Michael Franti is a generous soul. Franti — who is coming to the Moore Theatre on Monday, November 19th to debut his documentary, Stay Human, and play an acoustic set — is thoughtful and talkative when it comes to questions about anxiety and depression, spreading joy and listening to people’s stories. As someone who has battled mental illness, Franti says he’s learning more and more to lean into connecting with people, rather than keeping isolated in his art. Along his world tours, Franti says he tries to inspire the people he meets, advising them to channel the energy of their pain and push forward as the world seems to be crumbling all around us. And to preview Monday’s event, we caught up with Franti and asked him about the new album and movie, what his goals are for the works, and why he doesn’t ever wear shoes.
When did the concept of “justice” first turn a light bulb on in your head?
I was raised in a very unique family. My biological mother is Irish, German and Belgian and my birth-father is [Native American] from the mountains of West Virginia but I was adopted by a family that’s second generation from Finland who had three kids of their own. They adopted me and an African-American boy. I was brought up in this mixed-race family. Issues of race and social justice were around as long as I can remember.
I can remember going to school when I was five years old and being called a nigger for the first time. And I went home to my mom who is white and tried to explain to her what happened. That was probably my first taste of injustice. But then as I got older, I started reading books about great social justice leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, and others and I realized there was this ongoing battle in the world of injustice and justice.
"I don’t know if there’s a battle between good and evil, right and left, Republican and Democrat, between genders and religions, but I know there is a battle between cynicism and optimism in every single one of us on this planet."
Does the phrase “stay human” mean something different to you today than it did in 2000?
When I first put out that album, Stay Human, in 2000, I made the whole thing about the death penalty. The whole album was a narrative and I really believed at that time that there was a battle in the world between good and evil, essentially. I think the thing that’s changed in me now, I don’t know if there’s a battle between good and evil, right and left, Republican and Democrat, between genders and religions, but I know there is a battle between cynicism and optimism in every single one of us on this planet. That is maybe the way I’ve changed over the years. So I’m not always trying to look to work and point out things that are wrong with the government or capitalism or the environment. Instead, I’m trying to find ways that people can feel inspired to bring out positive change and effect change in their own ways.
What have you noticed to be music’s power when it comes to positive change in your own life?
When I was a kid, my parents used to argue a lot. My father was an alcoholic. And I’d sit in my room and listen to the radio. The radio took me to different places in the world. I grew up in Davis, California and I would listen to the college radio station. One hour would be the punk rock hour, then the hip-hop hour then electronic then it would be the Chinese news hour. At different times of the day, there would be different perspectives from around the world. Music became this thing that was both my solace — the way I was able to grieve — and it became my way to celebrate life and the values being expressed by the artists I admired the most like The Clash, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley. Those are artists that made me learn that it was possible to envision a different world and music that encouraged me to stand up for those things that I believe in. When I became a musician myself, that’s what I aspired to do.
You sing in a lot of different styles, almost like you’re channeling Tom Waits in one instant and Chuck D in another. What does it feel like you’re embodying when you sing?
First of all, I’d love to go see that concert. Tom Waits followed by Public Enemy sounds awesome! But I think that the main thing is, I look at music in the same way a visual artist would look at their palate. I don’t ever think of something in terms of genre just as I don’t think a painter would only ever use just red and white. I look at it like, what is going to be the best way to express this emotion in this song? Maybe that’s through collage, maybe sculpture, maybe photo-realism. I always write my songs on an acoustic guitar first so I can understand them in their element. Then I try other things: beat elements, maybe strings, maybe live guitars. But at the end of the day, I always want to write story-telling songs that people can dance to. The reason for that is I’ve just seen how when things get into somebody’s body, they take it in. And when people listen to a song that makes them feel good without even listening to the lyrics — I want to make songs that do that and when they hear the lyrics, they get something from them.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist from your countless musical collaborations?
Well, this year we have both an album and a film that I’ve finished. With a record, you’re working with maybe a couple different people. But when you go see a feature film, a Hollywood film, if you watch the credits, there are literally thousands of people who’ve worked on it. It blows my mind away. All those thousands of people contributed to the 90 minutes of this film. And they all gave everything they had, their decades of experience leading up to that moment. As a songwriter, you can sit by yourself and write a song one morning and step on the stage or street corner and play it that afternoon. Through collaboration I’ve learned as either a filmmaker or in a band, you can always find something greater than the sum of the parts. For a long time in my music career, I did everything by myself. I’d sit in a room late at night and just go. Now, I find more that listening and engaging with different people spurs new ideas and I like seeing what we can come up with.
What do you hope your new documentary and record can do in tandem for people?
The film is all about how it is that we hold on to our humanity during challenging times like the ones we’re living in right now. It’s a very uplifting film that follows my personal journey through being someone who has battled depression and anxiety as an adult. One of the ways I’ve found to help is I go out in the world and meet people — ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the lives of others. I started filming and interviewing people while on tour and learning how it is they hold onto their values, how they love each other, how they struggle and how they find the tenacity it takes to get through some of the craziest circumstances I’ve ever seen. For example, there was a couple I filmed, Steve and Hope. And Steve is battling the advanced stages of ALS and yet his wife, Hope, is there for him. They have an incredible, beautiful and loving relationship that’s so inspiring to see. The way they still connect even though Steve is locked in bed, he can’t move any muscle but his eyes and lips a little bit. And another story about a midwife in the Philippines who, after Hurricane Yolanda, was delivering babies while ships were tossed on land and every building within 50 miles is nocked down. Babies don’t stop and she’s in the middle of it. Stories like that remind me to be human and hold onto our humanity.
In your quest to inspire change, what are some of the more burdensome realities you’ve encountered around the globe?
One of them was recent, somebody we covered in the film. There’s a rapper who lives in South Africa in one of the poorest townships. He literally lives in a tin shack. But he believes in the power of education and he is putting himself through university to get a degree in business administration while he lives in the tin shack and studies by kerosene lamp. His goal is to create a record label and business for all the other rappers in his community. People like that are willing to go to incredible lengths to achieve their goals and it’s inspiring to me.
I also recently have been traveling around the country — I have a song about gun violence and I’ve been traveling around the country filming families affected by gun violence. One story took place in Parkland. A teacher who had two teenage students shot and killed in her class and four others shot and injured. She was teaching a class that day about the Holocaust. When I went out to visit her, she had a Holocaust survivor who was visiting and he told me about when he was 15 or 16 surviving Auschwitz. He said something to me that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, “From great pain comes great energy. Therefore, no pain should ever be wasted.” So, take your pain, whatever it is that’s hurting you, and use that energy and apply it to make a difference for yourself, family, community, country, and the planet.
"I feel that’s what I really want people to get from the movie. I want people to see how you can take your pain and apply it to something good in the world today. We need that more than ever. "
Okay, now I’m going to ask you something everyone probably asks you about. You don’t wear shoes! How did you decide to live this way and has it been a challenge?
It’s a challenge pretty much every day, especially this time of year when it’s cold, and we’ve been in Colorado and the snow the last few days so I’ve been wearing flip-flops. But I’ve learned an incredible amount. First thing, you learn every step you take is different. Every single step, you feel something different.
I started going barefoot because there are places in the world we travel to where people couldn’t afford to get shoes. Kids invited me to play soccer and I took off my shoes and I could barely take three steps without flinching. So I decided to start going barefoot just to train my feet to be strong and also as a reminder that there are people who can’t afford shoes. I wanted to be in connection with them.
You seem like a very positive person who tries to uplift through your art. What do you do, in your own quiet moments, when you feel down?
You know, I’m somebody who has battled serious depression and anxiety through most of my adult life. And I’ve learned that if I can change my thoughts, I can change my feelings. That’s a muscle you have to exorcize and work at so you can do it when you’re really down. One of the ways is through my yoga practice but other things — l love to talk with other people and I’ve learned after not really being super expressive in my family growing up, I’ve learned that as an adult sitting and talking with another person can help. Other times when I feel down I try to do something good for somebody else. Even if it’s as simple as taking a friend out to lunch or volunteering or helping a young artist. The final thing is chocolate. I love chocolate. And it always seems to work. If I’m really down, I take a bite of chocolate and I feel at least momentarily better.
Michael Franti will be at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on Monday, November 19th for a special screening of the Stay Human documentary, followed by a Q&A session and an acoustic performance. Stay Human Vol II will be out January 25th, 2019 via Thirty Tigers. The 14-track LP is said to have been heavily influenced by his work with the documentary.