The San Francisco-based musician and leader of Michael Franti & Spearhead has been preparing for the band’s first-ever performance at the Fillmore in Silver Spring on Saturday. Here, A&E catches up with the socially conscious singer about the success of the band’s single “Say Hey (Love You),” his charity work and why he’s been barefoot for more than 10 years now.
A&E: Your single “Say Hey (Love You)” from the 2008 album, “All Rebel Rockers” was on the Top 20 Chart for 63 weeks. It also had a ton of commercial play including on an episode of “Weeds” and in the movie “Valentine’s Day.” Were you anticipating the success?
Franti: No. Not at all. We started in 1994 and that [song] became a hit in 2010 so it was like 16 years of overnight success [laughs]. We’ve never had a song in the top 20,000 let alone the Top 20, so we were like, “This is a big surprise.” We’re all just grateful for the success the last few records have had. Really well-received by both our fans and the radio.
A&E: You had a pretty serious health scare around that time the song was released, right?
Franti: Right when the song came out, my appendix ruptured on tour and I came very close to dying. So it just put everything in perspective, like, wow you have a big hit but you could be dead the next day...
A&E: What was the inspiration for the latest album, “All People?”
Franti: The songs are all about asking yourself, “If I only have x amount of days on this planet, how do I want to spend them and who do I want to spend them with? What’s the mark I want to leave here, on this life, my friends, my family, the planet?” It’s also a celebration of diversity. The diversity we see in this country and around the planet and the title track “All People” is really a statement. No matter if they’re black, white, gay, straight, rich or poor, all of us are significant. All of us matter. And that’s really what the record is about. And then stylistically, we really wanted to combine songs that I’ve written on the acoustic guitar with electronic song and dance music.
A&E: How would you answer that question? How would you spend your days knowing you only had x amount left on the planet?
Franti: First thing, I have an amazing partner in my life, Sara, who is really incredible. I have two great sons who I love dearly and the three of them are really the most important people in my life. But I also want to make a difference in the world. I want to be somebody who promotes positivity and I really believe that the positivity in me will find solutions for problems that we face in life and in our world.
A&E: You’re known for your social and political activism. What are some of the issues that have your attention at the moment?
Franti: Obviously right now in the news it’s the issue with Syria. Should we attack Syria for using chemical weapons? I wrote a song years ago called “Bomb the World,” and you know, we can bomb the world to pieces but we can’t bomb it into peace. Today is Sept. 11. We felt what it was like to be bombed and any time we do that anywhere else in the world, people are going to feel the same thing. Before we consider dropping one bomb that’s going to kill even one civilian, we should make sure that every form of diplomacy has been enacted. So that’s what I’m hopeful for in this situation.
A&E: You’re also giving back through the foundation you recently started, “Do it For the Love Foundation.” What can you tell us about the mission of the organization?
Franti: We started the foundation to bring people with advanced stages of life-threatening illnesses and kids with severe disabilities and wounded veterans to live concerts. Any fan can contact us and say, some band is coming to my town who I want to see and we’re kind of like the Make-A-Wish Foundation for music. We like making it possible to get to shows for free.
A&E: What inspired you to start the foundation?
Franti: Sara is an emergency room nurse so we’re always trying to think of ways to combine what she does in health care with what I do in music. Throughout my years of touring, I’ve had lots of people say, you know, “I have cancer, I have Lou Gehrig’s disease, I have something where I’m close to dying and I want to come to your show.” We would always invite them and bring them backstage and find a special place for them to watch the show from. Fans who did that were always really moved. They’d say, “Concerts are my favorite thing and it made a beautiful memory for myself and my family.” Sara and I met a couple, Hope and Steve. Steve has Lou Gehrig’s disease. A lot of times you see somebody who’s in a wheelchair or who’s paralyzed and you think to yourself, “Oh, that poor person.” But having met Steve and Hope, I don’t think that anymore. Now when I see someone I think to myself, “I wonder what their name is. I’d like to talk to them and find out about their life.”
A&E: You haven’t worn shoes for the last 13 years. When and why did you make that decision?
Franti: It started 13 years ago on my birthday, April 21. I had been traveling to a lot of countries where kids couldn’t afford to wear shoes so I came home and I was like, “I wonder if I could go just three days barefoot, just to see what it’s like.” So I decided to go barefoot for three days and then three days turned into three weeks and a month and a year.
A&E: And it’s actually led you to a partnership with another charity, right?
Franti: After ten years, I started partnering with “Soles4Souls.” They bring shoes to people who can’t afford them or who lost them in some natural disaster. They started after Hurricane Katrina bringing shoes down to New Orleans and from there they went to Haiti and now they’re in dozens of countries around the world. They collect shoes and bring them ... we have shoe collections at our shows and we’re working with them to get the word out about the work they do.”