Inquiring Minds: Spearhead's Michael Franti On Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Having A Hit Record In The Hospital And John Mayer

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This week in the Press, Rocks Off talked to Spearhead founder and front man Michael Franti about Bob Marley, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (who signed Marley and U2) and the left-field success of the Bay Area group's hit single "Say Hey (I Love You)" after almost two decades of consciousness-raising, reggae-informed hip-hop. Here's the rest of our conversation, which wound from Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life through Franti's collaborators Sly & Robbie, bounced off Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and wound up with the current tribulations of John Mayer, who brings Franti and Spearhead to Toyota Center tonight. Rocks Off: What was the first album that had a major impact on you? Michael Franti: It was Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life. It was just a record that was in our house, and I spent a long time listening to it. Mainly when my brother was away from the house because it was his record. If he found out I was playing his records he would have kicked my butt. Those were the first songs where I ever sat down and read the lyrics, looked at the album cover and played the songs over and over.

RO: Are there any causes or charities that are especially close to your heart?

MF: I'm an ambassador for

this organization, CARE

. CARE does aid work in developing nations, particularly around addressing poverty through the education of young girls and women. It's been shown that that's the key to eradicating poverty is through educating girls because they end up being the matriarchs of their communities, and stay in the land and raise the kids off the community as opposed to the men, who when they're educated, leave and go somewhere else. So I travel around the world with them. I was in East Timor a few weeks ago, visiting farming collectives where they use really simple tools to get through - they have nine months when they can grow things, and then there's three months when there's no food because it's arid. So they take sheets of plastic to create water-catchers so they can feed their families during those three months and have water.

C: Besides the most recent Spearhead record (All Rebel Rockers), what are a few of your favorite other Sly & Robbie productions?

MF: I think my favorite record of theirs is just called

Sly & Robbie Reggae Greats

. It's dub mixes of all the hit songs they've done, like

with Black Uhuru

. That's probably my favorite of all the stuff that they've done, but I'm a huge fan of everything they've done, from working with No Doubt to they did a whole album with Bob Dylan that was really cool and a record recently with Sinead O'Connor that was really great. But mostly it's their dancehall and reggae stuff.

C: When you were with the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes, did you ever picture yourself selling a million copies of anything?

MF: No (laughs). I was joking with my friends, we had our first song in the Top 20 after 20 years of making music, and we were never even in the top 20,000. I always thought that songs was a catchy song, and when we played it our fans really loved it and gravitated to it, but it came out in September of 2008 and had its run at radio. And then it went away for the wintertime, and in the spring some Top 40 stations started playing the record, and suddenly it caught on and got picked up by every pop station in the country. It was a really big surprise for us, and it came at a time when we had already started making a new album and were ready to start the whole cycle over again, but then we found ourselves having to stay out on tour. During that time, my appendix ruptured the first week the song went into the Top 20. I was in the hospital and I was thinking it's ironic I finally have a song on the radio and I'm not going to live to hear it. It was a good reminder of what's really important in life. You can have hit songs, and that's really great, and it's kind of fun to have that attention or appreciation. But really, I've made music for a long time just for the love of doing it, just for the love of being out there and meeting people and talking to people and singing songs for people. That's still why I do it.

C: I saw you at the Austin City Limits festival last year, and I liked how you went into "Billie Jean" at one point. Which album do you like better, Thriller or Off the Wall?

MF: I'm definitely an

Off the Wall

person. I just love the songs on

Off the Wall

. Thriller, I like the videos, but the music never really grabbed my attention as much as

Off the Wall

. It's a more romantic record, and it's kind of a club and party record, and I dug it more.

C: What kind of music do you listen to when you want to relax?

MF: You know, I listen to the radio a lot. I never really listened to the radio in the last 15 years or so, and I actually started listening to the radio again. I think it was because for so long I hated the radio and I would just go into record stores and see what's going on, and then I started going online when the Internet started really kicking in, finding music through online sources or checking in with other people, "Hey, what's cool?" But recently I guess I kind of fell in love with what it was like when I was a kid, where you listen to the radio and you hear hit songs. As a student of music, I'm always thinking, 'Well, what is it about this song that people like?' So I've been doing that a lot lately. But I still get a lot of my music from my 11-year-old son. It's been that way since he was born - I'd listen to the records that he liked. Sometimes they'd be my records, but now it's things that he's finding on his own.

C: Are you a social media fan at all?

MF: I am. I'm on all the different social media things. I kind of go in waves of it. I'll get into it really heavy and be posting every couple of hours and then I go, 'You know what? This is burning me out, I'm tired of it' and I won't do it for a couple of months. But on this tour, I've been doing quite a bit of twittering and we've been putting up vlogs every day from the tour. We keep our media camera around and we shoot stuff around the arenas we're playing in, stuff backstage, blocking and rehearsing, interviewing people. It's been kind of cool to do that and see how people respond to it.

C: How do you think John Mayer's holding up since this most recent media firestorm he got himself involved in?

MF: He's going through a really rough time. I check in with him every day and say 'Hey, how's it going? What's going on?' This most recent


interview I think has really got him questioning his way that he's dealt with the media in the past. He told me that in the past he might say stuff that made him look like an idiot, but this time he had said stuff that made people that he loved look bad. I don't just mean Jennifer Aniston or Jessica Simpson, I mean the people in his band, his family. I know he's really emotional, and going through a lot of soul-searching.

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