Michael Franti on touring with John Mayer, social justice through music and more

Michael Franti -- due at an in-store this evening at Independent Records from 4- 6 p.m. and headlining tomorrow night's Harvest Ball at Broomfield's 1STBANK Center -- is known for his social activism through his music. He started off as a rapper, spitting aware (and angry) rhymes in his early years, before moving into what he calls "rebel rock," a sort of fusion of folk, pop, hip-hop and whatever else is influencing him at the time.

As his popularity has grown, he's been drawing larger crowds, touring with John Mayer earlier this year and headlining Red Rocks this summer. We caught up with him to ask about that tour with Mayer, issues close to his heart and where he sees his music going next.

Westword: What was it like touring with John Mayer?

Michael Franti: John's got, first of all, a big crowd. We were playing in huge basketball and hockey arenas the whole tour, but he also has kind of a unique crowd in that there are some people there because they want to see John the guitar god, and others are there because they want to hear his beautiful, eloquent songs, and other people are there because they saw him on the front cover of the National Enquirer.

It's kind of a unique audience. We were writing a new album at the time (The Sound of Sunshine), so every night we'd go on stage, and we would play these new songs that we were writing, and then we'd watch the crowd respond to them, and we had our portable recording studio with us on tour. So while John was playing his set, we'd go back in and re-record the songs based on the reaction of the audience. We pretty much recorded 90 percent of the record on tour.

What do you think has been the biggest change in your life, musically, over the past five years?

The biggest transformation for me has been going from somebody who, first of all, didn't know how to play any instruments at all and was just rapping and using drum machines and samplers, and writing very political, angry, social-commentary songs, to somebody who learned to play the guitar and learned the language of music and melody.

And I have grown in that I don't want to just write songs about the problems of the world, I want to be involved in helping where I can to make things better. And I found that oftentimes you do that through happy music, not necessarily through angry music, but making music that inspires people to get through difficult times, and rather than write songs about the way things are, I do get involved in issues personally outside of music.

What issues are particularly close to your heart?

In the past ten years, I've been involved in the war in Iraq and went and played music in the streets of Baghdad. I made a film of my time there; I took my guitar and my video camera. I'd heard from generals and politicians about the economic and political costs of war, but never seen the human costs of war, so I just went and played for Iraqi families and talked to them about their life and U.S. soldiers.

I thought I'd come back and write a dozen angry songs speaking out about war. And people would say to me while I was there that they didn't want to hear songs about war, they wanted to hear songs that would make them laugh and dance and sing. So I came back and wrote songs that try to inspire people. I work with a lot of different veterans' groups now, and I still work to support Iraqi families.

Where do you see your music going over the next ten years?

Well, I'm in love with pop form, you know. Three minute pop song. Verse, chorus, verse, bridge, another chorus and an outro, you know? And I love storytelling, so I'm constantly writing about things that have happened in my life, experiences I've had. My music has always drawn from a lot of different influences stylistically, so I'll continue to keep making music, traveling to different countries, learning more about life and about music.

But I'm also a yogi. And that's a big part of my life, and the person that I am today. I started off practicing yoga just to deal with stress, trying to figure out is there a way I can calm my mind down and become more at peace with myself and the world, I had tried meditation but had such a hard time just sitting, and someone said, yogis practice yoga so that they can get their bodies open and sit more comfortably.

Read the rest of our interview with Michael Franti on the Show&Tell blog.

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen