Q&A with Michael Franti

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September 14, 2009 // UPDATED 4:32 pm - September 22, 2009
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Michael Franti & Spearhead are performing at the Northrop on Saturday. While Franti is known for his social activism, his latest hit — the song “Say Hey” — has nothing to do with fighting social ills. It’s a sweet tune about one of life’s most simple and rewarding pleasures. Franti recently spoke with the Downtown Journal about the song and his take on the power of music.

 DTJ: Why do you think your song ‘Say Hey’ has become such a hit?

Franti: It’s ironic because my whole 23 years in music I’ve made music about social issues, and at the end of making this last record I said, ‘I really want to make a song that’s just about being happy and connecting to somebody that you love.’

I wrote this song in Woody Harrelson’s bathroom. … I put some chords on my little iPod player and I sang it in the shower and I wrote it on the steam of the window. I took a picture of it so it wouldn’t evaporate. …

Woody calls me that day. I’m sitting on his toilet. He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m like man, I think just wrote a hit song in your bathroom.’ …

How do songs come to you?

They always come in different ways. I wish I had one method that worked every time and I could just take a sip from that bottle every time I wanted to write a song. Sometimes it comes from the chords first; sometimes it comes from the melody; sometimes it might be just a phrase that I think of — and sometimes I hear someone say something in a unique way, and it might trigger something in my head. … These days mainly it comes from sitting with the guitar and fumbling around until I find something interesting. It’s more about the mood than creating a quiet space that I can write in.

Are you shifting gears to a new tone in your music?

Even in my politically written songs, I’ve always tried to make them be told through stories and not just war is bad. … It’s about the emotion; it’s about the feel of the music. When you write a song it’s like a soundtrack to a film. … You create this aural landscape around you that supports what it is you’re emoting in the melody.

How is music a unifier these days?

The power of music is to find that common denominator between people. Last night after the show this guy came up to me and he was screaming and angry. I said, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ He’s like 'f*** you.' He said, 'You know what’s wrong — it’s health care.' I didn’t know what side he was on — Obama or the right wing. I just said it’s important to express anger, and it’s just as important to know where and when it is appropriate to express it. His face kind of dropped and I gave him a hug. Then he smiled and said, ‘yeah, you’re right dude.’

How does yoga influence your music?

When I first started practicing it was 2001 — the fall right after Sept. 11. It was just a way of trying to learn to deal with stress — very quickly it became a way of life for me. It informs everything I do. The sutras and philosophy of yoga, and practice of nonviolence and non-judgement toward myself and others, those are big cornerstones of my life and things I’ve really had to work a lot on.

The physical practice really helps me on tour. I get off the bus — I’ve been in the bus for 12 hours maybe didn’t sleep very well — then I go to a class pretty much everyday. Then I feel completely different when I get out. I used to have a lot of pain on the road — physical pain, back pain, shoulder pain — when you play guitar it’s very awkward. All that has pretty much gone away.

Does yoga help the creative process?

Yeah — definitely. When you go into a yoga class, we usually sit for a little while. I call it dropping in — just forgetting whatever else happened in the day or what’s coming next. Just trying to get into the moment. When I’m writing, it’s important to be able to do that. Being busy on the road, or even being at home and juggling family life and my work, it’s important to be able to find concentration instantly.

Who are you influenced or inspired by these days?

Every time I’m on tour with another band, I get inspired. We were on the road with the Counting Crows and Augustana for a long part of the summer. It’s really inspiring to see the way the two bands approach what they do in a completely different way. When you’re on tour for a while, you develop a routine of how you sound check, how you write songs, how you approach writing a set list. And then you see another band who has taken 15 or 20 years to develop [their routine], and you go 'wow, that’s a different approach.' We did this tour where we were all three bands performing, so it was neat to be on stage with them and see how they do it.

Another thing is films — I’m a film freak. I get almost every film that comes out, except for horror movies. I even go to kids’ 3-D animation movies. I get a lot of inspiration from films and especially the looks in films — the way a film feels. The two that have been most inspiring to me recently have been “District 9” and a couple of days ago I saw “Nine.”

What do you mean by ‘Stay Human’?

It is really difficult to be in this world where we’re constantly judged by our ability to earn and to spend, and not by the content of our character. So it means to hold on to that human dignity, passion and love and not just become a machine.