Michael Franti embodies the connection between Yoga and music, both through the messages and melodies and his upbeat songs, his collaborations with yogis like Seane Corn, and his avid personal pursuit of the practice.
His newest album is The Sound of Sunshine, and he says this about music and the album: Music is sunshine. Like sunshine, music is a powerful force that can instantly and almost chemically change your entire mood. Music gives us new energy and a stronger sense of purpose. Music is something you can’t hold in your hands, smell it, taste it or even see it, yet somehow just coming together and feeling these little vibrations that tickle our eardrums can somehow lift us all up out of our most difficult moments in life to unimaginable heights.” He wrote many of the songs after a harrowing experience of severe illness after his appendix burst on tour—an experience that would remind any of us of how much we love sunshine (in this interview, he refers to a memorable get-well card he received then). While on the road, he took the time to speak to LA YOGA.
FMT: What is meaningful for you about attending and playing at festivals?
Michael Franti: At a festival, I go first as a fan and second as a performer. I walk around, do all the fun things, eat food, see a band that I’ve never seen before, and say hello to people. Wanderlust [in Vermont] was the last festival we played, where we got to see lots of different things that are happening in the Yoga community, such as new clothing designs and different kinds of workshops, like Acro Yoga.
I also did a class with Seane Corn, where I played music and Seane led the asana as a benefit for the Off the Mat’s Haiti program. Seane is really inspiring to me, as she is to everyone she comes across. I admire the way the she has taken her Yoga, her seva [selfless service] and combined the two into this great model for activism that is accessible to everyone.
It’s the same thing I try to do with my music, which is to turn people on to ways that we can make a difference in the world and their own lives.
FMT: In addition to your music, how do you incorporate service into your work?
MF: I’m an ambassador for CARE, a relief organization that concentrates specifically on advocating for girls. They have found through studies and relief work, that providing education for girls through the sixth grade gives them skills and opportunities and makes a real difference for eradicating poverty. Through teaching kids to read and write, and through microfinancing, which helps people buy things like a sewing machine that supports making a living, it keeps money in the family and helps a family become stronger. The villages and communities are able to elevate their standard of living through education and skills training–essentials people need for home building and to start small businesses.
FMT: Speaking of Yoga clothing, aren’t you involved with a line of Yoga clothing as well as a retreat center in Bali?
MF: About five years ago we started Stay Human. The clothes I came across when I would go to a Yoga studio would be very flowery and Om-y. I’m a little more rugged, so the idea was that we wanted to make more urban Yoga clothes.
We started building the retreat center, Soulshine Bali, three years ago. The boutique hotel in the middle of the jungle opened in January, 2011. Teachers can bring up to 25 students and practice Yoga for a week. Or, people can stay on their own. There’s a full schedule of classes that takes place seven days a week.
FMT: You’re on the road a lot. How do you keep up with your own practice when you travel?
MF: I go to class at the Yoga schools in the towns where I’m traveling. It’s a great way to practice. With a different teacher every day, I have the opportunity to meet yogis who are trying new stuff, so I can learn different things and be challenged in different ways.
One of my most interesting recent experiences in class was in a studio called Downward Dog Centre in Toronto. I attended a class with just one drummer playing the same drum beat the entire class. We breathed four counts in and four counts out to the rhythm of this drum. Man, halfway through, I was sucking air; it was an intense and beautiful way to practice. I loved it.
Some days I’m drawn to a hot, intense vinyasa class, other days I’m feeling an inward and emotional Iyengar or Yin class. I find that whatever class appears on my schedule is exactly what I need that day. In addition, I’m a runner and I run every day. I spend a lot of time in the tour bus and in and out of airports, and both running and Yoga shake the rumble of the bus from my bones.
FMT: Speaking of running, I’ve heard that you don’t wear shoes.
MF: I general, I don’t wear shoes, but it depends on where I’m running and where I am. If it’s raining, I wear shoes, since the feet soften up in rain and sharp things get in there. Or if there are gravely areas, I’ll wear shoes, but minimally. I prefer the barefoot style running shoes, which are now being made by a lot of companies.
FMT: What inspired you to take your shoes off?
MF: I started going to countries where people were playing on the street, people who couldn’t afford much and were in bare feet. I decided to try being barefoot myself, just to see what it was like. First it was three days, then it became a week, and then a year, and then April 11 marked eleven years of my being mostly barefoot. In some ways, it’s a means of being in solidarity with people who cannot afford to wear shoes, as well as a meditation for the self. On another note, I wear a size 14 shoe, so that means I never get the cool styles of shoes. I get the leftovers.
FMT: What’s inspiring you musically the most right now?
MF: I’m enjoying artists who combine electronic and acoustic. When I write a song, I write it from the point of view of the acoustic guitar and then I add things later. And I learn from observing and playing with other artists, everything from how they set up their equipment to how they move on stage, how the audience responds, to how they put songs and chords together. We recently played a couple shows with a great artist—Grace Potter. I’m a student of music and different forms, so this is a Yoga practice, in and of itself.
FMT: Is there anything you want to close with here?
MF: I had a meaningful experience at the first Wanderlust in Lake Tahoe. The day before I was supposed to go on stage, my appendix ruptured and I entered the hospital where I was told that my appendix had been ruptured for seven days and my body was septic.
Someone sent me a photo of an enormous poster-sized thank you card that was put up for people to sign at Wanderlust. I started crying because of how much it moved me that people missed me. It was a reminder to me of how great I feel the Yoga community is.
The people who practice Yoga put their hearts into everything they do. And I am grateful.
Michael Franti is currently touring with his band Spearhead. They’re playing a number of dates around the world at stand-alone venues, at festivals, and even opening for legendary artist Santana. Catch his upbeat vibe at Wanderlust in Squaw Valley at the end of July: michaelfranti.com.