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Michael Franti’s Musical Collage

In Music
‘I look at music like paint,’ says Michael Franti, leader of the world pop band, Spearhead.

‘I look at music like paint,’ says Michael Franti, leader of the world pop band, Spearhead.

Whenever possible, Michael Franti is barefoot—even when he’s with the Dalai Lama. During their recent laugh-filled chat, Franti held hands with His Holiness as the cheeky, gentle spiritual leader poked fun at Franti’s dreadlocks and tribal tattoos before speaking on the importance of sympathetic action.

“You have to take your compassion and bring it out into the world, and do acts of compassion,” Franti says, recalling the lesson. “Try to relieve suffering wherever you can, and whenever you can. That’s when we become whole as human beings.”

Franti’s genreless, world pop is a cross between the feel-good vibes of Jack Johnson and the irresistible beats of the Black Eyed Peas. He radiates with sincere desire to see a better world, using catharsis as his tool.

“I think in order to get to happiness, you have to shed whatever is holding you back from that,” Franti says. “You have to give voice to your sadness, your fears, your uncertainties. And then when you let go of those things, you have this space to become happy again.”

Franti is the Irish-German-French-African-and-Native-American adopted son of a Finnish family from the Bay Area, the place he credits for broadening his world view.

“San Francisco is kind of like the land of misfit toys,” he says. “Different cultures, political perspectives, sexualities, races and religions all live in this tiny little peninsula that can’t grow out. You have to live side-by-side with people.”

After college at USF, Franti formed two groups: punk jazz poets The Beatnigs, and industrial spoken-word rappers The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Eventually, he landed at the front of Spearhead, a collective that treats the world’s musical idioms like raw materials for a sonic collage.

“I look at music like paint,” Franti says. “You have all these different colors and you can throw in bits of torn-up magazines, combine it with sticks and wood and things that you found, and computerize all of this. I just love great storytelling to a beat.”

Franti’s main guide in music-making is his family. He was 20 when his first child was born. It was “scariest and greatest thing to ever happen to me,” he says. He overcame his initial anxieties, and embraces the responsibility of being a father.

“When I’m gone, five or six months out of the year, touring, I want them to be able to say I wasn’t just out writing songs dissing other artists, [about] shooting people, or how much money I’ve collected,” he says. “I want them to think that dad was writing about things that meant something to him, and meant something to the world. They’ve been that compass for me.”

One of his biggest songs, “Say Hey (I Love You),” which was featured on the 2010 World Cup playlist, is an exuberant world anthem stuffed with jaunty piano bursts, glowing verses about street life, and a joyous hook in praise of his fiancee, an emergency room nurse. Its contagious optimism transcends language.

“That’s really why I like John Lennon and Bob Marley so much,” he says. “They were able to write a song about how much they loved their woman, their children, and put it right next to a song about how deeply concerned they are about the world. When you’re able to move freely through those, it makes the songs really more universal.”

At a recent show, Franti recalls a parking lot dance party with about 50 fans where they grooved to everything from Johnny Cash to Calvin Harris to Public Enemy.

“When people are really celebrating and letting go, the genre doesn’t matter so much as the feeling in the music,” he says. “I hear it when I hear celtic music, I hear it when I hear hip-hop, when I hear reggae, when I hear Afro-pop, in folk music, in jazz, I hear it everywhere. All the roots music from around the world.”

During one international tour 15 years ago, Franti took off his shoes to kick a soccer ball with some barefoot children. His feet were so tender afterwards he could barely walk. When he returned to San Francisco, he decided to go on a “shoe fast.” His initial plan was that it would only last a few days. He’s yet to break it, save for popping on flip-flops in restaurants and airports.

“In part, it’s solidarity with people who can’t afford shoes,” he says. “Part [because] I just like to be barefoot. It feels great. The last thing is: I just have really big feet, so it’s hard to find cool shoes. I just go with the coolest style of all.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead play The Mountain Winery on Aug. 18. More info.

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