For a man who’s been writing socially charged lyrics set to an amalgamation of hip-hop, funk, rock, and reggae for two decades, singer/songwriter Michael Franti is a surprisingly mellow guy. From his initial band The Beatnigs to Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to his current band Spearhead, Franti has been penning tunes that challenge folks to take a clear look at the world and then get involved in making changes for the better.
But on his latest release, All Rebel Rockers, Franti and his band draw heavily on reggae’s feel-good vibe, peppering the album with delightfully danceable numbers. The reason for the shift? “I write all these songs about these serious issues, and I travel, and I’ve played music on the streets of Baghdad and Gaza and Brazil and Indonesia, and there is so much to be heavy about,” Franti told me in a recent phone interview. “But I’ve found in my experience that in those [places], people want to hear happy songs.”
And it is his lightest, happiest song from Rockers, “Say Hey,” that audiences have been embracing around the world, introducing Franti to a whole new crew of fans. After chatting with Franti, it’s not surprising that such a sweet, simple expression could come from the singer. Affable and thoughtful, Franti offered sage observations, related funny stories, and revealed how “Say Hey” was born on a shower door.
Your last album came out about a year ago. How long are you touring before you get back in the studio? Well, we thought we’d be done by now, but our single “Say Hey” is now in the Top 40. Since that’s blowing up, we’re trying to stay out on the road. It’s been a trip. I’ve been making music for 23 years, and we’ve never had a song in the top 40,000. [Laughs.] Yesterday we looked on iTunes on the alternative chart, and it was Kings of Leon first, and then our song was second. We’ve also been getting played on Top 40 stations. We were on an airplane and we heard, “Here’s the new one from Britney; coming up next is Michael Franti & Spearhead.”
Wow, in the same lineup as Britney. I actually went to a Britney concert in New York.
Was it good? It’s the Circus show, so there’s all of these Cirque du Soleil kind of performers. She kind of got lost in the middle of it. I felt like the producers of the show said, “Britney, just keep lip-syncing the song and don’t say anything.” I kept waiting for her to bust out, like, “I know you’ve read a lot of shit in the media about me and I’m here to tell you : dramatic pause : it’s all true. So fuck off, you assholes.” [Laughs.] I was waiting for her to have some attitude, but they kept it really safe. I was a bit disappointed, but it was neat to see who goes to her shows. Really cross-generational, and gay and straight and black and white. I was really surprised by the diversity of her audience.
Why do you think “Say Hey” has become so popular? I think there are so many factors that go into what makes a song popular. And I think that right now it’s a time of great worry -concern about the economy, about health care, climate change, the wars we still have taking place. There is a lot of uncertainty, and people want to hear music that makes them feel good and happy. : It’s ironic because I’ve spent my career in music writing songs about social issues and social change, and the one song that really takes off is a little dance song I wrote in Woody Harrelson’s bathroom.
In his bathroom? I was staying at Woody’s house in L.A., and he said, “I’m gonna be gone, and you can stay here while you write songs for the record.” I was working at a studio in L.A., so it fit. I was in the shower, and I had my little iPod player, and I had put some chords down on it. I played it back in the shower, and I was singing along and writing the words in the steam on the shower. I thought, “This song is really great, I’ve got to remember it.” I was watching as the words were slowly disappearing, so I got a camera and I took a picture and I put it in the computer, but [the image] was inside out. I had to get someone to help me flip it so I could see what I wrote. [Laughs.]
It’s great that “Say Hey” is doing so well, since you’ve been making great music for a long time but generally have been overlooked by the mainstream music world. It’s strange now, because we have this hit song and there are a whole bunch of new people coming to our shows who have never seen our band before. This song is their first taste of it. I feel like a new artist in a way.
Michael Franti & Spearhead, with special guests Cherine Anderson and Murs, kick off New Noise Santa Barbara on Thursday, October 8, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre. For tickets, visit newnoisesb.com.