When Michael Franti and Spearhead released its new CD, The Sound of Sunshine, in September of 2010, it arrived as Franti's most accessible and pop friendly disc to date. The irony of that, however, is that Franti and his band have never really changed their style or approach to music. Instead of moving toward pop music trends, pop music has come to him.
Looking back to the band's 1994 debut, Home, the group has always delivered an eclectic hybrid of hip hop, dance, pop, soul, reggae and rock. Franti's socially conscious lyrics might be a little lighter this time around, but they aren't any less poignant, reflecting on the little things in life that are important to not overlook instead of the social injustices that Franti's earlier work focused on.
When discussing how music has changed with Franti last week, he reflected that "My band has always combined different styles; it's been a melting pot of music. The iPod culture has changed how people listen to music. They used to listen to one style of music, or at least one main style, but now they listen to a little bit of everything."
"On radio today you hear rock, dance, hip hop and soul all together," he continued. "I think that's because that's how people listen to music now."
It's just that change in listening habits that has led larger audiences to connect with Franti's music without him making major changes in his style. Of course, the fact that Franti has toured with artists ranging from U2 and Dave Matthews to John Mayer, REM and Ziggy Marley hasn't hurt any, either. Those tours have exposed him to a much larger audience, but much like the artists he's toured with, his music crosses genre boundaries of pop, rock, dance and reggae with an intelligence and social consciousness that connects with audiences on a deeper level.
Now, with The Sound of Sunshine, Franti has taken a more reflective tone with his lyrics while still building positive and uplifting messages of love and hope. When asked about the new album and the overriding theme that carries throughout, Franti shared that "When I wrote the album, I had just come through a life threatening situation. My appendix had burst and I was close to dying. I had surgery to figure out what was going on and I was so grateful just to be alive."
"I wrote about things that I appreciate, like family and children -- things that can sometimes be overlooked."
Of course, sunshine and new beginnings are an overarching them with the disc and Franti has explained that theme, as well as the title track, as such: "'The Sound of Sunshine' is about wanting to bottle that experience of waking up in the morning, pulling the blinds and seeing there's a sunny day in front of us. It's about finding the sunshine in cloudy times. There are a lot of people out there waiting for a storm to pass and I want to acknowledge that and bring them a little sunshine."
Inversely, Franti closes the disc with "The Sound of Sunshine Going Down," the sunset version of the disc's title track. Franti explained the song, saying "It's for the time of day when you've had a busy and rough, difficult day and you watch the sun going down. You're there with some friends and you watch the sun going down and it washes all your troubles away."
In between, Franti explores the themes of life, love and hope.
One of the strongest tracks on the disc, "I'll Be Waiting" draws inspiration from Franti's experience touring with U2. In it, Franti incorporates a quietly chiming guitar line reminiscent of The Edge's signature sound. More to the point, however, he delivers the message of "The best things in live aren't things: they're living, they're breathing" with a soaring, anthemic chorus "Whenever you call me, whenever you need me, whenever you wonder, until you see me, I'll be waiting for you."
Again, Franti complements the sentiment a few tracks later with "The Thing That Helps Me Get Through," where he turns tables and acknowledges the support of a close friend who pulls him through the rough times just by being there. The song provides a great juxtaposition sonically as well as lyrically, countering the soaring chorus of "I'll Be Waiting" with a frenetic dance beat and driving guitar reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz.
Franti's positive message has always been key to his connection with the fans, but there's also an undeniable energy to his music that comes through in the recordings. Part of that may be due to Franti's approach to recording and he shared that he and the band are in the process of developing the next record, in the same manner they often have in the past: writing and recording on a portable studio, then road testing the songs on an audience that night.
"That's the great thing: we can play the songs live and see the response first hand and make any changes as by how the audience responds," Franti shared. "It's really a great way to work, because you can immediately go to a portable studio to record it."
When asking about the energy level that comes from this approach, Franti shared that "We always want it to be a great live song and we get to see how it translates right away. Sometimes you record and album and it sounds like you recorded in the in the air conditioning -- it's just too sterile and comfortable. We want our records to sound like they were recorded at a festival or in a sweaty night club."
When Franti comes to through Tulsa next Wednesday night, September 7, it will be as the opening act for Santana at BOK Center. When discussing Santana, Franti shared that "I've known Carlos since '91 or '92, but I've followed him my whole life. Carlos is like a fixture in our community and throughout the world. I hold him up with my favorites of all time: Bob Marley, John Lennon and Springsteen."
"He's done something unique by combining his Latin roots with funk, soul, jazz, rock and blues to create his own, very unique sound," he continued.
Santana's influence isn't hard to recognize in Franti's work. Although Spearhead doesn't lean into Santana's Latin grooves, the band has always incorporated bits of reggae and island aesthetic with hip hop, rock and soul. Of course, the similarities don't just arise within the artists' affinity for blending genres. It also extends to the social consciousness that each brings to the table with their work.
When addressing that with Franti, he acknowledged that "Spiritually, Carlos has always been someone who lifted up his voice and I share that spirit."
When asked about the tour, which had not started yet when I spoke with Franti, he shared that "We've never toured together, but we know a lot of people in his band, so we're really looking forward to this tour. It should be a natural fit and we all get along together really well."
The arrival of Santana and his band is reason enough to be excited about the concert at BOK Center on September 7. The inclusion of Michael Franti and Spearhead as special guests will undoubtedly make the evening even more special, especially as the band extends the message of love, hope and inspiration that springs from the group's latest disc, The Sound of Sunshine. Make sure to arrive early as Michael Franti and Spearhead take the stage at 7pm as an introduction to Santana's long overdue return to Tulsa. Tickets are still available for $45, $65 and $85.
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