Music: Michael Franti and Spearhead

Sep 22, 2010 1:14 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Offhand, Michael Franti and Spearhead would not seem to be likely candidates to land songs in the Top 20 and become a popular headliner. After all, the tall, biracial, dreadlocked, tattooed, perennially barefoot Franti has been dancing (literally) around the periphery of what we might call “popular” music since the mid-’80s. He’s produced an impressively eclectic body of work that fuses hip-hop, funk, folk, reggae, ska, rock, soul and other styles, and he’s never shied away from the strong political convictions and social consciousness that drives much of his work. With pointed lyrics addressing the death penalty, police brutality, poverty, AIDS, corrupt government and other hot-button issues, Franti could easily have been dismissed as merely an activist firebrand by now—were it not for the fact that he also writes beautiful love songs, radiates optimism and goodwill onstage and off, and has come up with some of the catchiest tunes you’ll hear on the radio. As this article is being written in late August, the irresistible title track of Franti and Spearhead’s new album, The Sound of Sunshine (released September 21), is the Number One song on Triple-A radio and seems likely to follow last year’s smash hit, “Say Hey (I Love You)” onto the pop singles chart.

The Top 20 success of “Say Hey” caught everyone, including Franti, by surprise. “It was a year after the record had been released,” he says over lunch in San Francisco (where he lives). “‘Say Hey’ had already had its run at Triple-A radio and gone away, but then some Top 40 stations started playing it the next summer—one in Salt Lake, another in Green Bay, one in Florida. Then the focus groups got a hold of it and liked it, so all these other stations picked it up. Next thing you know, it’s everywhere and it’s a hit. It was wild!

“The week it went crazy, my appendix ruptured and I went into the hospital,” he continues. “I almost died. But I said to the doctor, ‘You better help me survive this because I want to hear my song on the radio!’” Franti survived, of course, and got his wish when he heard ‘Say Hey’ on the radio in the car the day he was released from the hospital. The song became inescapable; a summer later it still is—it’s appeared in a film, a videogame and now it’s the soundtrack for a ubiquitous Corona Light (beer) commercial.

Franti says that his brush with mortality informed the songwriting for The Sound of Sunshine, which is easily his most buoyant and affirmative disc to date. “I know there are a lot of people hurting out there right now,” he says, “and if our music can bring them some peace and some sunshine…” He lets out a little self-conscious laugh, as if he doesn’t want to sound like he’s just promoting the album. The songs are still dotted with socially aware sentiments, and in his offstage life, Franti is as involved with good deeds as ever, such as his annual free Power to the Peaceful festival in San Francisco, which challenges the thousands who attend to better the world and their communities, and his involvement with Sole4Souls, who distribute free footwear to the needy around the world. But he is conscious not to sound heavy-handed or didactic, and these days he wants people to sing along and shake their bones, as well as think.

Through the years, Franti has recorded in many different studios, some in his native Northern California, but also in Philadelphia (early work with hitmaker Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo at Studio 4) and Jamaica; the excellent 2008 All Rebel Rockers album, which contained “Say Hey,” was mostly cut at Anchor Studios in Jamaica with reggae legends Sly and Robbie co-producing. One song from Anchor featuring Jamaican musicians appears on The Sound of Sunshine: the bouncy dancehall number “Shake It,” featuring Lady Saw. But the rest of the album—a wonderful blend of breezy and anthemic rockers, heartfelt ballads and Caribbean-influenced numbers—has a more unusual provenance. It was largely recorded in backstage dressing rooms and hotel rooms during Spearhead’s 2010 winter and spring tour supporting John Mayer in basketball and hockey arenas, and in Franti’s small bedroom at home in San Francisco. (A couple of tunes were begun in his remote villa/yoga retreat in Bali, too.)

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