BACK FOR BLUESFEST: Michael Franti performs at Byron Bay's Bluesfest
If Michael Franti’s world-renowned high-energy, good-vibe live performances are anything to go by, his impending wedding will be one of the parties of the year.
“I’ve been out scouting wedding locations all day,” says the towering 48-year-old Californian.
He is engaged to emergency room nurse and jewellery designer Sara Agah.
“This has been super fun for me, because it’s pretty much what I do every day of my life– go into an empty hall and turn it into a kick-ass party.
“[Sara’s] mind is ‘where are all the white flowers going to go?’ and my mind is like ‘where is the giant Balinese statue going to go’ and ‘we’re going to have a huge rock concert in here’.
“It’s fun, we get along great.
“I think most couples end up breaking up over these kinds of things but we have tonnes of fun with it.”
Franti, who has released eight studio records as frontman of roots-rock outfit Spearhead, says music will play a big part on his special day.
“Pretty much every one of my friends is a musician of some sort, so I’ll probably have a band of about 25 people who will take turns playing music.
“Those of my friends that aren’t musicians are either DJs or graphic artists or painters, so we’re going to get everybody to chip in.”
Franti is bringing Spearhead back to Australia, with shows locked in at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest and Newcastle Panthers.
The poet, activist and singer-songwriter has almost recovered from surgery on the torn meniscus he sustained while performing in January.
“I tore the meniscus in my left knee and had to have surgery three weeks ago, so I’m hobbling around on crutches,” he says.
“It’s starting to get better, I have about another two weeks on crutches and then I’ll start moving and strengthening it more.
“But I’ll be ready for the [Australian] tour.”
There has long been a strong Australian fanbase for Franti’s infectious mix of rock, roots and reggae, and he can’t wait to return to his Down Under fans.
“I’m super excited,” he says.
“Bluesfest is one of the festivals that we put a big red heart around on our calendar.
“We love coming [to Australia], we love the audiences.
“Ever since the first time I’ve come there I’ve always looked at the history of Australia and how it was formed, and how cultures get along together today.
“The land and nature is very foreign from where I grew up, and every time I’m there I feel like I learn something new about the country.”
And Australia might even get to hear some new songs written since Spearhead’s last record, 2013’s All People.
The group are now hard at work on another album.
“We’re about six songs into making a new record,” he reveals.
“We’ve been spending our time as a band half in the studio and half in the rehearsal space.
“We’re actually in our 20th year of making music together and we love it more than ever.
“We had a rehearsal yesterday that was scheduled to go for two hours and we ended up jamming for four-and-a-half hours.
“All of us left here just buzzing, we can’t wait to get out and play some of these new songs.”
Franti says it’s too early to say exactly what musical direction the new album might take.
“We start songs in one place and by the time we finish the record they can go somewhere else,” he says.
“We’ve been digging back into our reggae roots a lot deeper and incorporating dance music.
“We always want our songs to be things people can dance to, though we don’t necessarily make songs for the club.
“All the songs start on acoustic guitar, so that element weaves throughout.”
But no matter the genre that Spearhead explores on their records, Franti says one element remains the most vital.
“If there was any one thing that would be a theme, it is that I want to make music that gets people through difficult times,” the songwriter says.
“I’ve had a number of challenges in my life recently, the knee thing is the least of them.
“My 16-year-old son was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease and has 50 per cent of his kidney function.
“And my soon-to-be mother-in-law is battling breast cancer, so we’ve had a lot of challenges in our family and it’s brought us really closer together.
“I love music that does that to me, music has been my medicine throughout this whole journey over the last year.
“I want my music to be there for people who are going through a rough time, to speak to that but also be joyous and get people to the other side.”
While other songwriters might respond to adversity with melancholy and cathartic balladry that reflects their pain, Franti prefers an upbeat antidote.
Music has been my medicine throughout this whole journey over the last year - Michael Franti
“I think the best happy songs are the ones that acknowledge sadness and pain,” he explains.
“I’ve never been a big fan of blues because blues stayed in sadness, it’s ‘my baby left me’ over and over again.
“I want to hear the other side of it - ‘my baby left me, so f*** it let’s go party’.
“That’s why I’ve always loved funk – funk is that other side of the blues.”
Because inspiration can strike Franti at any time, he has developed a recording set up where he can easily demo new tracks while touring.
And he’s learned that when bringing a new song into the world there can be no distractions.
“It might be three in the morning and I’m in a hotel room or on a tour bus or at home, and I’ll take one or two hours and turn everything off - no phones and no conversations except with me and my guitar and lyric book.
“And I just really hone in on what it is that I’m feeling and putting it into words and melodies.
“As a songwriter you go through periods where you feel like everything you do sucks and you’re waiting for that inspiration.
“When it comes in the middle of the night you have to take it.”
In the past Franti would try to push through moments where he lacked inspiration and continue writing, but now finds that putting down the guitar and stepping out into the world re-energises him.
And some of his best ideas are the result of daydreaming.
“I remember when I was a kid I used to sit in class and stare off into space,” Franti says.
“My teacher would come by and hit me over the back of the head and say. ‘Stop staring off into space!’
“But when staring off into space I’ve done some of the best work of my life.
“So sometimes I’ll just go sit somewhere and look out into the ocean and see what comes up.”