Songwriter Interviews

Michael Franti

by Greg Prato

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Yoga is the Sanskrit word for Union, often interpreted as "Union with God." It's about getting closer to your creator as much as it is about loosening your hamstrings.

For Michael Franti, it dovetails with his music, which deals with spirituality and personal expression. Incorporating the practice into his Soulshine tour makes sense, as his music is best enjoyed in the moment, with both heart and mind receptive to the sounds.

Franti came up through two short-lived bands that merged industrial and hip-hop with thought-provoking, politically-minded lyrics: the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (both of which saw Franti collaborate with multi-instrumentalist Rono Tse). Both acts playing shows with a variety of renowned bands (the former with Fugazi, the latter with U2), but neither succeeded in introducing Franti to the masses. That changed when Franti formed Spearhead in 1994 and scored with the 2009 hit single, "Say Hey (I Love You)."

In this chat with Franti, the singer/guitarist discusses the benefits of yoga (both in his personal and musical life), the art of expression, and the stories behind some of his biggest songs.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about the Soulshine tour. What can we expect from it?

Michael Franti: Well, it's the first tour that we know of that combines music as well as yoga. I've been practicing yoga for the past 13 years. I started on tour going to different yoga studios in every town and I would get to know teachers over the years. We would invite them to come and practice backstage before the shows, so this sort of grew, and then last year when we played at Red Rocks we decided to do an acoustic concert before our show and invited people to come practice yoga with a teacher who was teaching there.

We thought we'd get maybe a couple hundred people to show up, but we had 2,000 people show up with their yoga mats. So we decided to do this concept everywhere we go.

It's pretty much a normal rock & roll tour. You don't have to be a yogi to come, but if you've ever wanted to try it, it's a great place to give it a shot. So the beginning of every show in the afternoon there'll be a mass yoga class with myself and some of the other musicians from the tour playing acoustically in the afternoon. Then it will turn into a proper rock & roll concert in the night.

If people just want to come and listen to the music and hang out and listen to cool acoustic vibes, they're welcome to do that, too.

Songfacts: Would you say that there's any correlation between yoga and music? Does yoga ever help influence your songwriting?

Yoga has been around for perhaps 5000 years, but it was The Beatles who brought it to the forefront of rock when they retreated to India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. George Harrison made it a lifelong spiritual pursuit (something he alludes to in "My Sweet Lord"), while Carlos Santana, Sting, Leonard Cohen, Russell Simmons and Roger Hodgson have all gone down a divine path that incorporates the practice. Much of it has to do with coping with the demands that come with being a rock star - shutting out the noise so you can hear your own heartbeat. It's also a handy tool for harnessing the unruly creative energy within so many of these songwriters. Dave Wakeling of The English Beat told us that he uses yoga to "quiet my jackhammer mind."
Michael: Well, what yoga does for me is it brings me into a place of being centered. So whatever I'm working on, whether it's songwriting or film editing or business or just hanging out with my kids, whatever it is, I feel more in the moment. I'm not so concerned about what's going to happen in the future, I'm not worried about what's happening in the past, and it brings me into the moment.

That's really what I started practicing, because being on tour gets very stressful at times - getting in and out of airports and buses and getting to shows and promo on time. Your body gets worn out, and yoga's been my way to get my body and my mind and my heart focused.

Songfacts: When did you start practicing yoga?

Michael: Started the day after 9/11. I started September 12th, 2001. A friend of mine offered to teach a class. It was a very stressful time for everyone in the country, and I was like, "Hey, I'm down for some de-stressing right now." So I went there.

But what I didn't realize was how physically demanding yoga is. I always thought it was just sitting with your legs crossed and humming, and I didn't realize it was this really physical exercise form. It helped me, because I came from playing sports in high school and college. I played basketball, and I've always been a hiker, rock climber, all those things. So to do something that was physical, but that was really helping my body to be more limber and to be more strong, it really made a lot of sense to me. So after that first class I just stayed with it.

Songfacts: As far as songwriting, how would you say that you write your best songs? Is it that you would sit down at the guitar and just play something, or is it maybe lyrics that come up first or the music?

Michael: Right now I'm actually sitting in front of my laptop and I'm recording vocals for a new song. In the past I'd always done songwriting through just sitting down and making a beat on a drum machine and humming some melodies and recording them. But it's only been really in the last couple of years when I'll just sit down with the guitar alone and write the whole song before I ever try to make any production around it.

Most of the time when I'm recording the other way - when I'm making a beat first - those demos become what is on the record. When I'm writing with a guitar, I'll sit down and I'll write a song all the way through with the guitar, all the words and all the melodies. Then I think to myself, "Oh, what do I want this to sound like? What's going to be the most accurate expression of the emotion that takes place in the song?" So it's been a challenging way for me lately to work frontwards and then work backwards.

And I've also been collaborating recently with other songwriters, which is something that I always thought would make my songs be less personal and less coming from me directly. But what I've found is the opposite, that it helps me to get unstuck.

I think that's the hardest part for any songwriter: you get this great idea and then you reach a point where you're like, "Oh, man, I don't even know where to take it from here. It was a good start, but I'll just let it lie."

I'm sure every songwriter has a box somewhere either in their mind or in their laptop or an actual box filled with songs that are great starts that aren't finished. And when I work with other songwriters, it's enabled me to move past those places where I get stuck. Where I'm stuck, it inspires the next person's idea, and then we go back and forth. I'm always going back to that initial emotion when I'm writing with somebody and saying, "That's really great, but it doesn't come back to that initial emotion that I was feeling when I decided to write this song."

It's been a journey. I'm here at this venue in Holland and looked up on the wall and there's a poster from my first band, the Beatnigs. We played here back in the day with Fugazi when I was writing punk rock. And then there was another of my second band, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which was this mix of industrial music and Hip-Hop with very political lyrics. And then another poster with Spearhead, which is combining melody and chords and emotions beyond just angry politics. It was kind of cool. I took a picture of each of the three bands that I'd been in and played at this venue. I was just sort of recalling where I've grown as a songwriter.

Songfacts: Who are some of the songwriters that you're currently working with?

Michael: Well, Sam Hollander's one that I really dig. He's somebody who's come through a lot of African music. He was part of the whole Antibalas scene in New York and African pop music. Lately he's been writing songs with everyone from really super pop artists - like girl bands from the UK - all the way to people like myself or Brett Dennen or this great Italian artist, Joe Venoti, who he's working with at the moment.

He's one of those people who believes that the song is only as good as it is when you're playing it just with the acoustic guitar, and it doesn't matter if it's a song for a pop diva or somebody who's like me, who writes from a more social and more personal place.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Say Hey (I Love You)."

Michael: "Say Hey, (I Love You)" I wrote as the very last song to the album All Rebel Rockers. It was a very political and very intense album, and I thought, "I just need a song that's simple and fun and easy to sing. Something to lighten up this record."

I wrote it in Woody Harrelson's bathroom. I wrote it on the steam in the glass in his shower. When I was done, I jumped out and the words were evaporating off the glass, so I quickly took a picture of it with my iPhone. Woody called me and he said, "How's the songwriting going?" And I said, "I think it's going great. I think I might have written a hit song in your bathroom." And Woody said, "Is it a Number 1 or a Number 2?" [Laughing]

Songfacts: What about the song "I'm Alive"?

Michael: I've had a number of experiences over the last couple of years where I've lost people that were close to me, and I've had my appendix rupture on tour. This is the song that was really just an expression of gratitude for being alive and wanting to live every minute to the fullest. I guess I wanted to get the sound of what it means to be alive rather than the ideas of what it means to be alive. That's why right before the chorus it sounds like, "Whooaaa," and then just turns into a melody after that.

Songfacts: And lastly, what about the song "The Sound of Sunshine"?

Michael: "Sound of Sunshine" was one that I actually wrote in the hospital after my appendix ruptured. Every day I'd go to the window to see if the sun was shining, and if it was, I'd lean in the window. I thought to myself, "If I could bottle this feeling of how good the sun feels when you're trying to heal your body, it would be amazing." So I thought, "Why not try to put it into a song so that I could share that experience with other people?"

May 23, 2014. For more Michael, visit
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