Taken from The Register-Guard (Sep 01, 2017)
‘Soulrocker’: Michael Franti and Spearhead aim for positivity on their new album
The band will play at the Cuthbert Amphitheater on Thursday, Sept. 7
by Alan Sculley For The Register-Guard
Michael Franti has a discography that numbers nine studio albums with his current band, Spearhead, as well as one album with his first group, the Beatnigs, and a pair of titles with the influential group that preceded his solo career, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
But he’s never had a recording experience quite like the one he had in making his latest album with Spearhead, “Soulrocker,” with producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor and Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee.
“It was actually the most fun that we’ve ever had making a record,” Franti said in a recent phone interview. “Every day, when I would come into the studio, there would be something that was so cool that I would just wouldn’t expect. It would be outside of my sort of natural way of thinking about the song, and they’d (McGregor or Chin Quee) come up with something that was just really amazing and very different from what I would normally do.”
Bringing in outside producers was a new twist for Franti, who always had handled those duties himself on the previous albums.
But the idea of working with McGregor and Chin Quee seemed too good to pass up.
“Di Genius, Stephen McGregor, he’s the son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor. When I first heard his name as Di Genius, I was like who is this guy?” Franti said. “Then I met him, and I was like this guy really is one of the, he’s kind of a child prodigy. He grew up producing whole reggae albums when he was 13 years old. He’s just got that really incredible musicality. He can play any instrument. He’s filled with melodies and great production sounds. He produces everything from dancehall reggae to, he’s done stuff for Gwen Stefani, he’s done stuff with all kinds of artists in the U.K. He’s done stuff with hardcore reggae and dance artists. He’s all over the map. He’s just really an amazing person and a very cool man, very quiet and confident, a great listener.”
Chin Quee actually had come into the picture at a Michael Franti & Spearhead concert.
“He (Chin Quee) saw our show and said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to work with you,’” Franti said. “That’s how it came to be. I sent him an early version of the song ‘Once A Day,’ and he sent it back to me with this incredible rhythm to it and I was like, ‘Wow, let’s do this. Let’s keep making more songs like this.’
“Supa Dups is a similar kind of vibe (to McGregor), except he’s more like the beat guy,” Franti said. “He’s super skilled at getting the drums and the bass to sound really powerful and has a really great ear for the overall aesthetics of the song. Like at the end of the day, what does it sound like, not each of the parts, but what the (whole) thing sounds like? It was good to work with those two guys.”
“Soulrocker” has been touted as bringing a more modern, more electronic edge to Franti’s long-standing mix of rock, folk, hip-hop, soul and reggae. But in reality, electronic elements have been working their way into Franti’s sound on the past couple of albums, and their use became fairly prominent on his previous album, 2013’s “All People.”
The blend of electronic and organic works well on “Soulrocker.” The programmed rhythms and space-age synth lines put a futuristic spin on folk-world beat-flavored “My Lord” and the dance-pop sound of “We Are All Earthlings.” The mix of reggae, hip-hop and electronics on “Once A Day” makes for an especially buoyant track. Perky keyboard tones bring a poppy edge to “Get Myself to Saturday” and the beachy folk of “Summertime Is in Our Hands.”
“I mean, on the last record, it was very much in the same way of combining rhythms that people can dance to with songs and lyrics that have meaning,” Franti said. “So it’s very much a progression, as all of my records have been. I think if you started with record one and you jumped to record nine, you wouldn’t see it. But if you’ve followed along with the journey, it’s a logical progression.”
That journey began with the short-lived industrial/punk/spoken word group, the Beatnigs, followed by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a critically acclaimed, politically charged group that released two albums and opened for U2 on its Zoo TV tour.
Franti retained his political/topical emphasis after going solo in 1994 and forming his band, Spearhead. Early on, many of Franti’s lyrics were serious, and sometimes critical and angry, but the tone of his messages has softened. While he’s still plenty topical on the new album (“Good To Be Alive Today” is a prime example), the emphasis now is more often positive, encouraging people to work together and use the power of love to change their lives and the world around them for the better. “Soulrocker” songs like “We Are All Earthlings,” “Still Standing,” “Summertime Is in Our Hands” and “Love Will Find a Way” all fit the idea that people can change things for the better.
The shift has been intentional, Franti said, and came, first of all, from what he saw on trips over recent years 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.
The term “Soulrocker” is specifically meant to emphasize that idea.
“‘Soulrocker,’ the definition to me is a person who lives from their heart, has compassion for all and has a tenacious enthusiasm for music and life on the planet,” Franti said. “All the music that’s on this record speaks to the things we see happening in the world today, but does it in a way that isn’t just pointing a finger at others, but is encouraging all of us to become difference makers, and at the same time, dance.”
That kind of enriching, communal vibe is what Franti and Spearhead will seek to create with their live shows this summer, including Thursday night at the Cuthbert Amphitheater. And Franti has incorporated specific elements in the concerts to help achieve that goal.
“That’s why I spend a lot of time at our shows getting into the audience,” he said. “So I get my headset mike on and I get my acoustic guitar. I run to the top of the venue. I go all throughout whatever place we’re playing. We set up stages in multiple parts of whatever venue we’re in and get out there and play on them. For me, it’s a really great way to feel like I personally am connected, and it’s also a great way to break down that barrier between the stage and the audience.
“We feel like we’re in this together,” he said. “That’s what’s the most exciting thing for me in music is when a group of thousands of strangers in a venue feel like they’re coming together as one, and that there are shared beliefs in the music and the shared experience of dancing and the shared experience of putting their arm around a friend or having a cry and something is really moving through them through the music, and people go home with a feeling of transformation. That’s really what we try to achieve at our shows.”