Before St. Petersburg concerts at Jannus Live, Michael Franti talks superpowers, breaking down and more

He also admits to wearing shoes every now and then.

click to enlarge BURNING MAN: Michael Franti, who brings two fiery sets to St. Petersburg this week. - Anthony Thoen
Anthony Thoen
BURNING MAN: Michael Franti, who brings two fiery sets to St. Petersburg this week.

To start things off on the right foot, let’s get one thing straight: Michael Franti does wear shoes.

“I’m a runner. So I wear running shoes when I run on concrete. When I hop on a flight they make me wear flip-flops, so I carry a pair in my bag,” Franti, 51, told CL ahead of his back-to-back shows at Jannus Live. He started going barefoot after playing soccer with kids in countries where they couldn’t afford shoes. For Franti and his audience, it’s a symbolic reminder that some of the folks who make the world’s goods, coffee, food and furniture can’t even afford the bare essentials.

“That’s become part of my commitment and message of being barefoot — for us to all understand the interdependence. We all walk on the same Earth.”

With his brand new baby Taj on his chest, Franti talked about his new documentary, Stay Human, and how his musical journey went from anger and angst to joy, which he said can be as much of an active resistance as pumping your fist in the air.

Read our full Q&A and get more information on the show below.

Michael Franti & Spearhead. Thurs. & Fri. October 25-26. 7 p.m. $30-$35. Jannus Live, 200 1st Ave. N., St. Petersburg.

Hey Michael good to hear you not on a bus, so I'm assuming you are spending time with Taj. Baby is good at one month old?

Yeah, we had a couple shows, and we showed my documentary last night, and I'm home today, getting on a plan tomorrow and starting up again. Yeah, he's in my arms right now, chillin'. I'm trying to soak in as much as I can.

Yeah, it was interesting to watch the movie, and I don't think I'd seen a placenta before, so that was an interesting take on parenthood from that scene. There are some pretty moving scenes, especially some with Steve and Hope that were pretty emotional.

You know, last night we showed the film to about 500 people, and I don't think there was a dry eye in the whole place. I really feel like the film, at its core, is about the power of human connection and how it is — in the case of Hope and Steve — that two people can overcome what are seemingly the worst diagnoses you can ever get. And yet, they are still so in love with each other, and they still take care of each other. That commitment, or the commitment of Rob and Lynn to go into a hurricane and deliver babies, or a rapper living in a tin shack and then puts himself through university by kerosene lamp. Those are the kind of stories that remind us, or me, I should say, how to connect to other people. I feel like in this world right now that is so divided — there are so many things that are trying to chop us into tribes, and say that this tribe is not worthy of the love of this other tribe — those things really fly out of the window when you see stories like Hope and Steve's.

At the end of the movie you mention seeking out either fear and hatred or hope and live, finding those things, and then becoming them. How do you balance that? On one end we speak out about things like immigration, things like that, so in a way we have to touch fear and hatred.

You know, it's really challenging, and I feel like some days I really neal it, and other days it's like, "What am I doing, right now?" I guess the main thing is to have a moral compass. For example, I was talking to my mom about the situation with children being separated from their families seeking to immigrate here. She was like, "Just remember this Michael: When you were a kid we used to say, don't lock your brother under the bed." You know, like, don't lock children in cages. Sometimes it's that simple, but we forget because of the dialogue and all these other conversations. It should be against our thing to lock children in cages. So there's all these obvious things that are taught to us when we are young that we seem to forget as we get older — they become more complex.

Yeah, I guess it's just so frustrating sometimes because you're trying to have conversations, but they end up so convoluted, so you're trying to engage with someone you care about but you end up in a place without much resolution or even having made that much progress. I know you have a pretty close relationship with Steve, and I am really interested in the editing process behind the movie, but he mentioned that he coded for three minutes, essentially he was dead for three minutes, and I don't know if you can tell this part of the story for him, but did you end up talking to him what dying felt like?

I talked to him about it. He said that it was this great feeling of letting go. He thought that he would be so scared of dying, but when he actually coded he had this feeling of letting go. He felt like he was outside of his body and looking down onto the bed, and that he was surrounded by this white light. He said it was more like a feeling than it was a vision or something like that. But after he came back he was no longer afraid of dying. He was like, "I know what it feels like, I know what's gonna happen to me, and I'm OK with it."

It's something that I think of a lot. I was talking to my tour manager a couple of years ago. I was like, "You know, when you turn 40 you could either have, like three more years to live or 53 more years to live," you know? And it's entirely up to you how you take care of yourself, but then again any of us could have a moment where we're hit by a car or something like that, so you've got to appreciate every precious second, and that was one thing Steve kept telling me, "Don't underestimate the little things." You know, the ability to type, or take a shower, or to hold you partner. Steve was OK with dying and just saying that he appreciates the little things so much more.

Yeah when I started watching the movie I had a question down to ask you how you hold up emotionally after hearing so many heavy stories that you seem to seek out with fans who tell you things. My wife is a nurse in the NICU, so I always ask her how she can come home in one piece, but then there is that scene in the movie where you're in the room with your producers, and you start to break down. I think your mom had just had a stroke, and you were talking about your son. I was wondering, when that kind of stuff happens, and you're editing the movie — and I know you say that "nobody should cry alone" — but is there a point where you leave stuff out of the public conversation, or is you being so public about it a form of you facing your fears, the things that scare you head on?

I mean, I live a life, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year we have our ups and downs, and we try and condense a story into 90-minute movie makes it impossible to show every aspect of who we are, but that particular day, and like you said I had just heard about my mom's stroke and my son's kidney function had dropped to 20-percent, which means he's gonna need a kidney transplant, and it was devastating to me, and I was trying to hold myself together. Like, "Alright I only got a couple days to work with these cats, I gotta finish this record," and they're like, "Bro, something looks wrong with you," and I'm like, "Yeah."

I end up picking up the guitar and start crying. Working with Nico Moon and Ben Simonetti, and those two dudes were like, "It's OK." They were totally able to empathize with me and what I was going through. And then they said, "Do you just wanna split? Do you wanna just break out and quit?," and I was like, "No, what I'd really like to do is just get this all out."

So while we were there writing that song, we condensed it down to a three-minute segment of me writing the song in the film, but that was like two hours of me crying. Every time, we'd write a line in the song, and I'd just break down again, and Nico and Ben were just there. They were there with me, and it was literally like what we said in the song: "Nobody cries alone." I'm not gonna leave you, I'm not gonna let you alone. And they were those guys for me in that moment. If I were ever to look back on my career in music and on moments that were most memorable. That was definitely one of the most memorable experience that I've ever had. I was grateful that we just happened to have our camera guy there to film it and show people. That's where most of my songs come from. They don't always come from that place of deep sadness, but they come from emotions that are real to me. That's where I write from.

Yeah, I don't know that they come from sadness. I mean, in the movie, you're Michael Franti carrying the weight of the message and the way you interact with fans, but it does seem like you do allow yourself to collect all of that emotion and then, when it's time for release you don't fight that kind of thing. It was interesting to see that in the movie. I thought it was cool that you put it in.

Yeah, it's funny. My life in music has been kind of a journey to where I could have that ease of heart. When I was a kid I used to bottle everything in. I grew up in a family where everything was really bottled up, and I think that reflected itself in my earlier music. I was just pissed off all the time. I was constantly pointing the finger at the outside world. The government is messed up, society is messed up, all these things rather than looking at what is really happening inside of me. And now, having gone through all the things that I have gone through, I feel like my life in music has been a journey sort of peel back the onion to get to what's authentic in my life. This film is as much about that. I really believe now, that joy can be as much as an active resistance as pumping your fist in the air. To be able to find happiness and nurture happiness in others during times where there is incredible chaos in the world. That is an act of resistance, and it's also a superpower.

You talk about how hard it is to hang on to your authenticity, dignity and humanity — when is it hard for you at this stage of your career? Is it that manic curiosity, the depression and anxiety? How do you come back to a healthy place — is it just staying off your phone…

The hardest thing for me is that I feel like social media has added this other layer to everything that we do in the world now. You wake up in the morning and, for example you hear about the shooting in Parkland, and then you go out into the world, and you're like, "Alright I'm feeling really sad about this, and I'm also feeling really pissed off about this. How do I talk about this with people who I know are gonna say that it's not about the accessibility of assault weapons?" So you start going through, instead of saying what you really feel, you, or at least I do, start coming up with arguments in your head to counter the arguments that I feel. What ends up happening is that I end up getting it all wrapped up in my head that I just end up not saying what my truth is.

As a musician and an artist who is going on stage every day to reveal my truth and to say what I feel about the world, and also to inspire people to want to connect, sometimes those things are at odds. So it requires courage.

We played in Parkland last week, eight days ago, at an event to remember the children and two teachers who were killed there. And one of the teachers had to children killed in her class. She teaches social studies, and she said that week they'd been studying the holocaust, and she said that there was a holocaust survivor at the event that day, the one we played, and they'd had a conversation. He told her that, "From pain comes great energy, and that no pain should ever be wasted."

So I think of that at times when I am most in that state of pain or anxiety and depression, anger, whatever. Don't waste it. Think of ways to make something productive of it. Think of ways to inspire other people. Think of ways that can bring positivity in the world and not just more pain, so that's my greatest challenge. How can I do that?

You’re doing two nights in St. Petersburg — will they be wholly different sets? What about the Do It For Love outreach here? Plans or ways folks can reach out?

There's not entirely different sets because there are some songs that people just love to hear, so we're gonna do some of those. I would say the sets are gonna be 90-percent different each night, so if you want to come to each night, then you should definitely consider that. Before the second day we're doing a big yoga event there, so people can come out and practice yoga. [baby sounds]

Somebody's hungry.

Haha, yeah, he's on my chest. As far as Do It For The Love, we'll have people out there talking about it. Inspired by Hope and Steve, we bring people who are sick and dying, children and adults with special needs, wounded veterans to see any live concert in any city by any artist. My wife and I both believe strongly in the healing power of music to get people through challenging times. Or just even to make memories for people when they are having last moments with somebody that they love. So you can find out how to get involved in that more. We have volunteers who come help us man the tables.

This might be my last question. I like your no shoes origin story, you’ve done great work with Soles4Soles, and I know that it gives you that much more time when putting an outfit together, but someone on my Facebook wanted to know if you will ever wear shoes again?

Well, I still wear shoes from time to time. For example, I run, I'm a runner. So I wear running shoes when I run on concrete. When I hop on a flight they make me wear flip-flops, so I carry a pair in my bag. I started going barefoot because I was visiting countries where people couldn't afford shoes, and I was playing soccer with kids and I couldn't even take three steps.

I really believe that it's important, recognizing that there are people in the world who can't afford shoes, but they're in a part of the world that is providing goods, coffee, food and furniture and clothing, all these things in other parts of the world who can afford it. We need to make sure that we are creating fair trade and good conditions for the people who provide those things for it. That's become part of my commitment and message of being barefoot — for us to all understand the interdependence. We all walk on the same Earth.

Right on. Well, I hope you have safe travels and that the kid doesn't grow too much while you're gone.

Awesome man. And remind everybody: Just fucking vote.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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