“When Willy Wonka goes from being the biggest [jerk] to being the most beautiful, loving person … it just gets me choked up,” Franti says during a recent phone conversation from his San Francisco home.
“I love that about people’s life journeys,” he adds in his pleasant voice. “Somebody like Nelson Mandela is in prison for 28 years and comes out and says, ‘We want to build a nation that’s inclusive of all people.’ Those are the types of changes in life that get me inspired and excited to make music.”
Franti, who released a new CD, The Sound of Sunshine, in September, had a life-changing experience of his own in 2009, when he nearly died from a ruptured appendix. It took doctors a week to figure out what was wrong. While he was in the hospital, he had time to reflect on what was important; the love of family and friends naturally topped the list.
As he sings in “I’ll be Waiting”: “The best things in life aren’t things / they’re living and breathing. The best things in life aren’t things / they’re something you can believe in.” He also found a new appreciation for simple pleasures, like strumming his guitar or feeling the warmth of the sun. As he recovered post-surgery, he’d go to the window each day and open the curtains to see if the sun was shining.
“I’d get this different feeling, like, ‘Wow, the sun is coming down, and it’s giving me this sense of hope and optimism that today is gonna be a really positive day,’” he says. “So we tried to capture that feeling musically.”
TV viewers who don’t TiVo past the commercials are already well-acquainted with the album’s title track from its use in an often-aired beer ad. But the tune, which embodies the joy of embracing life, is so infectious, it’s darned near impossible to get sick of.
The hit version isn’t the first one he wrote, however; in fact, the earliest edition of the song is the album’s final cut, “The Sound of Sunshine Going Down,” a slower, less jaunty — but very pretty — take.
“It was written at the time of seeing the sun going down and that sensation that you have, like, ‘Wow, the day’s over. Whatever BS happened today, it’s gonna drop in the water with the sun,’” Franti says.
That attitude — the idea that negativity can be erased by a setting sun and hope is reborn with each new day — is part of what makes Franti and his band Spearhead’s music so refreshing. Sure, he espouses the positive vibrations of hero Bob Marley, but he does it in a way that’s uplifting without being cloying. He also weaves in some sweet love songs — songs that also have an incredibly groovy beat, like the reggae-fied “Shake It,” with lines like, “You’re perfect just the way you are,” and “It’s not the way that you look, it’s the way that you shook.”
That appealing mix of romantic and inspiring, life-affirming tunes has an energizing, mood-elevating effect that almost works better than antidepressants. Even when he criticizes, as in the opening lines of “Anytime You Need Me,” it’s merely the set-up to a more positive sentiment, in this case, the importance of being a loving, supportive friend.
But Franti’s version of support goes far beyond his inner circle. Ten years ago, he noticed people in many parts of the world are so impoverished, they can’t afford shoes. After giving up his own for three days to find out what it was like, he kept up the practice. Now, he wears flip-flops when he has to; otherwise, he’s barefoot. In August, he joined forces with Soles4Souls, a charity that donates shoes to needy people worldwide. He hopes to collect 100,000 pairs via donations or sponsorships, both in cities designated for his “Barefoot Concert Series,” and through social media outlets.
Asked how he maintains his outlook in the face of the suffering he’s seen, Franti said it’s a conscious effort.
“In a lot of countries … people have things a lot worse than we do,” he explains, interrupted occasionally by a slight cough. “And every time I’d go and play somewhere like that on the street, I’d play these serious songs about the problems of the world, and people would always look at me and go, ‘That’s really cool, we get it, but play something that makes us laugh and dance.’” When he heard that during his 2004 trip to Iraq, he says, “It really changed the way I started to write songs. The goal of my work changed from wanting to just make music that raised social consciousness to making music that made people happy and inspired [them] in dark times.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, his profile began to rise, too. In 2008, he released his most successful album, All Rebel Rockers, fueled by the top 40 hit, “Say Hey (I Love You).”
Ironically, every now and then a fan recalling Franti’s earlier work in the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy or his University of San Francisco punk band, the Beatnigs, will drop him a Facebook note to complain he’d rather hear angry songs.
“I don’t quite know how to respond,” Franti says with a laugh. “Sorry to make you pretty [fucking] happy?” Franti, who held his 12th annual Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco on Sept. 11, has two boys, aged 23 and 11. Franti tried to talk his older son into joining him on the road as a crew member; his younger son, meanwhile, was about to get an afternoon off from school for some father son time.
“Maybe three or four times a year, I’ll just say, ‘Let’s just go have a day off from school, or half a day off from school,’” Franti says, “And then I just ask him, ‘Well, what do you wanna do?’ He really likes the Asian art museum, so we go there quite a bit.”
His son is aware not all dads give their kids that kind of quality time.
“I’m gone a lot, so he really appreciates it when I’m home,” Franti says.
“He definitely gets it, he definitely appreciates it, because when I’m gone, we’re doing it by Skype or by phone, and it’s just not the same.”
Then Franti added, in a rather excited voice, “Oh, this week he also got his first cell phone. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, God, do I really want to get him a phone at this age?’ But It’s been great … just being able to communicate directly to him. I’m always trying to find ways on the road to stay in better contact with both my kids.”
Franti works equally hard to stay in touch with his audiences. He said playing for handful of people on the street is as satisfying as playing for 80,000.
“It’s all about the intensity of the connection,” he says. “Ultimately, the goal is for me to make people happy.”
On the Bill:
Michael Franti & Spearhead
play the 1stBank Center on Saturday, Nov. 27. Show starts at 8 p.m. The Motet opens. Tickets start at $37.50. 11450 Broomfield Lane, Broomfield, 303-410-0700.