Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Travel, life and the human connection: Michael Franti talks being on the road with Spearhead

Michael Franti will play Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Nathan Thoen)

These days Michael Franti knows every summertime means a long tour across America. Sixty dates are timed to coincide with as many outdoor amphitheater opportunities as possible, mixed in with club and theater shows, too.

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The music he plays with his longest-standing band, Spearhead, is perfect for the season, but he’s also got a lot of non-musical responsibilities on his plate. The five-dozen or so U.S. shows a year allows him to cover a majority of the country, while maintaining worldwide interests. 

Not many musicians, for example, can claim ownership of a hotel in Bali, but Franti does. Since 2008, he has been bouncing between “being an artist and an entrepreneur,” as he puts it. It can be quite a challenge to manage the growing enterprise, which started with five rooms but now has 32, two restaurants, a nightclub and employs more than 100 employees.

“It’s incredible to work with people and empowering them to use their own creativity to find solutions to problems we’re facing at the hotel,” he said. “My job there is to do the big-picture stuff, to think about what’s next.” 

He has other media gigs, too, be it podcasting or working in film. Often that means doing his own projects. For example, recently, he was in the studio doing voice work for a documentary on redwood forests. 

On the surface, it may seem Franti’s pursuits would call for him to switch between a very different headspace throughout the course of a day. And that’s true to an extent, but there are overlaps.

“With music,” he suggested, “it’s different. It’s about how I’m connecting with my own heart, my own feelings. It’s very internal, while finding an outward expression in that. It’s a very different process of showing vulnerability.” 

Running the hotel, he said, is the opposite.

“It is a very much different thing than sitting down with a guitar in a room, where there’s no thinking, but a feeling of something emerging from my heart,” he said.

The retreat he and his family run, Soulshine Bali, falls in line with the messages Franti and Spearhead have been channeling over the past number of years. It’s a positive approach to life and the human connection. 

His live shows, he said, are intended to hit a sweet spot with the audience, no matter how familiar they may be with the band’s material. Of course, many will be super-fans. Others will leave as fans. 

“I do feel that the ultimate pinnacle of music, where the rubber meets the road, is when the music is played to an audience, and you see the reaction and feel the reaction,” he said. “It’s humbling. Sometimes you completely miss with a song that you think will land emotionally, but it’s also humbling when someone’s moved to tears when you play a song and it really hits them. It’s meaningful. Every time I’m writing a song, I’m thinking about how it will be played live. There’s the draw.” 

Despite the amount of time spent on the road, Franti said, there’s always time for a bit of remote studio work, even if it’s just plugging in his guitar to a simple recorder. He estimated he puts thoughts and music down some 250 days a year, annually.

Nothing competes with the live setting, though. Touring is Franti’s great passion. He tours half the year — mostly during summer — and having to stop during the Covid-19 pandemic was hard, especially not being able to connect with fans up close and personal over music.

“That was a very emotional time for me,” Franti said. “I have this thing that I always thought would be there and is so integral to who I am as a person and, suddenly, it was pulled out from under my feet. It really made me think about who I am in the world.”

He admitted going into a “dark place” during the shutdown. However, it brought a deeper sense of gratitude.

“Now, there’s a renewed sense of purpose,” he said. 

Franti’s music has taken him through a variety of settings, from early punk and industrial bands (like the Beatnigs, 1986-1990), to hip-hop (notably the short-lived Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, 1991-1993) to Spearhead today. It brings a host of influences, a soul/rock/reggae amalgam that characterizes much of the group’s shimmering, summery sound, heard across a dozen albums.

The current group has been around in various forms since 1994 and introduced Franti to a large swath of his worldwide fan base. Franti said he’s tried to find his people in their places and joked at one point, in a relaxed, unrushed phone conversation, he got well into adulthood before ever buying a plane ticket.

He added he never allowed himself the opportunity to enjoy the idea of a vacation. Travel was work and work was travel, something he knew from an age when many young folks are just a year or two removed from high school. 

“I’ve always had a lust for finding a new corner of the world, meeting people and experiencing new cultures, architecture, art and natural wonders,” he said.

Yet, it hasn’t always been sunshine; there have been challenges, such as touring at 20 when his first son was born.

“Half my life was spent away from my children,” he said. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to curtail it, keep it to briefer windows. There’s a general wear and tear on your body and on your mind. Physically, you get tired. And as many people as you play for in an evening, you’ll always end up alone in a hotel room or your bunk on the bus. Loneliness can be a real thing.”

Interestingly, as someone known to voice an opinion in song, Franti believes a life on the road has made him less certain of some things. 

“The more places I’ve gone to,” he said, “the more questions I have.” 

Michael Franti will play two shows at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this weekend, July 15 and 16; verified resale tickets can be found here for Saturday and here for Sunday.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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