In the summer of 2009, Michael Franti’s appendix burst while he was touring with Spearhead, his band of 19-plus years.
The singer-songwriter eventually made a full recovery, but the near-death experience — along with recent visits to war-torn Iraq, Palestine and Israel — caused him to rethink his approach to songwriting on Spearhead’s eight studio release, “All People.”
“For a long time, I think I really thought that writing a song could shift political opinion or influence the world in that sort of large letter ‘P’ for politics way,” Franti said recently from a tour stop in Boston.
Michael Franti and Spearhead
WITH: The Kopecky Family Band
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Upstate Concert Hall, 1208 Route 146, Clifton Park
HOW MUCH: $28 (door), $25 (advance)
MORE INFO: 371-0012, www.upstateconcerthall.com
“What I’ve found as I’ve traveled around the world, especially after I came close to dying, is that music works more powerfully when it’s subtle and when it’s personal, and that people are really driven to make changes in their own lives based upon what they feel in their heart, more than any statistics or arguments they’ve heard. . . . All of us want to find happiness, and if you can write a song that moves someone out of their — out of a place of skepticism, cynicism, darkness or sadness, and into a place of light, a place of positivity — I think there is no greater achievement than that as a songwriter.”
While Franti does tackle political and social issues on many of the 11 tracks on “All People,” released in July, even those songs take on a more personal stance — album closer “Say Goodbye,” written in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, is written from the point of view of Martin’s mother. More frequently the songs address personal relationships (“Closer to You,” “Wherever You Are”) or a sense of worldwide unity (the title track, “Earth From Outer Space”).
“What I hear when I listen to the blues, the transition from blues into funk — it’s like, blues is about sadness and pain,” Franti said. “Funk is just the same chords basically, just sped up, and it’s about celebration, letting go, that exuberance that flows after you’ve gone through sadness. That’s really where my songwriting is today.”
Franti and the rest of Spearhead — bassist Carl Young, drummer Manas Itiene, keyboardist Raliegh J. Neal II and guitarist J Bowman — have been on the road almost non-stop since May promoting the album. The tour, which continues through November, will stop at Upstate Concert Hall Monday night.
Work on “All People” continued while the band was touring, with some of the final mixes taking place the week before its release date. Writing and recording on the road is nothing new for Spearhead — it also happened on 2010’s “The Sound of Sunshine,” to date the band’s charting album.
Crowd shapes sound
“We get a lot of inspiration being out on the road,” Franti said. “We’ll write a song and then we’ll go out that night onstage and see how the crowd responds. It’s the best feedback you can ever get, better than playing it for your manager or someone at the record label — not that they don’t have great opinions, but when you see the audience react, you know when you’re on to something good or when you have to fix it in some way. Our crowd really helped shape the sound of the record.”
Throughout his career, Franti has swung wildly between genres. The northern California native got his start in the San Francisco punk group Beatnigs, who recorded for Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles. His next band, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, found the singer incorporating hip-hop and industrial influences.
Spearhead, launched in 1994, opened the musical floodgates — at various points the band has explored everything from soul and funk freakouts to hard rock guitar to electronic music. “All People” finds Franti once again stretching out, marrying big hooks to danceable beats.
“This record is a combination of dance music and acoustic guitars and electric guitars,” Franti said. “It’s a fun thing to be on, to play.”
For the first time, Franti worked with outside songwriters on the album, including Canadian production team The Matrix, One Direction and Katy Perry collaborator Sam Hollander and Australian producer and songwriter Adrian Newman. At first, Franti was skeptical about the process, but he eventually embraced the outside help, and is now excited to try it again on future albums.
“I felt like, if I’m writing a song with somebody else who doesn’t know me, or doesn’t share my experiences, it’s going to come out not really being who I am,” Franti said. “But I found the opportunity to — every time I would be at a loss for words, like, ‘Gosh, I really need a good phrase here,’ or, ‘Maybe there’s a key change we could get out here to make the song,’ having somebody else outside could put out a different perspective. … It didn’t detract in terms of making the songs feel personal to me; it just made the songs better.”
In addition the the album, Franti has also been working on his new Do It For the Love Foundation, which he launched with his partner Sara Agah on Aug. 20. The foundation works to help people with life-threatening illnesses get into concerts and meet the artists in their hometown — as Franti puts it, “It’s like Make a Wish for music.”
“A lot of people have come to my projects over the years, saying, ‘I’d really like to meet you, Michael. My friend is dying of cancer’ — or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, cystic fibrosis or whatever — ‘and this is probably gonna be their last concert,’ ” Franti said. “We have seen how that’s really changed people, and my partner Sara is an emergency room nurse, so we’ve found ways to combine what she does with what I do with music.”