A little over a year ago, Michael Franti was celebrating a peak moment in his career when the infectious single “Say Hey (I Love You)” became the highest charting track in his two decades as a musician – Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead. Unfortunately, at that same moment he was also suffering a physical low, being wheeled into surgery for an emergency appendectomy.
With that life-threatening situation over, he returned to working on new material that mimicked his need to accentuate the positive and his joyful, life-affirming concerts. The result is “The Sound of Sunshine,” an album that advances the reggae presence on 2008’s “All Rebel Rockers” and creates a warm musical experience that brightens any day of the week. The eminently catchy title track remains stuck in my head for days after I hear it.
I catch Franti shortly before his 12th annual Power to the Peaceful Festival and discuss during the brief allotted timeframe a host of subjects ranging from his illness to the recent changes in his career – musically and lyrically – and how it feel to be following up a hit record.
JPG: I was thinking about the idea of transition and how it applies to your life and your music… For example, working with Sly and Robbie on the last album and this one gave the songs a much stronger reggae presence. Do you think that with reggae you found a stronger voice for your music or would you say this is more of a temporary thing?
MF: Well, I think both. I really love reggae. There’s a lot of openness in the music, and it’s also music that’s played with live instruments that really makes people dance. And so, we like that part of it, too. But at the same time, every time I’m working with Sly and Robbie, they’re always just encouraging me to be me and not try to make it have a particular sound. We just say, ‘Let’s try to make it be what’s right for that particular song.’ So, some of the songs on this record have a lot more loud guitars than we’ve ever done before, some that are just really one drop reggae, like “The Only Thing Missing Was You,” which, ironically, we didn’t record with Sly & Robbie. (laughs) I’m always searching for what makes the song sound the best and I always write everything on the acoustic guitar first and then just build up around it.
JPG: As far as the lyrics, I see a transition as well. Previously, they were overtly political, while on this new one they are more upbeat, Anthony Robbins positivity.
MF: I want to be… I’ve never heard anything Robbins sings, (slight laugh) so I don’t know, but I want to be making music to help people get through hard times. And I made a lot of angry music in my lifetime, that was like F’ the system because it’s not responding to our needs. The result of it was that the system didn’t change. The same people who were angry before were angry before and I don’t want to live my life being an angry person. I want to live my life being someone who tries to find a way through the darkness into the light, and everywhere I travel in the world and meet people who are way worse off than anybody in our country, they’re the first people to say, ‘Play something that’s going to make us dance.’ And that’s what I want to do today, inspire people to get through difficult times.
JPG: Where did you find that in yourself to make that decision because right now I’m a stressed out mess with what’s going on in this country and the world and misinformation becoming fact…how do you stay positive?
MF: The first thing is that I practice positivity. It’s like anything, if you want to get good at shooting free throws, you have to find a method to do it and then you have to practice that method. And so, for me I practice yoga, the thing that has really helped me in my life, the foundation where every day I know if I get on my mat and practice for an hour, at the end of it I’m going to feel better than when I started and have a brighter outlook.
The other thing is that I do get frustrated. I mean, people hear my music and they think, ‘Wow, this is a really positive person,’ but there are times when I get really pissed off or really sad and I cry or I surround myself with people I care about and I just vent for 10 minutes about what I’m feeling. There has to be a way that we all blow off our steam and, at the same time, I don’t feel it’s enough to just say, ‘All the world sucks.’ It’s our opportunity then to do something to make things better. That’s what our [Power to the Peaceful Festival] in San Francisco is dedicated to. We bring together 100 different social justice organizations. We bring 50,000 people together in a park and say, ‘Volunteer. Get plugged in. Here’s a way you can give back.’ So, that’s my way of doing it.
JPG: Since you brought up the festival, is it purposely set for the weekend that includes 9/11 or just a matter of when you can get everything scheduled?
MF: It was the way that the festival was started in 1999. We put on a day of art and action that was actually 150 different artists around the world that did this day of art and action for a man named Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death row prisoner. We wanted to say that his case is an emergency. We selected the number 911, an emergency number, and we put on this event on September 11. Some people did art shows. Some people did poetry readings, and it was in 20 different countries and we did a concert. Then, we did it again in 2000. And then in 2001, of course, the attacks of September 11 occurred. So, the festival took on a new meaning for people. We said we want to make the festival be a day where we remember September 11 by volunteering. That’s what we try to get people involved in volunteering. That’s how we give back.
JPG: My wife is a yoga instructor and teacher trainer and I’ve noticed you have a number of yoga sessions taking place.
MF: I’s interesting that a lot of festivals around the country have been involving yoga in the last two or three years. I think it’s a really great part of the festival community because people are waking up and going to do a full day of dancing and partying and it’s really refreshing to see a new kind of healthy aspect being brought into the festival community.
JPG: I remember when you participated in the yoga session at ROTHBURY, and playing “Say Hey” during savasana (cool down). Anyway, back to the new album, I read about your hospital stay because of your appendix and…on a side note, did it really take them that long to figure out that you had an appendix problem?
MF: Yeah, my appendix was in a different place than it is on most people’s bodies. Most people, it would be right about at your belt line but for some reason my appendix was up behind my colon about six inches, like about where my belly button is, just to the right of my belly button. So, they kept thinking that it was my gallbladder. And I’d been to several doctors. I felt it pop in a yoga class, actually. I’d been having pain there for about six weeks and they thought, ‘You’re going to need a sonogram to see if you have any gallstones.’ And they checked out that there were no gallstones. They checked if I had a hernia. And every day I was on tour. So, every day I was having to go to a new doctor. Finally, my belly got so distended and swollen and I couldn’t even stand up anymore. And they gave me a ct scan and that’s when they realized…it was actually the same doctor who’d given me a sonogram five days earlier. I was back in LA and he gave me a ct scan and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m missed it.’
hen I was sick, I was in Europe touring, leading up to this, and every time I would feel the pain in my abdomen, I would just stretch and the pain would go away. I’d get onstage and I would do the show and I’d come off and I’d feel the pain again and just be like, ‘Maybe I ate something bad or I’m having some kind of parasite thing or something.’ And all the while it was my appendix.