photo credit: Michael Finn
The transition from angry young man to a wise, optimistic adult can be difficult. For Michael Franti, it took time in therapy, recognizing the changes in society and developing a more mindful existence through his yoga practice to accomplish this.
That doesn’t mean Franti has gone soft. Far from it. He remains committed to activism and promotes humanitarian causes that include his Do It For the Love Foundation. His aim remains the same — bringing people together in a joyful manner and inspiring them while pushing for a quality of life that’s better for all.
His thank you to fans who contributed to his video for “How We Living” reflects his attitude. “It’s an important time we are living in and we are grateful for the community of people around the world who are committed to making the world a better place. I encourage you all to keep looking deep, asking the questions and showing up with mindfulness, passion and optimism!”
His latest album, Work Hard & Be Nice, continues the musical path that developed around the time of 2008’s All Rebel Rockers, which was led by the single, “Say Hey (I Love You”). On tracks such as “Good Shit Happens” and “Start Small Think Big” and the title track, he acknowledges the drawbacks in daily life that can create a negative mindset but turns that mindset upside down by fixating on the brighter side of life. His charismatic gift results in intoxicatingly feel-good music that’s never overbearingly sentimental or idealistic.
In our conversation, a decade since our last one, we discussed being stranded at his Soulshine Bali hotel and yoga center due to the Indonesian COVID-19 lockdown as well as his purposeful move towards promoting optimism, different attitude towards corporations now and reflections on touring with U2 and his musical hero Billy Bragg. This takes place a couple days after his last Soul Rocker House Party of the summer. The livestreamed musical event featured Franti along with local musicians and others who live nearby or work at Soulshine Bali. He plans on having additional house parties on Sept. 19, Oct. 30, Nov. 21.
JPG: We haven’t done this in a long while. Last time we spoke it was for Jambands back in 2010. A lot has changed since then. First off, you’re in Bali now. Did you leave the U.S. when you found out that all concerts were being canceled?
MF: We own a hotel here called Soulshine Bali and it’s a yoga retreat center. We were here, my wife and I, leading a yoga retreat at the end of February. We were planning to stay for the first two weeks of March. When we heard everything was starting to quarantine around the world, we decided that we were gonna postpone our tour that was to start in April until May. That was what we thought, “By May this is all gonna be cleared up.” (laughs)
Then at the start of April, the Indonesian government shut the whole country down. All the ingoing and outgoing flights have been shut ever since that time. So, technically we’ve been stranded on a tropical Island here, and there hasn’t been any way to fly home yet.
JPG: That’s crazy. I guess there could be worse things, but still…
MF: We’re super-blessed. This has been, of course, a crazy time for everybody. Just speaking of the hotel, one of the reasons that I built it, the first reason is I love yoga and I wanted to create a place where people could hit the reset button in their life. The second reason that I built it was I thought if everything all goes completely dead with music at any point in my life, at least I’ll have the hotel to rely on. Little did I figure in global pandemic (laughs) as one of the things that would potentially shutdown the music and it’s completely…we lost every single booking for our entire year at the hotel. So, it’s literally just been me, my wife and my two-year-old son at the hotel.
JPG: I watched your Aug. 15 livestream concert. Who were the people that joined you, the musicians and dancers?
MF: The different musicians are local and I’ve jammed with and the dancers are some guides who I know, men and women, who have been in one of my music videos who live in Bali, who I invited over to come see the whole thing, but I wish they were all staying.
JPG: I thought some of them were people from town and some that worked at Soulshine Bali and others that were staying there.
MF: Yeah. They are people from close by.
JPG: So, Indonesia still has a strict lockdown…
MF: Yeah. The only tourism in Indonesia now is within the country – Indonesian travelers — but most people here have very little resources to do any kind of tourism like that. So that squashed all that business, and then there’s no foreigners allowed into the country right now unless you’re a government agency or doing relief work or some kind of environmental science or something like that but no tourism at the moment. It was scheduled to reopen on September 11th but they just pushed that back again to at least January 1st.
JPG: So, you still have no opportunity to go back home to San Francisco.
MF: No, unless we can figure out a way to fly to a neighboring country like Australia or something like that.
JPG: You have Soulshine Bali, and I’ve always wondered, what is it about Bali that appeals to you and how has it changed you?
MF: Well, the first time I came to Bali I fell in love with the Balinese culture. People here are so incredible. That was in 2007. Bali is an island of creative geniuses, and what I mean by that is everybody, whether you’re a banker, shop owner or something like that, everyone does some form of art. Everyone either carves wood or makes jewelry out of gold or silver or creates batik or does stone cutting…As you travel the island, each village you go through has a different craft that they make.
The second thing is that they have this system called Banjar and it’s a way that they organize their society. So, within each village, you’ll have groups of 75 families who will make decisions for their community. And it’s all done by consensus. So, there’s no majority rule. They have to all agree on what they’re going to do. They’re planning a new road to be built or there’s some holiday that they’re celebrating, everyone gets together and contributes towards that celebration of that holiday. And they do a lot of ceremony. It’s Hindu culture. Every two weeks there’s a massive ceremony that goes on.
They all really work together and they’re all super-creative and just very kind people. I fell in love with the culture. It’s a beautiful tropical Island here, so that’s great. I thought it would be a good place to buy a little piece of land and, hopefully, build a little vacation home. So, we built five rooms with a yoga studio on top and it was like, “If you build it, they will come.” Sure enough, we started getting teachers bringing in groups of students here. Over the years we kept putting the money back into building more rooms and we are up to 32 rooms now.
JPG: When you’re describing the Banjar, it sounds, and the way the people get together, it sounds like a Native-American situation with the group of elders and the rest of the tribe getting together.
MF: Yes. It does. It’s very traditional. The most important thing about it is that everyone participates and the Banjar system is more influential than the federal government here. They police themselves. There is a national police force that would deal with any kind of violent situation like that but in terms of just dealing with everyday things that happen in the community, the members of the community rotate to take turns on being the security for the community. It’s really remarkable.
JPG: Have you been there long enough that you’re able to attend one and voice your opinion?
MF: Because our hotel’s located in this village called Mas, the mayor of the Banjar that we’re part of — he was at the show and he was one of the people dancing there. So, we have a very close relationship with him, and we do stuff, too. Right now, we’re doing a donation to the community to buy food because probably half the people in the community have lost their jobs since the quarantine and a majority of people either grow rice or work in tourism. People are still growing rice but the tourism side of it is completely shutting down.
JPG: Segueing to the new album and your viewpoint of promoting optimism. Does being there and doing yoga and being part of that community inspire you from being an angry young man of the past to an optimistic older man now?
MF: Yeah. I feel like my whole life, I feel like even everyday, still — I kind of talk about it in the film Stay Human — everyday I wake up and there’s this voice in my head, that’s cynicism and there’s this other voice in my head that’s optimism. It’s a constant battle.
Yoga has been one of the things that’s helped me to train my mind, to focus on optimism. A friend of mine was talking to me about the various thoughts that we have and I forget how exactly how she laid it out, but she was like, “If you have a negative thought about the future that’s fear, If you have a positive thought about the future that’s optimism. And if you have balanced thought about the future that’s planning.” The same thing goes for thoughts about the past. If you have a negative thought about the past, it can be regret. If you have a positive thought about the past, it can be a joyful memory.
It’s something that you can learn, train your mind to do, to go to that part of the brain that says, “Okay, even though we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us, who knows how many months can turn into years before we can do another concert again or we’ll have another guest at our hotel but I’m still gonna do everything I can to plan for that future so that when it’s ready to hit, we’re golden.” So, during this time, there’s been moments when I or my wife, us as a couple, have drifted into that other side where it’s like, “Aw man, we’re fucked. What are we going to do? How are we going to earn a living? When are we going to be able to travel again? What if one of us gets sick?” So, every day, we get up and it’s how do we refocus our mind to that optimistic side or at least that planning side to make sure that we’re preparing ourselves, keeping our body healthy and keeping each other’s spirits.
It’s been very challenging and that’s a reason why all the years that I’ve been making music that I’ve done it is that I wanted to make music that helped people to get through challenging times. I write them from my own experience trying to get myself up in the morning.
Everyday we have a dance party and almost everyday we listen to my music (laughs) at our dance party. We wake up in the morning and put on some music in the bed and we either jump on the bed or jump on the floor and dance with my son and get our blood pumping, and then go, “Alright, how are we going to start today? What do we got ahead of us? Let’s get up and face it with optimism.”
And the second half of it with this album, Work Hard & Be Nice, has been working hard. That’s what we’re doing now. We just decided rather than roll over with the hotel, let’s just do everything we can to repair rooms, build new things and tweak our restaurant menu, keep our staff employed at halftime. Even though we don’t have any guests we’re still paying people because we believe in them. So, we’re just trying to figure out a way through.
JPG: I can identify with that fight between optimism and cynicism. My wife, who is a yoga teacher and owned a yoga studio, she’s more of the optimist, trying to get me to always look on the bright side. I’ll even admit, the first time I listened to “Work Hard & Be Nice,” I was like, “Ugh, Franti’s doing that positive stuff again. Where’s a “Yell Fire!” track on this album?” Then, I listened to it a few days later and it felt right and lifted my spirits. So, that’s music and the power of your mind, I guess.
MF: You know what? I was at the Byron Bay Bluesfest years ago and George Clinton was performing there and we were sitting on a panel together and he said, “Funk is just the blues sped up.” I was really intrigued by what he was saying. Then he said, “Let me explain it. The blues, you talk about your sadness, “My baby left me or I ain’t got no money” and then you speed it up and we celebrate because we’ve gone through the sadness and we’ve come to the other side of it.” I thought that was really remarkable and just spot on way that I view music.
If you listen to my songs that are really joyful songs, they never start off being joyful. I always talk about the shitty stuff that’s happened and then how do we get to the other side? A good example of that is “Good Shit Happens” — “I love my crazy days, but it might not seem that way today.”
I talk about all the challenges that I’m going through on a day-to-day basis but I can get to this other point and this other place in it. That’s why listeners have come to my music over the years and it’s what I try to do. I don’t have a lot of really super-sad songs, maybe “Nobody Cries Alone” on the last record (“Stay Human II”). I don’t have a lot of really sad songs because I’m trying to fix that part of me, and I guess that’s what I’ve learned through yoga is that there’s a way to find that joy again, and there’s a way to find that optimism and still be in the fight, and still be in the struggle and still be raising my voice politically. It doesn’t have to just be from a place of anger or sadness. It can be from a place of empowerment.