Michael Franti has just spent the last hour and a half reading The Lion King and singing songs with his son Taj and wife Sara. It was a morning like any other: family time, music, and reflection. Zoom’ing from his yoga retreat in Bali, at which he and his family have been locked in quarantine, he radiates warmth. “We’re mostly happy,” he tells American Songwriter over a conversation last week.
Always one to celebrate the silver linings, Franti observes the beauty which could sprout out of this extremely “scary and uncomfortable” time. “We’re all in this together,” he says. “I want people to take time to have gratitude for those who are on the front lines and for the people we’ve lost and the gifts they gave us.”
He hopes a greater sense of empathy, above all else, comes from such a global pandemic. Despite economic strain and personal loss due to COVID-19, Franti is already thinking: “What is the world, and the life, we want to create for ourselves and the planet?”
Such optimism is nothing new. Those close to him, and those who’ve followed his career with Spearhead since 1994, know exactly the kind of person he is. He’d give you the shirt off his back and wrap you in a hug 一 and then, he’d serenade you with an acoustic song about hope and love. That’s just who he is.
When it comes to his upcoming album, Work Hard & Be Nice (out June 19), a mantra based on a best-selling t-shirt he sold on last year’s tour, Franti unlocks a vital exuberance the world could certainly use right now. He began writing for the record (now up for pre-order) last summer while on the road, and the title song, co-written with country staple Jonathan Singleton (Gary Alan, Tim McGraw, Josh Turner), drives the album’s spirit forward.
“When I started thinking about [that mantra], I thought, ‘That’d be a really great song title.’ Right now, this message is so important for the world. We see so much division out there, whether it’s political or religious or around sexuality or gender identity or race ─ all these ways of dividing people,” he details. “Yet one thing COVID-19 has shown is we all go through the same shit. No one is immune from suffering… or the simple joys we enjoy.”
Franti has only started actively co-writing for his last three records, but opportunity has opened up a whole new world for him. “One of the things I always thought while writing songs alone was if I did it myself, it would be more of what was inside me,” he says. However, what he found in outside collaborations was unique perspectives to arrive at the same place, often surprising himself with how much he had in common with his creative peers.
“To write with Jon and tell a story that still sounded like me was really exciting. We got together in a room, and he came up with the guitar riff,” Franti notes. “We went through the song line by line.”
“Work Hard & Be Nice” is a brassy, low-key slice of optimism, a performance that will undoubtedly soothe in these troubling times. Through the process, the songwriters peeled back the layers and cut through the noise of what makes for a happy existence. “Everybody wants a good life, a home, good friends. We all have a hole in our soul that we’re trying to fill with things or ways to numb our soul from having to feel too much when we get overwhelmed,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the idea of working hard and being nice is what’s in every good book out there, from the Bible to the Quran to the Torah. It’s a universal truth.”
Franti packages numerous such truths across the album’s 17 songs. One of two instant grat tracks, “I’m on Your Side,” co-written with Sean McConnell (Martina McBride, David Naill, Brothers Osborne), extends a shoulder to cry on. “If you’re weary, and you’re broken / And you don’t know what to hope in / If you’re willing, and you’re able / Come and meet me at the table,” he sings.
Evidenced within the song’s rich, warm sonic layers, the songwriting collaboration elicited an equally emotional payoff. “Sean is one of the most emotionally aware songwriters I’ve ever written with. He doesn’t go into a session, thinking, ‘What’s going to make a hit song?’ He thinks, ‘What is at the emotional core of what we’re trying to say?,’” Franti recalls. “I told him we were going out on tour with Kenny Chesney this year, and I said, ‘In this time of so much division, one of the reasons Kenny invited me out on this tour was to bring people together of different walks of life and musical experiences to show we can be one.’”
The two began brainstorming on how to best structure the message, lyrically. “We started coming up with ideas of what that would mean ─ how do you put that into a phrase? Everything we began saying ─ like ‘we are all one’ ─ started to sound like ‘We are the World’ or something,” he continues with a laugh. “That really wasn’t what I was trying to say. I was trying to say we all have shared experiences that make us one ─ even though we live in different parts of the world.”
Once the verses took root, the hook slowly revealed itself. “Then, it was like, what could it be… ‘I’m on Your Team.’ Then, finally, ‘I’m on Your Side’ came, and it made so much sense.”
“I’m on Your Side” contains a healing charm. While not particularly radio friendly, the song begged to be released right now ─ alongside a vulnerable music video shot and edited over 48 hours in Bali. “It was a challenge. Normally, when we shoot a video, you have basically the whole world of opportunity for locations to shoot. If you need to hire extras, you cast the people,” he says. “We’re quarantined here, and there’s only a very small circle of friends that we’ve been in contact with. So, we had to make the video with everybody who’s just here staying during the quarantine. We had to stretch our creative limits in that way.”
He adds, “It ended up being a really beautiful video. I wanted this song to be the first song that people heard. I feel like this song is most exemplary of what is happening in the world right now.”
The second instant grat track is “How We Living,” a soul-electrifying jolt. “Dive into the deep end / We don’t need a reason / Jumpin’ right into the weekend,” Franti rides the feel-good wave.
A co-write with OneRepublic’s Tim Myers, the song grew out of the initial chord progression and erupted into pounding drums and a contagious, arena-sized rhythm. “I was super excited to write with Tim because he has this energy in his songs. They have big beats to them, but the beat isn’t what carries the rhythm. It’s the words and phrasing.”
“I see your soul,” he sings. “Just let it go.”
And the listener can’t help but be swept away into sheer bliss. “It’s all about how we’re experiencing life in challenging situations, but we still have to have space to play. As hard as we work, we have to play just as hard, as well,” he says. “When you write with Tim, it’s really an amazing thing. I’ve never experienced anyone who listens to music as loud as he does. His speakers are blowing up in the room. It’s distorting. You’re passing ideas off like somebody’s hard of hearing.”
“This song is so happy and feels so good. I hope it’s a song when people are on quarantine and need that break that they just put it on with their family and dance in the kitchen or jump on the bed or sing in the shower.”
Later, with a song called “Daycation,” Franti strips things back for a breezy, yet organic, moment of yearning. “I was thinking of the idea that some days, I just need a vacation. I can’t always create the space in my life to take off for two weeks or four days. Sometimes, I just need one day to get my head on straight,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the fight, the larger struggle that’s always taking place to improve the lives of our families, communities, and the planet. It just means you need a break for like six hours. We take a drive down the coast or we sit in bed and make popcorn. Or we go out and look at the stars.”
“Daycation” is an apt set-up for the album closer, “Watching the World Go by With You.” Complete with an inserted recording of actual waves, its calming effect nearly tempts you into a quiet, restful slumber. “Through the oceans, swim with the whales / To the mountains, we will sail / On the wings of hope and a prayer / See the cities with wind in our hair,” he coos.
The musician paints with hypnotizing majesty. Written with Carl Young, his long-time bass player, the song captures Franti’s journey with his wife Sara. “We experience the highs and lows of life together. I told Carl I had this idea about how the world can be so hectic, and when you’re in it, it’s hard to see the beauty all the time,” he says. “You’re living a chaotic experience. Every now and then, you have the joy of seeing earth from outer space, basically, and see how beautiful the world is when it’s just floating by. As earthlings with our feet on the ground, we only get to experience that from photographs.”
Sometimes, such an experience hits you when you’re lounging at “the beach or sitting in a park and watching people go by. You start to tell yourself stories of all the people you see when you’re in Times Square ─ and what is that guy’s life? And I wonder where she’s from? You see the world from outside a little bit, and it helps put perspective on it. My wife and I do that for each other. In times when we feel the most stressed out and most worried, she gives me that perspective.”
On adding the frothy wave introduction, he notes, “I was listening to the song at the beach here in Bali actually. I thought, ‘Oh, it sounds really cool with the waves in the background, bleeding through my headphones.’ So, I recorded some waves on my phone at the beach and went back and put it into the recording.”
Alongside the album announcement today, on Earth Day no less, Franti is also streaming his 2019 documentary, Stay Human, for 24 hours on his YouTube channel beginning at 8 pm EST. The 90-minute feature is a celebration of life and centers around five people from around the globe ─ depicting their struggles and, more importantly, their resilience to cherish every single moment. Against all odds, Arief Rabik, Steve & Hope Dezember, Busisiwe Vais, Robin Lim, and Sive Mazinyo embody the best, most triumphant of the human spirit.
In the early quarter of the film, Franti mulls over the tools we’re all given, as human beings, to understand our existence and roles in the world. Often, admittedly, he’s found his gift for music-making to be a “cruel joke,” he said. He offers a fuller explanation, saying, “Music is something that can be as frustrating as it can be incredible. There are times, creatively and professionally, as a musician when you look at yourself and go, ‘Why did I ever choose this?!’ Then, you have those moments that surpass understanding when you play a song for the first time, and you see someone’s reaction and a tear well up in their eye. The only other time I’ve really felt that feeling has been when I’ve fallen in love or my children were born. As a songwriter, I have that feeling a lot. “
“On the other side of it, you go, ‘It’s just not there for me today. It’s not flowing. I’ve written three songs, five songs, 10 songs, and I don’t know if any of them are good…’ It can be something that makes you feel frustrated.”
Through his globe-trotting storytelling, Franti’s Stay Human hones in on the human experience. Despite varying backdrops ─ from economic status, political affiliations, and race to gender and sexuality ─ we all experience joy, pain, triumph, tragedy, and even death in much the same way. This profound thesis weaves in and out of each story, embedded with Franti’s own, in a truly cathartic way.
“One of the profoundest things was going to go visit the Philippines where the hurricane had just hit. I’m there, and they’re literally pulling out dozens of bodies from the debris. Then, you see people, on the most basic level, trying to put their lives back together,” he recollects. “Then, a few weeks later, I was back in Atlanta visiting with Hope and Steve. Steve was battling ALS and fighting for his life at every moment. There is Hope nurturing him and really saving his life dozens of times a day. You see how in a world sense that life is really fragile. Then, I saw in a very up-close sense how love between two people can be enough.”
Steve Dezember, who combated ALS for nine years, passed away earlier this month. “I’ve tried to find words to say this, but right now, all I can say is I’m heartbroken, but Steve got to pass away at home after seeing his family comfortable in his own surroundings,” Hope revealed on Instagram, attaching a touch wedding photo. “He will forever be my main motivation in life and my favorite person. I will love you forever, boopy, and I’ll never stop telling your story.”
Franti stops a moment to reflect. “He was such an inspiration for me, because he couldn’t talk. For so many years, he had to communicate with only his eyes and moving his lips so Hope could read his words. Eventually, he got an iReader and was able to communicate through that. As a songwriter, it was so powerful to see Steve fight so hard for every word ─ these things we take for granted.”
Within the documentary’s final 10 minutes, the singer-songwriter considers the importance of pain in our lives: “We learn from our struggles. So, maybe, our struggles are our greatest gifts, because they help us shine light on the beauty that we could never see before ─ but that was always there.”
Stay Human reminds us no one is exempt from enduring tragedy. It’s how we get back up that matters. Particularly in 2020, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc to all cultures and peoples, this message could not be more timely. “The one thing about this virus is that it hasn’t spared anybody. Wherever there’s air, the virus has reached ─ even to the furthest reaches of the rainforest. I saw there were people in villages and tribes who had very little or no contact with the outside world.”
“It’s also highlighted the inequities we see in the world, how many people who are poor that are dying from this disease, and how when we don’t have health systems in place that work for everyone, people without healthcare suffer first. Gig workers, and others who are out there doing the tasks that go unnoticed everyday, we realize just how important that work really is.”
Work Hard & Be Nice, co-produced by Franti, Myers, McConnell, Chris Stevens, and Nathan Chapman, arrives June 19.