Having just caught his breath after undertaking the Soulshine Tour this summer, Spearhead front man Michael Franti is now ramping up to do his first-ever acoustic run in November. But, from Vancouver in the north to Solana Beach in the south, only the west coast gets this little bit of Franti love. The tour accounts for 16 dates of about 120 Franti will have performed this year — a relatively light year, if you ask him. Tack on another 40 and you have his average. Such is life for a guy loves playing music.
You normally play with a band, so what’s the artistic challenge for you in playing acoustically?
One of the challenges is my memory! [Laughs] I put my first record out in 1987, and we put the first Spearhead record out in 1994, so it’s been 20 years. I’ve gone back to find old songs that we haven’t done in a long time and I’m relearning them. In those older songs, there’s a lot of work because I would rap and sing. Frankly, I can’t play the guitar and jam at the same time, so I’m really woodshedding right now.
But I love playing acoustically because it puts the emphasis on the words and the storytelling aspect of it. When I do my acoustic shows, in between songs, I tell stories about my life and my place in the world. I tell tons of jokes and keep it really funny. So, it’s a fun challenge for me.
Back in the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes, if you’d known that you would eventually evolve from hip hop to folk, might you have done things differently?
When I first started, I never played guitar. When I was in the Beatnigs, I played bass, but it was very punk-rock playing bass. It was two or three notes on every song. And they were the same notes on every song so I didn’t get very far with it. [Laughs] I started playing guitar in 2002 or 2003. I kind of look at my life in music as ‘before the guitar’ and ‘after the guitar.’
The reason I started playing was because I really wanted to play on the street. When I was coming up through music in San Francisco, I was a bike messenger and, on my time off at lunch, I’d go and watch the street musicians. And I’d learn from the way that they connected with audiences. They had 10 seconds to grab people and pull them in. I always admired that talent. But, also, I thought it would be really fun to play for random people on the street. So, that’s what I did — I started practicing guitar on my own and going out and playing on the street, traveling around the world doing that.
I love the physical sensation of holding a guitar, and singing and playing the chords. And, as the chords move, listening to the way it changes the melody as I sing. Also, just the vibration of the guitar when it’s against you, I feel really connected to the music when I’m playing like that. It’s hard to describe, but when I play acoustic guitar, I feel like I’m inside the music.
You obviously learned well from the street performers because your level of fan engagement and accessibility is uncommon. What do you get from those interactions that makes it worth the extra energy output?
When I first started in music, I worked as a doorman at a nightclub in San Francisco and I got to see hundreds of bands. The bands that I most remember were the ones that, when they showed up at the club, they said hello to me. They were the ones that, at the end of the night, you’d see them on the sidewalk talking to their fans. Those were the bands that seemed to connect the most and come back year after year, and go on to be the most successful because you could see they loved their fans as much as their fans loved their music.
So, after every show, I’ve always walked off the front of the stage and gone out into the crowd and talked to whomever’s there until the last person leaves. Before a headlining show, I’ll go out and stand in the crowd and watch the opening act, talk to fans. I’ll take my guitar, go out on the street, and play for fans who were the first people there in line. I’m always reminded of those artists who did that for me when I was a kid.
As a teenager, I went to concerts and we’d hang out in the alley behind the club and hope we’d get to see the artist coming into the venue. Most of the time, we’d just say hello to a grumpy roadie who would hardly give us the time of day, but we’d be checking out all the gear. I guess I still carry that feeling of being a fan with me and how much it changed my life when there were artists that stopped and took the time to connect.
What I get out of it is that I feel a sense of purpose and that’s the most rewarding part of what I do. That’s why I write songs about what’s happening in the world. That’s why I write songs that try to be inspirational and leave people feeling uplifted. I want to feel like I’m being purposeful on this planet.
It’s remarkable to see artists who are still fans first. But that’s you. That’s Amy Ray, from the Indigo Girls…
It’s funny that you mention Amy. Emily [Saliers] taught me my first guitar chord. We were on tour with them and I had just bought a guitar. She saw me struggling, trying to make up chords, putting one finger here and one finger there. She said, “Hey, let me show you a G chord. This is the root of all rock ‘n roll songs… open G.” So I always remember and am grateful for that.
Nice! Is there something about the West Coast, being your home turf, that made it the right place to launch this acoustic endeavor?
You know there are a lot of places we don’t play anymore that we used to play all the time when we were doing little clubs. Now that we’ve moved up to bigger venues, people travel from places to come see us. On this run, we really wanted to go to towns that we used to play a lot and also go to places like Agoura Hills — we’ve never played there before. We’re just trying to do something different.
But the Bay Area and San Francisco — California as a whole — is my home. I feel that there’s still a sense of frontier-ism here, and optimism, that doesn’t exist in other parts of the country or world.