Michael Franti and the drive to be new6/10/2015
Michael Franti doesn’t believe that music — especially live music — is meant to be a passive thing. The 49-year-old musician and poet has made a point of stretching the established boundaries of music and performance, beginning with his first group, The Beatnigs. Formed in the mid-’80s, The Beatnigs was more performance art troupe than actual band, but it established the tone for Franti’s performances for the rest of his career. Now people catching his music live are often treated to yoga sessions, drum circles, art installations and more.
“We have a saying in our band: We want to create a 3-D experience for people,” Franti said in a phone interview. “We want it to be emotional — a mental experience and a physical transformation.
“That’s what I felt like as a kid growing up in church. You’d feel that inspiration. It’s the same thing I feel when I practice yoga or when I go to a great sporting event — that experience of people coming together. That’s what we want to do through music. Sometimes I feel like we totally nail it. Sometimes I feel like we come a little short.”
Passing on that feeling of inspiration is at the heart of just about everything Franti does nowadays. He is a big believer in the concept of a global connection and feels that we all have a responsibility to help shape the roads that future generations will trod. It is something that was instilled in him at an early age by his biggest role model.
“Those of us who decide to become difference-makers were inspired by someone else to become difference-makers,” he said. “I think the main person would be my mom. She adopted me when I was a baby. She had three kids of her own, then she adopted myself and another African American son, so we had this very multicultural household. My mom was the anchor of all of it.
“It was a general openness to difference that my mom celebrated. And the idea that whatever you do in life, you have to try your best. She never accepted you doing less than the best that you could do.”
It is that latter sentiment that pushes Franti in new directions with each album. While he has definitely created a “sound” over his career, it is difficult to draw many parallels between any two Franti albums, because he strives to make each one as unique of an experience as possible.
“I never really stop,” he said of his creation process. “I have a studio in my house. Of all the things we originate, probably 5 percent of it becomes songs. Sometimes we’ll finish a song and it’s like, ‘Yeah, it sounds cool, but it sounds like what we did in the last album, so let’s try again.’ ”
But while that drive to find new ground is a motivation that consumes him, he knows that fans approach the music from a different angle. That is why his end goal is to keep being fresh but never to lose the air of comfortable familiarity.
“Songs should be as familiar as putting on an old pair of jeans,” he said. “They should remind you of those times when you first heard them and what you were doing. But if they aren’t simple enough for you to pick up and sing right away and still have that complexity to keep showing you new things — if they don’t have that combination, it’s difficult for them to have that staying power.” CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.