Michael Franti Loves West Virginia’s Hills
Getting an artist on the phone often is much harder than actually interviewing one. Usually it takes two or three tries to actually get them on the phone, and then there’s the inevitable spotty cell phone service, which adds an extra layer of tension to an already awkward discussion between two people who know their plumber better than each other.
And of course it was no different with Michael Franti, the political folk, hip-hop, reggae singer/songwriter headlining All Good next weekend. After a five-minute delay, I’m finally on the phone with Franti’s publicist. She’s staying on the phone to help answer any questions I might have and, I suspect, to shut me down if I request his opinion on, say, R. Kelly’s child sex case.
After some reception problems, Franti gives me his cell phone number to call him back on, despite his publicist’s hesitation and urging that we use someone else’s cell. Franti insisted, she relented and I knew then he would be one of the nicer, coolest interviews I’ve done.
Graffiti: So you’re coming to All Good again. How many years is this now?
Franti: I can’t even remember. I think last year was our third time we’ve been there. We love it.
Graffiti: I attended last year and got to juggle a soccer ball with you a little when you went out into the main stage area. You seemed pretty comfortable there, juggling and performing on the main stage and the side-stage acoustic show. Is that something unique to All Good for you? Or do you try to be that personable at most of shows, as it’s available?
Franti: Everywhere I go I always go out and talk before the show, like when people are waiting in line I’ll go out to talk or maybe bring my guitar to play some songs add after every show I’ll go out in the audience.
Graffiti: So what’s going on now with Spearhead? Can you talk to us about your current and future plans?
Franti: We have a new record coming out on Sept. 15. It’s called “All Rebel Rockers” and we recorded it in Jamaica. It’s a combination of funk and dub reggae and rock and acoustic music. Recording in Jamaica is like nowhere else because the studio door is always wide open, so people are coming in off the street just to hear what’s going on in the studio. So you see right away if they like it.
Sometimes a dude you’ve never seen before is sitting in the corner and he’s smoking a spliff and you’ll stop the music and he’ll say, “hey mon, you need a new keyboard part in there,” and you’re like, “oh f*ck, who is this guy, he’s not my producer?” and then later you’re like, “oh, he’s right.” But that’s the thing about Jamaica, the music there, they feel it organically. They know music.
Graffiti: Is this your first album recorded in Jamaica?
Franti: It’s actually the third time or fourth, but it’s the first time we’ve recorded a whole record. Usually it’s just a handful of songs at a time.
Graffiti: What can we expect from this new record?
Franti: I definitely haven’t shied away from my political and social messages on this record but of all the records we’ve made, this is the on that’s most about dance, celebration and finding positivity in this time when the world has so much crisis. So it’s a very uplifting record.
Graffiti: Obviously you’re a pretty political person and that carries over into your music. Is that something consciously done or is it just such a part of you that it seeps out into your music?
Franti: I’ve always written political songs and when I first started my first songs were things in the world. It’s always been a part of what I doubt. At the same time I’m a lover of pop music so I try to write songs that are great songs.
I’ve never been somebody who’s a fan of a genre of music. I’ve always been a fan of great songs. So it could be a great song by Run DMC or Johnny Cash or Rage Against the Machine … it doesn’t matter.
Graffiti: Do you feel artists have a responsibility in matters of injustice and politics and human suffering?
Franti: I think every one in the world has a responsibility to do it. If we are aware of one of our brothers or sisters in the human family (being) in need or suffering … all of us have responsibility to do everything in our power to assist our family member. I think that musicians have a unique position and other artists because we can sometimes say things that a politician who is on this never ending campaign (laughs) can’t say.
Also, through music you can be ironic, you can be playful and you can say things in ways other people can’t. But I don’t feel like anybody on this Earth is without responsibility to speak up and to also be constantly in search of the truth.
Graffiti: Can you talk to me a little about your movie, “I Know I’m Not Alone?” How has the response to the movie gone? Do you feel like you were able to really raise some awareness with that?
Franti: The film continues to grow and grow and grow. We put the film out and I did a tour with it but since that time the attitude about the war has changed so much. It’s still the thing people go to our Web site for more than anything else. And as I travel around the world they talk to me about that more than anything else. They want to know how Iraq was and if I’m going back.
Graffiti: Did it do what you set out to accomplish or has it grown beyond that?
Franti: I think why it resonates is I didn’t interview any politicians or talking heads I just interviewed people on the ground — not about their political beliefs, but what it’s like to live where you have no electricity or you can’t drink water … basic quality of life things. That’s why it’s resonated … they see themselves … they knwo that could be me there.
… I have to be going to sound check now.
Graffiti: OK, great. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Is there anything else you’d like to add real quick?
Franti: I love the All Food Festival. As a band, we look forward to it every year. The mountains are so amazing and to drive in is incredible. To be out on the hillside you really feel like you’re in nature. You never know whether you’re going to get sunshine or rain but we don’t care.
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