In his new documentary, Stay Human, San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Michael Franti explores what it means to exist in our challenging world.
The concept for the film - his second directorial effort - developed after visiting his friend Robin Lim in the Philippines, where she had set up a birthing clinic after an especially destructive hurricane had ripped through the area. Franti's intention was to film a short video to let his social media followers know what Lim was doing, but after going there and speaking with her, he realized this project deserved more than just a two-minute Facebook video. It deserved long-form treatment.
So Franti - who has long been considered a socially conscious and politically charged musician - reached out to more activists and people working for positive change who inspire him, and in telling their stories, he realized he also needed to tell part of his own.
Franti, 52, and his band Spearhead are in Winnipeg Monday, Aug. 13 on the Stay Human tour, to support the film but also his upcoming album, Stay Human 2, which Franti says isn't a soundtrack for the film, but rather music that was directly inspired by it.
Franti took some time last week to chat to the Free Press about Stay Human, his new music and why film has the capacity to be an even more intimate form of storytelling than music.
Erin Lebar: One of the lines that came up early in the film really stuck with me. You said "the battle is between cynicism and optimism," as opposed to political or religous or racial divides - could you expand on that idea a bit?
Michael Franti: I'm someone who has battled depression in my life, depression and anxiety, and as I look around the world I see all these problems, and I wake up almost every day feeling overwhelmed by them. More days than not I check the news in the morning and the world is such a shit-show and I think, 'How could this possibly get any better?' And so I find myself already in this mode of defeat. But what I've learned throughout my life of dealing with depression is that if I'm able to change my thoughts, I'm able to change my feelings. And there's really power in that because if everyone in the world feels like the world is just doomed, why would anybody want to make it better? Why would anybody even start to do anything to help anybody else? It would be all for me and none for all, and so I really see that as a starting point for fixing climate change, for fixing the gun violence we see in America, fixing schools, health care, everything we see that is a "problem" out there can be viewed as an opportunity for us to change it.
E.L.: How do you personally maintain your optimism?
M.F.: The first is what I mentioned, changing my thoughts and changing my feelings, but sometimes it's really hard to do that. But when I get out there and I see people who inspire me, that's one thing. When I'm able to practice gratitude, and be saying I'm grateful for getting up today, I'm grateful that I have an amazing wife, I'm grateful we have a roof over our heads... and music is a third one. The same way Anthony Bourdain would bring people together with food, I try to do that same thing with music; bring people together and talk, have a conversation about what's going on in your life. And if all else fails, I use chocolate. That always works. (laughs)
E.L.: How did you come to the decision to include some of the more personal portions of Stay Human?
M.F.: I first made the film with just the people I was interviewing. It was an hour long... and then we sat on it for about 11 months and I watched it again and I thought, 'You know, the thing about it is if you don't understand how these people really affected me, it doesn't ring with as much emotion.' And we had been filming me all along, throughout the whole process, and I just hadn't included it... So me and my friend Anthony, he's from Saskatoon and was working with me at the time, and he said, 'Let's go for three weeks to a cabin in the woods and re-edit this whole movie.' And we did it with that in mind, showing how these people affected me, sharing my personal journey.
And I guess the end result that I want from people watching the film is to feel like this world is not a hopeless place, and that it may feel that way at times, and you may feel completely powerless to do anything about it, but really you're not. You really have the ability to make change in the lives of other people, in the community, and create a ripple cycle around the planet, a giant wave that can move ideas and change ideas in the hearts of people, and that's really what I want people to walk away with. And the second message is a more personal message; none of us are perfect and that's one of the things that unites us... there has to come a point where we have some acceptance, like, we are who we are, warts and all, and that doesn't diminish the power we have to make a difference in the lives of other people and ourselves.
E.L.: What attracts you to the storytelling medium of documentary filmmaking? Do you approach it in the same way as storytelling through song?
M.F.: It's like a different thing when, and I have a lot of actor friends who are actors who say, 'I so envy you, you can write a song and go on stage and sign it and people cheer for you.' For a film, we work with nobody around - I mean there are hundreds of people on set sometimes but nobody claps for you (laughs) - and then you wait two years for the film to come out and 50 people go see it and they walk out and you don't even know what their experience was, you don't get any feedback from it. But I think there's something really magical, some very personal I should say, about sitting in your home watching a film with someone you care about a lot, and then talking about it afterwards in a way you don't after a concert. It's a different thing of like sitting there and having something that really meets your heart and then turning to the person next to you and saying, 'Tell me what you thought about that.' So film, even though it seems impersonal, there's something about it that is actually more personal.
E.L.: So the album that's coming out, Stay Human 2, is that a partner piece to the film?
M.F.: It's not literally a soundtrack to the film, but it's songs that were
inspired during the time that I was making this film.
There's a lot of songs that just speak to the situation that we're living in in the world today where we feel that sense of defeat on a daily basis, so how do we climb out of it? How do we go into something that's positive? Is there someone in our life that helps us do that? Is there something in the world that helps us do that? Is there some spiritual thing from inside us that helps us do that? Like, what is it?
Actually this record is my favourite record. I've been making music now for 30 years, and the reason it's my favourite is because it's the most personal to my own experience, and ironically it was the record I collaborated the most on. For a long time I thought making music, if you really wanted it to be personal, it had to be something you did yourself. Sitting with a guitar and teaching the band the songs and going into the studio and recording it and me being really hands-on with every aspect of the process. But with this record, I collaborated on almost every song on it... it was a real lesson for me in realizing that we all share these same kind of feelings that we have about the world and sometimes if you open up to somebody else, you realize they're going through the exact same thing you are.