wow, this is why he wants the world to be a better place, because he’s raising a kid.
“He’s a dad. And my life has grown the same (way).”
Michael Franti and Spearhead
With: Ethan Tucker
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 8
Where: McDonald Theatre, 1010 Willamette St.
Tickets: $45; $40 advance