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MICHAEL FRANTI Eloquent Sufficiency

Michael Franti
Michael Franti

  “There’s always a wealth of things to write about. I think the challenge for me is to find new ways to do it.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead are joined by Donavon Frankenreiter Blue King Brown and Tijuana Cartel at Red Hill Auditorium on Saturday, April 18. ADAM MORRIS reports.

Years ago, one of my university lecturers sat the class down and proceeded to explain why Michael Franti was the most important lyricist at large in the world today.

It was a big claim, but that particular lecturer was weirdly intimidating and so we dutifully wrote down the singer’s name and set forth to find the truth for ourselves. I’m glad we did, because Franti is indeed a musician whose songs are not just catchy as hell, but inspire you to question the life around you. Just don’t call him an academic’s musician.

“I’ve thought about that, and there was a time when I used to hate that moniker,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a songwriter just for intellectuals, you know? I think that one of the things that I’ve learnt over the years is that to be able to state something simply, to mean what you say and say what you mean within a melody that lots of people can understand, it’s a craft that’s really challenging. Not to write pages and pages of words that explain everything, but kind of leave some mystery there, to try and be eloquent in a shorter space. There’s always a wealth of things to write about. I think the challenge for me is to find new ways to do it.”

One of Franti’s favourite collaborations came from his early days remains to him as one of “the coolest things I’ve ever done musically”. This was his 1993 work with William S. Burroughs.

“I was out on tour at the time with U2. Bono, myself, and my Disposable Heroes partner Rono (Tse) went into this really fancy hotel room, and Burroughs shows up with a bowling ball bag. He drops it on the bed, and it bounced really heavily, like there was an actual bowling ball in there. I was really impressed. I mean, the guy’s like 80 years old and he’s still going bowling? And then he goes…”

Franti clears his throat and delivers an uncannily accurate, reedy Burroughs impersonation.

“‘I’ve just come from the shooting range and I thought you might like to see my gun collection,’ and he pulls out this .357 Magnum, the Dirty Harry gun. The barrel of the gun was so long, it’s like one of those tricks where you reach into a cup and pull out a walking cane, watching this giant gun come out of a bowling ball bag. And then he says, ‘Here’s my 9mm, here’s my .38 special I got in New York in 1948, here’s this, here’s that’. This whole collection is coming out of this tiny bag, and he’s handing them to us and we’re brandishing them around, posing with them in the mirror, pretending to shoot. And then he goes over to Rono and goes, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Don’t point that thing at anyone, are you crazy?’ And he opens up the chamber and there’s still one bullet left in it. And we all let out this collective gasp, amazed that none of us had just got our head blown off. After we left we were all talking about it, and we were pretty sure he did that just for effect.”

Franti laughs at the memory. “Like, ‘Here are these big rock stars coming in, thinking they’re pretty badass. But I’ll show them who’s really the bad ass here’.

Franti’s music has gone through a wealth of transformations over the years. From his own university days playing with spoken-word/industrial outfit The Beatnigs, to The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, to his ongoing odyssey with Spearhead, Franti’s lyrics have always been charged with social and creative commentary. Finding the right vehicle for his expression, though, has not always been a straightforward ride. The effort to match substance to sound has seen radical shifts in both his songwriting and his musical philosophy.

“There was a specific moment when I was writing a song about HIV testing for the very first Spearhead album, called Positive. I remember I’d written a song with Disposable Heroes about the AIDS crisis, and it was like, ‘Fuck the government because they’re not responding, it’s a real crisis out there’. I live in San ’Cisco, which if New York was ground zero for AIDS, then day two was San Francisco. So I went and got tested myself, and when that happened I was suddenly stricken with fear and sadness. I realised it was impossible for me to write a song about HIV testing that would empower anyone else to go get tested if it was filled with anger and rage. It had to be something that was almost sexual, that was whispered. And that’s really the way the song came across.

“I realised whatever song that I write has to emotionally fit the music in the same way that I score a screenplay in a movie scene. That really opened up a whole new world of musicality to me.”

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