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Bottlerock 2016, Interviews, Music

Interview: Michael Franti talks charity, solo vs festival gigs, and the importance of voting

By: Josh Terzino 

Michael Franti.

Michael Franti.

Michael Franti knows all about the power of music. He knows how it can inspire, uplift and make people want to dance or cry.

“Your mission in life should be to be yourself and to embrace the diversity of others” is a rule that the San Francisco based singer-songwriter-guitarist and philanthropist has diligently followed over the past two decades, proactively creating and supporting numerous environmental, humanitarian and social causes.

Franti and his band Spearhead are known for the communal spirit they create with their extraordinary live shows. The singer regularly brings down the barrier between the performers on stage and the people in the audience; whether venturing into the crowd to slap hands or pulling fans up to dance, sing and play along with the band. He’s a dynamic performer who effortlessly moves tens of thousands of people with his invocations. Watching him, you can’t help but think about how much he delights in every moment.

During a press conference at the 2016 BottleRock Music Festival, Franti discussed the difference between playing a solo show versus playing a festival set, granting wishes with his Do It For The Love foundation, and the importance of voting.

What is the biggest difference between playing a solo bill and playing a big festival like Bottlerock?

Jay [Bowman] and I do a lot of gigs together without the band. Sometimes it’s for 30 people at a radio station, some days it’s for 30,000 people at a festival with the band. Sometimes it’s just Jay and I waking up at like two in the morning and going let’s go play out on the street corner in whatever town we’re in. Always the goal is to try to create intimacy, you know. You want to create a connection and break down that wall between you and the audience. When you do that with more people it can be more exciting, but sometimes it’s more intense when you do it smaller.

What keeps bringing you back to the Bottlerock Festival?

This is my fourth time here out of four years. The first year we played, the second year we didn’t but we had so much fun playing that I just brought my family and hung out. I think the thing that makes it great, you know we’re San Franciscans and there’s no big Northern California fest quite like this that has so many genres and styles of music that appeal across generations. So we love being here. It’s a welcome break to come out here and get away from the city and be in Napa Valley. And there’s wine of course. It’s just a great experience for Northern Californians to have a festival of this scale to experience so that’s why we love to come back.

I know you have this Do It For The Love foundation, did we have any wishes granted at the festival?

My wife Sara and I have a foundation called Do It For The Love which is kind of like Make A Wish for music. So we bring people with advanced stages of life-threatening illness, special needs adults and children, and wounded veterans to see any concert they want to see in North America. I never thought I’d buy as many Taylor Swift tickets as I have in the last two years. We do every kind of concert from Jay Z and Beyonce to Metallica to Clint Black, Garth Brooks. Anything. Yesterday we had a family that was here, we did a wish grant for, and the last two years we’ve done over 500 and by the end of this year we’ll probably be closer to a thousand. We’re super excited about it. We did an event yesterday for it that was sponsored by the festival. Bottlerock has really got behind the Do It For The Love foundation. We did an event last year and the one this year raised twice as much money.

Can you talk about what the significance of the Do It For The Love Foundation is for you?

Sure. It was started when we had a couple who were tweeting us, and the husband had very advanced stages of ALS which is the worst possible disease you could ever get. One day your finger doesn’t work, a week later your hand doesn’t work, then your leg doesn’t work and eventually your whole body becomes paralyzed and you die of the atrophy. So, his wife was saying “Michael you’re his favorite artist if we could come to your show and he could possibly meet you that would be incredible.” So we invited them to come and the day I met Steve he was in a wheelchair he could barely speak in whispers. His wife had to guide the wheelchair around with a joystick. And we brought them out on stage during the show and they got to come out and dance with us on the song “Life Is Better With You.” And I Iook over at Steve and he whispers up to Hope, “Hope, I want to get up and dance.” So with all her strength she lifts his rigored body out of the chair and they have this beautiful slow dance. I started crying and I looked over at Jay, he’s crying, Sara’s crying, the whole audience-20,000 people-are moved by it. And afterwards Steve told me that during the previous two days of the festival he was like the weird guy at the festival that everybody tried to walk away from.

And after the experience of being introduced as Steve, everyone wanted to talk to Steve, “Hey Steve!” “Nice to meet you, Steve.” So Sara and I said “Let’s do this for as many families as we can and it’s just grown from there. The best part of it is not just for the person who’s sick but for the families because often that turns into like a full-time job taking care of someone who is dying. And the other great part is to see how it affects the artist when I get an email from, like Ed Sheeran. He’s done over 20 wish grants and to see how he’s been so inspired by it. So it’s been a win-win for everybody.

You talk a lot about politics in your music and yesterday you made sure you reminded everyone to get out and vote. Can you just talk about the importance for young people to get involved in politics?

Well, you know this year I’ve been looking at the election and I think to myself “This is the most important election we’ve ever had. Possibly for the world.” And then I think to myself, “Four years ago I thought the exact same thing.” And four years before that and four years before that.

We live in a democracy where only half the population is registered to vote. Half of those are either Republicans or Democrats, and then only half of those people actually go out and vote. So you’re talking about half of half of half the people actually elect whoever will be President. It’s more like eight per cent actually vote for the candidate who wins. I said at the end of our set, “I believe in building bridges, not walls,” and I really feel like we need leadership in this country that does that. That reaches across the aisle. That doesn’t look at things as the 99% versus the 1%. We need to have the best that science has to offer, the creativity of entrepreneurs, the wisdom of indigenous people, the enthusiasm and energy of youth.

And everybody has to be involved to address the things that we see that are big in the world-climate change, the refugee crisis. These things are huge, huge issues in the world faces today and America has a big role to play as the most prosperous nation in the world. There’s so much good that we could do and there is so much that needs to take place here before we can have that overspill into other places. And we need leadership that understands that. And I don’t think voting only happens when we elect a President, we have to vote with our dollars 365 days a year in the issues we get behind, the way we support our communities. I want young people to feel like they can vote every day of the year by the things that they do.

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