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Michael Franti - Conquering Hero

Author: Andrew Weaver
Monday, August 25, 2008

Having finally cracked the notoriously tricky American market, Michael Franti is understandably delighted. But as 3D’s Andrew Weaver finds out, for Franti success is measured simply by getting people smiling and on their feet.

It’s taken close to two decades, but it seems that Michael Franti is – slowly but surely – being recognised as a star in his homeland. He’s been at that level in Australia for some time, with his group Spearhead a regular visitor and firm favourite in this country, but it seems America is finally catching up to what the dreadlocked superstar has to offer, with his last album before his current effort, Yell Fire!, bringing him far greater attention.

“Definitely,” Michael asserts. “It was a big jump for us – we’ve been touring for like forever around the world, but in America we were never able to crack through for years and years and years. But with Yell Fire! we went from playing clubs to playing theatres and now headlining festivals, and having a reputation as a live act that people want to see regardless of whether or not we have a song on the radio.”

At least some of this extra level of recognition has come about as a result of his award-winning documentary, Yell Fire!, in which he visited war-torn Iraq and collaborated with musicians there to raise awareness of their plight of the people of the country, and not just the ‘terrorists’ that his home’s leaders were trying to grind into the dust. Will he eventually come to be recognised as the American Bono, getting involved politically and striving to make a difference to people’s lives through the power of music-

“Maybe the American Bozo,” Michael deadpans, comparing himself to a clown. “I’ve had a strong history of political activism in my music, and I really respect Bono and admire what he does. He’s someone who I had a chance to meet and tour with in the 1990s, and we’ve stayed in touch. If someone were to give me that compliment I would graciously… decline.”

He laughs, before explaining that the entwined nature of his political views and musical approach are linked, with his goal as an artist to be a musical communicator – someone who can spread a sense of social justice through the power of song.

“Also compassion,” he continues, “and that goes through my songs. Before anything else I’m a musician, and I like to see people smile and dance and laugh – go through every kind of emotion and vent their frustration and their anger, and their lovesickness.”

When it came time to making his latest effort, All Rebel Rockers, Franti elected to work with famed Jamaican production pair Sly and Robbie. “They’ve been so influential in my life,” he enthuses. “I really dig that they’ve made everything from Peter Tosh and all the great reggae that they made through to Grace Jones and records with the likes of Bob Dylan, No Doubt, and all the great dancehall music that they’ve been recording in recent years.

“Recording with them is amazing,” Michael continues. “I’d write a song on acoustic guitar and come in the studio and say ‘hey Sly, I’ve got this song’, and he always says the same thing,” and here Michael adopts a Jamaican patois, “‘Just make the beat for the street, keep it for the street’. So any song that you have can have a rhythm that people can dance to – even if it’s a quiet song or an acoustic song. That’s their philosophy. They’re also really gentle, sweet men; if you see them in a photograph they look like the toughest badass Jamaican motherfuckers ever, but they’re really sweet people to hang out with. Especially Robbie, who is quite tough when you’re in the studio with them!”

As producers, Michael says that they provide a sense of challenge to the artist, but not in a taskmaster way. “The challenge for me is letting go and letting someone else produce, because I’ve done so many of my own records. They never record until the mood is right – they won’t let you record [vocals] until the beat sounds really great and the mix that’s up is one that you can sing to and are motivated to, and there’s not a lot of just messing around – you wait til it’s ready then they call you in.”

Michael Franti and Spearhead’s All Rebel Rockers is out now, and they’ll no doubt be back in Australia in the not-too-distant future.

WHO: Michael Franti
WHAT: All Rebel Rockers through Shock
WHEN: Out now