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Interview: Michael Franti

Michael Franti
11 July 2021

Photo by Arley Mardo

Musician and activist Michael Franti gets on a Zoom video call from a hotel room in Jakarta. Indonesia. The Spearhead frontman is halfway through a five-day lockdown, a mandatory requirement for everyone entering the country. In two days, he’ll be allowed to head to Ubud, a city in the Indonesian province of Bali where he and his wife own and run SOULSHINE Bali, a yoga retreat hotel. He says he’s happy to comply with the Indonesian lockdown rules – but he also admits to feeling a little lonely and stir-crazy, so he’s glad to talk about his first post-pandemic shows, how he got through this challenging past year, and how he believes music helped him (and can help others) through difficult times.

You’ve spent the pandemic at your hotel in Bali – what’s that been like?

MICHAEL FRANTI: We’ve been fortunate. [SOULSHINE Bali] is surrounded by rice fields and a jungle. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old, and he’s been able to spend the last year running in the rice fields. Our favorite thing at five [o’clock] every day is to find a stick. That’s our game. We poke it in the river and walk and talk. So it’s been a good life.

What made you decide to open your hotel in the first place?

MICHAEL FRANTI: I bought the land in 2008 after coming to Bali on a vacation. I thought, if I just build a little house here and put a yoga studio on top, maybe I can get people to come and practice yoga. And that’s what we did. We grew over the years from five bedrooms to 34 hotel rooms – and two restaurants and a bar. So it’s been a labor of love. I love hospitality, I love taking care of people, I love having people come to my house and this is like an expanded version of that. The last year, it was jarring, but we used it as an opportunity. We expanded and did renovations.

Now you’re able to get back to playing shows, finally. What was it like doing your first post-pandemic concerts in Colorado last month?

MICHAEL FRANTI: The first set that we did was actually a memorial for someone who passed away during the pandemic – we did an acoustic set for about three or four hundred people. I walked out [onstage], and even before we started playing, just seeing that many people in the same place at the same time, no masks on, I was moved to tears. And then also, I lost my father to COVID during the pandemic. And so to be at this memorial, I felt it in my grieving process. It was really, really emotional. I mean, in America, 600,000 people died of this disease, and how many people got to really grieve properly during that time? And then, the next night at Red Rocks [Amphitheater], seeing nine or ten thousand people at the same place at the same time was overwhelming, too. The thing that I learned more than anything else during the pandemic is just how much human beings need one another. We really need each other. So to be in the same place at the same time was a powerful feeling. And then that feeling of rocking out was great, too. I am just so grateful to be able to play live music again.

At those shows, you gave a lot of tickets away to frontline workers and people who are very sick or otherwise going through hard time. Where did you get the idea to do that?

MICHAEL FRANTI: We believe in the power of music, that it can be a healer for people. Sometimes it’s literally, “I’m sick and it got me up and dancing” – the biblical style of healing, almost. But for the most part it’s, how does music help us get through the rough times in our life and how does it help us get to tomorrow? Or how does it help us grieve and say goodbye to someone who is close to dying? I’ve seen the power of it, and I believe in that, and I want to get that to as many people as possible, and especially the most vulnerable in our society. That’s why we did that for frontline workers, for people who had lost their jobs during the pandemic and also for people who had lost family members. So we asked our audience to nominate people and I don’t know how many tickets we ended up giving away – 1,500 tickets or something like that.

How do you keep your own spirits up so that you can keep helping others?

MICHAEL FRANTI: I’ve learned that it’s important to give from the overflow of your bucket. If you’re constantly dipping into your own bucket to give to others, you walk around feeling depleted. So I would say that it’s a team effort, keeping my spirits high. Part of it is internal. You’ve got to wake up every day with a sense of optimism. When you have shitty things happen in your life, you’ve got to be able to let it go – sit and cry, talk to someone, talk with a therapist, talk to a friend. My manager, my wife, these are where I go to to just be heard. And I think that that was the hardest thing for me in all this last year and a half, those moments when I felt alone. The week my father died, my wife actually happened to have just gone away for six weeks and I was there taking care of my son, and then I get word my father had died and I really didn’t have any other adults around to talk to about it, and so it was a very intense time. It was my biological father who died, and he hadn’t really been in my life that much, so a lot of the grieving was just sadness that I never knew him in the way that I had hoped to know him. And there I was with my two-and-a-half-year-old, and I was able to pour that love into my relationship with him. So I would say there’s things that I learned and things that I burned and things that I earned. Things that I learned were about the importance of how much we need each other and things that I burned were things that I needed to let go of, forgiving my father. And things that I earned were that deepness of relationship with my son as a result of being able to grieve and let go of disappointment and expectations around my own father. And then when you think of that and just magnify it by seven billion people on the planet, it’s pretty remarkable – just think what the planet has gone through emotionally.

How do you think this past year and a half is impacting your songwriting?

MICHAEL FRANTI: I wrote a lot of songs during the pandemic, and they were all about what I was going through. The songs were just flowing, and it really was cathartic for me. I would say virtually every song that I wrote was about getting through darkness into light and finding ways to have ease of heart.

What do you think it is about your work that connects as strongly with listeners?

MICHAEL FRANTI: I write music that I hope makes people feel good. And the reason that it makes people feel good isn’t because it’s just happy. The reason it makes people feel good is because it acknowledges that life is hard. The pandemic was like the great revealer. Whatever it was wrong, if you had any leaks in your roof, it was going to find them. But we got through it!

Michael Franti tour dates