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Taken from The Montreal Gazette (November 6, 2010)

Crossing over, in bare feet

Michael Franti says hispop success will help him make a difference

by T'CHA DUNLEVY, The Gazette

Michael Franti
Singer-songwriter Michael Franti is active in anti-poverty
organizations, and long ago stopped wearing shoes
to show solidarity with those who don’t have them.
Photograph by: EMI Music Canada

I got worried when my interview with Michael Franti was postponed a week ago due to reported health problems.

Having read through the press material for the San Francisco singer-songwriter and his band Spearhead's new album, The Sound of Sunshine, I knew it was inspired by time he spent in the hospital having his appendix removed. Had his situation gone from bad to worse?

All was well when the socially conscious reggae/hip-hop/ soul-man called a few days later, from a tour stop in Northampton, Mass.

"I had some kidney stones last week," he said. "I was in the hospital for two days, and went through two or three different procedures. They crushed the stones. I feel better."

That's good news for fans of the lovable six-foot-plus troubadour waiting to be injected with another dose of his effusive good vibes. Franti's music has been getting steadily brighter, peppier and poppier over his 20-year career.

The Sound of Sunshine may be his giddiest album yet, despite -or perhaps because of -the fact that it came from a time of personal peril. Seeing his life pass before his eyes brought out the best in him, Franti reports:

"About a year ago, my appendix ruptured. It was quite an ordeal. It took about seven days for them to figure out what exactly was going on with me. At that point my whole body had become septic. I was really sick.

"When I recovered from surgery, I was grateful to be alive. I felt so happy. I wrote a lot of songs about my gratitude for the simple things in life - friends, family. One day I was in the hospital eating an orange and I was like, 'Oh my god, an orange.' The whole album was about appreciating the things we overlook."

Acoustic guitar in hand, Franti strums his way through a variety of feel-good vibes on The Sound of Sunshine. He reminds people to "live for the one that you love" and "(not to) let another moment slip away" on the song Hey Hey Hey; and that "the best things in life aren't things / they're living and breathing," on the U2-flavoured I'll Be Waiting.

The album is but another step on the path to crossover stardom for the performer, whose earlier material carries more cutting political commentary and musical edge.

Franti broke through to the mainstream with his 2008 hit Say Hey (I Love You). Proof: two days before our original interview time, my mom posted the song's video on Facebook. It is also a favourite of my sister-in-law and 2-year-old niece.

But while admitting that his tunes used to have more bite, Franti is unapologetic about his increasingly accessible esthetic.

"I want to be somebody who makes a difference," he said, "not just in songs but in the world. In order to do that, I want to reach not just a handful of people who pump their first in the air, but hundreds of thousands of people who open their hearts.

"A few years ago, I went to Iraq and met people on the streets. I've been to Israel, Palestine/ Gaza, the favelas of Brazil, Indonesia, East Timor. For me, it's important to go to the places I sing about and find ways I can activate myself."

He brings up Soles4Souls, a charity he supports that provides shoes for people in need around the world. Franti is hoping to raise $100,000 for the organization on his current tour. (He is also an ambassador for anti-poverty group CARE.)

His footwear drive is ironic considering that Franti has long sworn off shoes in his day-to-day existence. What began as a show of solidarity for people he met in impoverished places has become a way of life.

"I started playing barefoot in countries where people didn't have shoes," he said. "I took off my shoes and they'd laugh; I couldn't take three steps. At the end of one trip, I decided to go three days barefoot. Now it's been 10 years. When it's snowing, I put flip-flops on. The only time I wear shoes is at the airport and in the winter when I run. In the summer I run barefoot."

Franti had just come from a jog through the forest in Northampton. "When you're barefoot, you have to be careful with each step," he said. "You're more aware. In some ways, it's a metaphor for life. When I'm running, I don't step on little trees -not because I'm a tree lover, but because it hurts. You learn to walk more gently."


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