Track By Track: Michael Franti ‘Stay Human Vol. II’
“Throughout my entire adult life, I have lived through depression and anxiety. It’s something I’ve had to work on,” Michael Franti reveals as he discusses the origins of his documentary Stay Human, which also inspired the music on his new record Stay Human Vol. II.
In 2001, Franti & Spearhead released an album titled Stay Human and, while this new recording is not a sequel proper, it draws on a similar animating principle: an exploration of the phrase “stay human.” Franti directed the film, which originated with an interview he had hoped to conduct with Robin Lim, a midwife in Indonesia who also founded a series of free health clinics to assist some of the world’s most impoverished citizens. However, what Franti had initially envisioned as a two-minute Facebook video soon evolved into something more substantive. Upon calling Lim in November 2013, he discovered she was in the Philippines assisting the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda, which had killed over 6,000 people and displaced millions.
“We flew over to the Philippines and filmed her,” Franti recalls, “and then I realized it was more than I could cover in two minutes. So that started me on the journey of interviewing these people who gave me incredible access to their lives. The film flips back and forth between those people and my personal journey—the things that I’ve gone through the past few years that have been most challenging.
“One thing I’ve found that helps with my depression is that if I can change my thoughts, I can change my feelings,” he continues. “It’s like a muscle you need to exercise and one of the ways that I’ve learned is by hearing other people’s stories. I’ve discovered that there is no one you wouldn’t love if you knew their story. So this film touches on people who have influenced my life. They’re all just ordinary people I’ve met in my travels over the years, who are doing extraordinary things to make a difference in the lives of other people. Their tenacity and love have shown me what it means to be human and how to hold onto that in the crazy times we’re living in.”
I wrote “Little Things” after the numerous mass shootings that have recently taken place. One of them was the Route 91 concert in Vegas. I had a show that same night [at the Oro Valley Music Festival in Tucson, Ariz.]. When I walked offstage, the news about that shooting was the first thing I came across on my phone. The fact that it happened at a country concert, of all places, really hit home for me and taught me that gun violence is affecting everyone. In the song I say, “I remember when a bar fight was a fistfight/ It never ended in a gunfight.”
The song is about appreciating the little things—like that feeling when you’re walking down the street and someone catches your eyes and smiles. It makes you feel different.
Those little things are really important and they do matter.
Just to Say I Love You
I wrote this song with two incredible writers who have become my really deep friends, Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti. Niko had opened up for me on tour a few years earlier when he was known as Nic Cowan. I wasn’t sure who Niko Moon was, but my manager told me: “He’s someone we think would be great for you to write with.” Then I walked into the room and I’m like, “Hey, Nic, what’s up? What are you doing here?” And he told me: “I’m Niko Moon now.” It was a funny experience.
He had put together this cool ukulele part that was kind of buried in these other tracks of synthesizers and drums and bass lines. Then we stripped it down and I just started singing to the ukulele part.
The song is about how in our relationships—whether it’s with your wife or your kids or your parents or your friends—you’ve got to find new ways to say I love you. I had been writing on my own, and then I got into the studio with Niko, and that’s the first song we wrote in the first 10 minutes that we were there.
Flower in the Gun (feat. Victoria Canal)
I wrote this song with an artist named Victoria Canal, as well as Niko and Ben. Victoria is a woman I came across randomly on Instagram. She was born with only part of her right arm and, when I saw her playing guitar, I was really blown away. Then, I heard her sing and I thought, “Holy cow, this woman has an incredible voice!” From there, I started going through all her videos and I discovered that she’s an incredible pianist. So I sent her a direct message and said, “I’m making this album called Stay Human and it’s all about finding inspiration in challenging times and I love what you do. Would you be interested in coming to Nashville and writing a song with me?”
So she came down and I told her about my life—how I was raised in this mixed family. I was given up for adoption at birth and the Franti family, who had three kids of their own, adopted me and another African-American son. I went to a mostly white school and I would get bullied a lot as a kid, so I asked Victoria about what her life was like growing up. She said that being the only one-armed kid in her school, she would also get picked on a lot, so we started writing “Flower in the Gun,” which is about being your authentic self and speaking up for who you are. It also emphasizes that each of us has the ability and potential to be that flower in the gun, a metaphor for putting an end to violence, bullying and hate.
Only Thing Missing Was You 2 (feat. HIRIE)
I was on tour with HIRIE and, one day, I said, “Why don’t you come sit in on this song, ‘Only Thing Missing Was You.’” We were in Boise, Idaho, and when she sang, it started to sound like a completely different song. I loved it, so I said, “Let’s go into the studio right now.”
We rewrote the verses and the bridge of the song and just redid it. We were a little hesitant at first because it’s been on another record [The Sound of Sunshine] but I thought, “Bob Marley had three different version of ‘One Love,’ so why can’t I have two versions of this song?”
It was amazing being out on the road with HIRIE last summer because she’s somebody who, like me, has suffered from extreme anxiety. She had never really talked about it before, but she began to open up about it onstage and really expressed what was going on in her life. She’s working on a new record and told me that she’s not just writing fun songs about being on the beach with friends. She’s writing about what’s going on inside, and I get really excited when I see artists trying something new. It really inspires me.
Lyrically, this song is about how we’re in this crazy world and there’s all this political tension going on, and I wish there was one person I could go home to who would tell me, “It’s all going to be OK.” Luckily, I have that now with my wife Sara. She’s someone who’s going to say, “Yeah you’re right: It is fucked up but we’re going to get through this together, so let’s go for it.”
Stay Human 2
In 2001, I put out a record called Stay Human, which was all about the death penalty. The whole album was a narrative and the idea then was that the world is becoming more and more about numbers: What’s the number in your bank account? What is the number of Facebook “likes” you have? What is the number of all these things we measure the exterior of people by?
Then, as I started to make this film and approach this record, I realized that the “stay human” message was about something more than that for me. How can we be our authentic selves in this world that’s constantly trying to hold us to those measures? How do we show up as being the person that we are? Outside of our body and our possessions, what is left and how can we help that shine in the world?
My mom was somebody who really did that for me, so this is the song I wrote for my mom after she had a stroke last November. She was the one who told me—after I was being bullied—“You’ve got to go back out there and look those people in the eye, look those fears in the eye.” She really gave me that courage and tenacity.
Summertime Won’t Last Long
As people, we have seasons: both literal seasons with the weather and also seasons in our lives when we pass through moments. This is a metaphoric song about how we appreciate summer. I remember going fishing with my dad in the summer—he was an alcoholic for most of my life and I didn’t have a lot of happy memories of being around him, but the ones I did have were about being outdoors and fishing. Now my dad’s gone and I don’t have that thing with him anymore. So the song is about appreciating those moments because summer doesn’t last forever—whether you have a crush on a girl who’s going back to school in the fall and you’re not going to see her again or whether it’s barbeques you have with your family or fishing with your dad, those things don’t last forever and you’ve got to appreciate them.
This World Is So F*cked Up (But I Ain’t Ever Giving Up on It)
I woke up one day and I started singing that riff in my head, “This world is so fucked up but I ain’t ever giving up on it.” It was from that feeling of waking up in the morning, picking up my phone and seeing all these news stories flashing to the point now where I don’t even want to pick up my phone until I’m ready because I know there’s going to be this stream of negative shit.
Then, I go out into my neighborhood—I live in kind of the hood in San Francisco—and I see my neighbor Tank, and he’s walking his two pit bulls down the street. Then I see my neighbors, Lourdes and Julian, next door and they’re speaking Spanish to each other and I join them and try to speak a little Spanish. And some kids are doing donuts on their motorcycles at the intersection right outside my house, and life goes on.
Everywhere I go, I’m reminded that as fucked up as the world is, there are still billions of people doing billions of little things every day that make a difference in the lives of billions of other people—whether it’s someone working in a bakery and selling baked goods in the morning or somebody delivering a UPS package or somebody teaching a kid in a school, all those things don’t get reported. We’ve got a baby here at the house and if my wife wasn’t breastfeeding Taj, he literally wouldn’t be here.
All those amazing little good things are happening all the time and they don’t get highlighted. So this song is an acknowledgement that, yes, the world is fucked up, but you know what? There are
more good things happening than bad things by a billion times over.
You’re Number One
This is a fun song I wrote for my wife and it’s about how she’s awesome. One of the things we love to do is have little dance parties in our kitchen. So I thought that this is a good song to rock in your kitchen. When you’re cooking with your friends or you’re just there with the person that you love, you can put on this song and dance. You can turn the room into a kitchen nightclub.
Enjoy Every Second (feat. AGodess)
This is another one that I wrote on tour and I love that line: “How do we find a way to enjoy every second? How do we appreciate life for all of its ups and downs?” Not every second is enjoyable. A lot of things in life are challenging but, from these challenges, I’ve found my greatest growth. So the song is about appreciating every precious second we have.
Nobody Cries Alone
I woke up one morning after I found out that my son’s kidney disease had worsened, and walked into the studio with Niko and Ben and they were looking at me while I was kind of strumming my guitar. And they asked, “Mike, are you alright?” I just burst into tears and they were like, “Do you want to split? Do you want to call this session off?” And I said, “No, I want to write. I want to work this out.”
When my son first started getting kidney disease, every day, we’d be waiting for these test results to come back to see where his kidney function was and we’d be really scared. My son’s a big kid. I’m a big guy but my son is 6’ 4”, 230 pounds, and he’d come up to me, give me a big bear hug and say, “Dad, it’s alright. We’re going to get through this.”
We created this rule in our house, which is that nobody cries alone. That means that if somebody feels sad or needs to cry, then someone sits with them and puts their arm around them or holds their hand and let’s them know that it’s alright. So in that moment, I told Niko and Ben how we have that rule in our house and Ben said, “I love that; let’s write a song about that.”
So we crafted that song together and it was an incredible bonding experience that I will never forget. When do you ever have the time to be in a collaborative environment like that with two other people who are willing to be that supportive of you? I was crying through this whole session and these guys were there for me.
We show that scene in the film and, when Niko and Ben came to see it, I told them: “Man, that’s the best commercial for any two producers I’ve ever seen. I mean what artist wouldn’t want to work with you after seeing that?”
We were in the studio and Niko came up with this organ part that I thought was super cool, and I said, “That’s great; let’s write a celebratory song about appreciating life.” By the time the chorus kicks in, it’s about how life is extraordinary, but the first verses of the song describe how even though on the outside it might seem that things are going good, inside, in my heart, I’m feeling sadness or pain.
I heard this interview with George Clinton at the Byron Bay Bluesfest. The interviewer asked him, “What do funk and the blues have in common?” And he goes, “Well, funk is just the blues sped up. When you pass through the sadness of the blues, then you get to the place of happiness, joy and elation. Through funk, we try to transform blues into joy.” This song is taking that moment and transforming it into joy. We wrote it the day after we wrote “Nobody Cries Alone.”
When the Sun Begins to Shine
I was working with Johan Carlsson, who’s one of Max Martin’s main musicians, and he had a guitar riff that was kind of a country, bluegrassy, blues riff. And I said, “That’s pretty dope; let’s create something with that.” We started talking about how there’s darkness in the world today and sometimes it becomes so all-consuming that I can’t see light anymore. We started to write about how, in our lives sometimes, someone can come up to us and remind us that we matter: “You make a difference in my life—something that you do is special” or “I love you. I care about you. You’re important to me.” This song is about how we find that light again and, when the sun begins to shine, we walk through the darkness out into the light.
Show Me Your Peace Sign
I have a lot of friends who come from all different walks of life, religions and political perspectives, but I don’t remember a time in my life when people seemed so divided politically to the point where they don’t even talk to family members. There’s this meanness out there. I don’t know if it’s because of the anonymity that people feel with Twitter and social media, where they think that, behind the safety of their keyboard, they can say whatever they want.
So when we see other people in person, how can we show peace in places where there is no peace? How can I communicate my feelings about the subject of gun violence to someone who feels that their guns are going to be taken away if there’s any change. I went all around the country with these families who have suffered through gun violence and I asked them that question. Also, how do we reconcile that we live in a society where five people die from E. coli on lettuce and we ban lettuce, yet 96 people a day die from gun violence and there’s no ban on guns?
Take Me Alive
“Take Me Alive” is a song I wrote about five years ago. I wrote that demo, went in the studio, played the guitar and sang. We never touched it again and I thought it was a fitting way to end the record. I have this desire to take what’s burning inside me and put it outside into the world for other people to hear. That’s how I’m able to cleanse myself and make it to the next day. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know what I would do or how I would face my life.
As I point out in the film, scientists are born with a great tool to understand the world. Sometimes I feel like it’s a cruel joke that I was given this gift of music because there’s not really a pathway; there’s nothing concrete. But the one great thing about music is that it’s cathartic. Whether you’re writing about music or listening to music or singing music, there’s something that passes through you—some emotional door that opens and allows what’s inside to have a voice and be free. So if depression is the opposite of that, if it’s emotions that don’t have a voice, then music is the opposite of depression.
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.