Michael Franti has a discography that numbers nine studio albums with his current band, Spearhead, as well as one album with his first group, the Beatnigs, and a pair of titles with the influential group that preceded his solo career, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
But he’s never had a recording experience quite like the one he had in making his 2016 album with Spearhead, “Soulrocker,” with producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor and Dwayne "Supa Dups” Chin Quee.
"It was actually the most fun that we’ve ever had making a record,” Franti says during a telephone interview. “Every day, when I would come into the studio, there would be something that was so cool that I would just wouldn’t expect. It would be outside of my sort of natural way of thinking about the song and they’d (McGregor or Chin Quee) come up with something that was just really amazing and different from what I would normally do.”
Bringing in outside producers was a new twist for Franti, who had always handled those duties himself on the previous albums. But the idea of working with McGregor and Chin Quee seemed too good to pass up.
"‘Di Genius,’ Stephen McGregor, he’s the son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor. When I first heard his name as ‘Di Genius,’ I was like who is this guy who’s got the (nerve) to call himself ‘Di Genius’?” Franti says. “Then I met him. He's kind of a child prodigy. He's produces everything from hardcore reggae to dancehall artists. He's a very cool man, very quiet and confident, and a great listener.
Chin Quee met Franti at a Michael Franti and Spearhead concert and suggested working together.
"‘Supa Dups’ is a similar kind of vibe (to McGregor), except he’s more like the beat guy,” Franti says. “He’s super skilled at getting the drums and the bass to sound really powerful and has a really great ear for the overall aesthetics of the song.”
"Soulrocker” has been touted as bringing a more modern, more electronic edge to Franti’s longstanding mix of rock, folk, hip-hop, soul and reggae. But in reality, electronic elements have been working their way into Franti’s sound on the past couple of albums and are fairly prominent on his previous album, 2013’s “All People.”
The blend of electronic and organic works well on “Soulrocker.” The programmed rhythms and space-age synth lines put a futuristic spin on folk-world beat flavored “My Lord” and the dance-pop sound of “We Are All Earthlings.” The mix of reggae, hip-hop and electronics on “Once A Day” makes for an especially buoyant track.
Perky keyboard tones bring a poppy edge to “Get Myself To Saturday” and beachy folk to “Summertime Is In Our Hands.”
"I mean, on the last record, it was very much in the same way of combining rhythms that people can dance to with songs and lyrics that have meaning,” Franti says. “So it’s very much a progression, as all of my records have been.”
What also has evolved is Franti’s lyrical tone. On his early solo albums, Franti’s lyrics were serious, and sometimes critical and angry, but the tone of his messages has softened. While he’s still plenty topical on the new album (“Good To Be Alive Today” is a prime example), the emphasis now is more often positive, encouraging people to work together and use the power of love to change their lives and the world around them for the better.
The shift is intentional, Franti says, and came, first of all, from what he saw on trips over recent years to places such as Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Africa. As he played songs for people he encountered, he found they weren’t interested in commentary about the world’s problems so much as they wanted to hear upbeat, danceable music they could enjoy as an escape.
Rhat kind of enriching, communal vibe is what Franti and Spearhead will seek to create with their live shows this summer. And Franti has incorporated specific elements in the concerts to help achieve that goal.
“That’s why I spend a lot of time at our shows getting into the audience,” he says. “So I get my headset mike on and I get my acoustic guitar. I run to the top of the venue. I go all throughout whatever place we’re playing. We set up stages in multiple parts of whatever venue we’re in and get out there and play on them. For me it’s a really great way to feel like I personally am connected, and it’s also a great way to break down that barrier between the stage and the audience. We feel like we’re in this together.”