Michael Franti has a discography that numbers nine studio albums with his current band, Spearhead, as well as one album with his first group, the Beatnigs, and a pair of titles with the influential group that preceded his solo career, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
But he’s never had a recording experience quite like the one he had making his latest album with Spearhead, Soulrocker, produced by Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor and Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee.
“It was actually the most fun that we’ve ever had making a record,” says Franti, whose band headlines Tour de Fat in Tempe on Saturday, October 7.
“Every day, when I would come into the studio, there would be something that was so cool that I just wouldn’t expect. It would be outside of my natural way of thinking about the song and they’d (McGregor or Chin Quee) come up with something that was just really amazing and very different from what I would normally do.”
Bringing in outside producers was a new twist for Franti, who had always handled those duties himself on the previous albums.
But the idea of working with McGregor and Chin Quee seemed too good to pass up.
“Di Genius, Stephen McGregor, he’s the son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor,” Franti says. “When I first heard his name as ‘Di Genius,’ I was like, ‘Who is this guy who’s got the balls to call himself ‘Di Genius’?’ Then I met him and I was like, ‘This guy is a child prodigy.’ He produces everything from dancehall reggae to Gwen Stefani. He’s done stuff with all kinds of artists in the U.K. He’s done stuff with hardcore reggae and dance artists. He’s all over the map. He’s just really an amazing person and a very cool man, very quiet and confident, a great listener.”
Chin Quee met Franti at a Michael Franti & Spearhead concert and suggested working together.
“Supa Dups is a similar kind of vibe (to McGregor), except he’s more like the beat guy,” Franti adds. “He’s super skilled at getting the drums and the bass to sound really powerful and has a really great ear for the overall aesthetics of the song.”
Soulrocker has been touted as bringing a more modern, electronic edge to Franti’s longstanding mix of rock, folk, hip-hop, soul and reggae. But in reality, electronic elements have been working their way into Franti’s sound on the past couple of albums and their use became fairly prominent on his previous album, 2013’s All People.
The blend of electronic and organic works well on Soulrocker. The programmed rhythms and spacey synth lines put a futuristic spin on folk-world beat-flavored “My Lord” and the dance-pop sound of “We Are All Earthlings.” The mix of reggae, hip-hop and electronics on “Once A Day” makes for an especially buoyant track.
Perky keyboard tones bring a poppy edge to “Get Myself to Saturday” and the beachy folk of “Summertime is in Our Hands.”
“I mean, on the last record, it was very much in the same way of combining rhythms that people can dance to with songs and lyrics that have meaning,” Franti says. “So it’s very much a progression, as all of my records have been.”
What has also evolved is Franti’s lyrical tone. On his early solo albums, Franti’s lyrics were serious, and sometimes critical and angry, but the tone of his messages has softened. While he’s still plenty topical on the new album (“Good to Be Alive Today” is a prime example), the emphasis now is more often positive, encouraging people to work together and use the power of love to change their lives and the world around them for the better.
The shift has been intentional, Franti says, and came, first, from what he saw on trips over recent years to places such as Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Africa. As he played songs for people he encountered, he found they weren’t interested in commentary about the world’s problems so much as they wanted to hear upbeat, danceable music they could enjoy as an escape.
That kind of enriching, communal vibe is what Franti and Spearhead will seek to create with their live shows this summer. And Franti has incorporated specific elements in the concerts to help achieve that goal.
“That’s why I spend a lot of time at our shows getting into the audience,” he says. “So I get my headset mic on and I get my acoustic guitar. I run to the top of the venue. I go all throughout whatever place we’re playing. We set up stages in multiple parts of whatever venue we’re in and get out there and play on them. For me, it’s a really great way to feel like I personally am connected, and it’s also a great way to break down that barrier between the stage and the audience. We feel like we’re in this together.”
Tour de Fat, Tempe Beach Park, 80 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, newbelgium.com, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, October 7, $25. Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at 7:30 p.m.